28 June, 2014

What it means to be British -- a philosophical question

The British Social Attitudes survey has been in the news recently. Not surprisingly, in view of the growth of the hard right in the UK, it appears that our social attitudes are hardening as well as our political ones. This is particularly so in relation to 'Britishness'. Thus, 95 per cent of respondents believed that someone had to speak English to be British; 77 per cent thought that it was important to have lived for most of one's life in Britain in order to be British; and 74 per cent agreed that it was important to have been born in Britain to be British.

This whole debate is, of course, an example of the philosophical puzzle of essentialism -- what is it that makes something the thing that it is; or what is its essence. This is a notoriously difficult problem in philosophical circles. Is something's essence just one quality (being born in Britain), or is it a combination of qualities (being born in Britain, speaking English, having lived most of one's life in Britain). And, if the latter, is it possible to remove some of those qualities, but for the thing still to retain its essence (can someone who speaks English, was born in Britain, but who has not lived here for most of their life qualify as British?). And, if you go on removing qualities, at what point does the thing lose its essence? The classic philosophical example is that of a ship which gradually, over time, has its planks replaced until, eventually, none of the original planks remain (the ship is only made up of replacement planks). Is this still the same ship, or has it lost its essence? (One might ask the same question of human beings, whose cells are continually replaced throughout their lives. Is an individual still the same person at the end of their life as they were at the start?)

My husband and I were discussing the British Social Attitudes survey at home. After some thought, my husband suggested that what made someone truly British was the fact that they considered themselves British. But I'm not convinced by this. Take someone who was born outside Britain, visited on holiday, and decided to stay because they loved the country so much and felt so much at home here. For these reasons, that person might consider themselves to be British. But I don't really think we'd want to say that that person actually was British just because they felt they were British -- at least, not until they had lived here for a numbers of years, could speak the language well, etc., etc.

Our Tesco shopping delivery interrupted our social attitudes discussion. While I was waiting for my husband to bring the last empty crate to the door, I struck up a conversation with the driver. What was our conversation about? The weather, of course. 'That's what it is to be truly British,' my husband quipped, after the driver had  pulled away. 'Being able to talk to anyone at length about the weather!'

How true.

21 June, 2014

Sofas...and an exhibition

We had a fun day out in London last weekend. There were a couple of things that we wanted to do there--order a new sofa and see an exhibition at the V&A--so we decided to kill two birds with one stone.

We'd already decided that we would order our new sofa from sofa.com. We'd seen their adverts in various publications, gone online to look at their website, and decided that this was the supplier for us. Designs and fabrics that we liked, an unfailingly good customer service ethic (even down to being prepared to take your sofa back if you decide that you don't like it once it arrives, for whatever reason), and five star reviews all round. But we didn't feel comfortable buying without seeing in the flesh, so we needed to make the trip to the sofa.com warehouse in Chelsea.

Chelsea sounds (and of course is!) posh, but the warehouse turned out to be in a rather dilapidated quarter--it was housed in one of the units at Chelsea Wharf. The area was fascinating, in fact. The old wharf buildings have been refurbished and are gradually being populated by young, trendy companies like sofa.com. But the exterior remains as it always was, I guess--raised platforms running over the mudflats of the Thames which would have been used in the past for loading goods onto the ships docked there. I love this about London -- if you're on foot and exploring, you come across the most interesting of places, just slightly off the beaten track, away from the crowds.

The warehouse was pretty good inside, too. Lofty ceilings, white painted walls, very helpful staff and lots of sofas. Just what the website boasted, in fact, and such a refreshing change from the soulless prefab units of mediocre companies like DFS.

We made our sofa choice pretty quickly, considering, and then headed off for the second leg of the day. We had tickets for 'The Glamour of Italian Fashion' exhibition at the V&A. We had a really good time there--lots of fabulous clothing to look at and videos about the history and growth of the fashion industry in Italy.

I haven't been to the V&A for a long time, and I'd forgotten how beautiful the building itself is. Exotic Victoriana at its best. Even the old loos are alluring--ornate tiles on the walls, huge ceramic basins, brass taps...

And just a final word about food. We found a lovely Italian restaurant for lunch -- Mozzarella and More on King's Road, Chelsea. Truly Italian staff and delicious Italian food. And we rounded off with tea and cake in the V&A's very own cafe, which was delicious as well.

Rather a productive day!

07 June, 2014

Love of Greece

We spent our half term in Greece. In the Peloponnese, to be precise. This is one of my husband's and my favourite places in the world. We first visited more than 20 years ago (backpacking on the buses, and moving on to a new place each day), then 10 years ago (still itinerant, but this time with suitcases and a hire car), and now with our children (staying in the same apartment for a week and with a car).

There is something simply wonderful about Greece, in my opinion. For a start, I love the ancient history. I love tramping around archaeological sites, trying to work out what was what, imagining the people alive at the time going about their business in those buildings, walking along those paths. Some of the sites are magnificent and stunningly intact, considering their vintage (the Parthenon, the theatre at Epidaurus...) but my real favourites are the tumbledown sites that are so untouristed that you often have the place entirely to yourself. And these sites are invariably in the most stunning locations.

I also love Greek food. Greek salad, souvlaki, spanakopita, tiropita.... Can't be beaten.

And there's something about the atmosphere of the place. Outside the urban bustle of Athens, the people are lovely -- very friendly, helpful and welcoming to tourists. The overwhelming feeling I have when in Greece is one of relaxation and contentment. I love it!

Luckily, the children seem to share our love of Greece. They had been wanting to visit for a while, knowing that we really liked it, and they weren't disappointed. In fact, on our return, they declared it to be one of our best ever holidays. So, I think we'll be back in another 10 years, if not before!