The new friend

See original imageMy temerity in telling someone the other night about being a “new friend” occasioned further pondering.

The urgent problem is the explosion of virtual friends produced by the start-up business model: become biggest first. Accordingly, Skype urges: “Tell your friends what you’re up to,” and: “Why not post your own status update?” Rotten Tomatoes, I think it is, “can’t believe” I have no friends, so click here. I can imagine the desperation, loneliness, and paranoia of exclusion with a low friendship count, and the never-ending shower of everyone else’s good-times snaps.

This increasingly heavy parade of prompts, pop-ups, pop-unders and peep-outs cruelly parodies social life. Twitter boasts: “Tweets are the basic atomic building block of all things.” Talk about propaganda, as arrogant as “The real thing” and “To inspire and nurture the human spirit“. The so-called “social” media are essentially marketing vehicles, giving the little people a fantasy of competing in an advertising free-for-all. Perhaps some people keep usefully in touch, if they have the time. But the marketing barrage packs us into silos, where some of my “friends” punctuate with “f—ing” in a desperate quest for attention. Need I remind you that Trump tweets?

I compose these thoughts on pen and paper at breakfast at the Deux Magots at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They no longer seem to serve fresh orange juice here, but, oh, the tartine and butter.

See original imageA couple of older women work on laptops, and one is now on a mobile – she has a friend, or maybe it’s work. A young tourist couple come in for double consumption – photographing their breakfast, before touching it. Are these zillion photos as expendable as Zuckerberg’s 75 million followers?

At least momentarily untied from virtuality, a pair of business types are greeted familiarly by a waiter, and enjoy a quick croissant, espresso and each other’s company. An aged gentlemen with a big scarf never takes his eyes off his newspapers throughout the hour or so we’re there. He remains glued to a declining medium that seems both wonderfully curated, and multi-vocal.

Altogether, to the gentle clatter of glass, silver and porcelain, a scattering of café-goers read newspapers, maps, screens, a notebook, and occasionally each other’s faces. Even the digitally-linked seem reasonably contented, presumably because a table across the room feels closer than up to a satellite via mass-monitoring and back.

See original imageHow odd, a tour group files in a side entrance and out through the heavy revolving door (which waiters manage with a packed tray on the arm), photographing the carvings of the two oriental-looking magi, their backs permanently turned on each other. My impression is that tour groups often lead to lasting friendships, people having taken meals together.

I don’t think we’re properly introduced until we’ve dined together. That “new friend” comment was based on two good dinners.

Cultural density clash

See original imageParis has relatively high cultural density. Even modest cafes, bistros and restaurants are meant to be run correctly, I argued the other day.

Crowded, pedestrian-friendly streets and stair-filled buildings help keep people slim. I can add that significant social solidarity – more dining together – protects not only against sugar-snacking, but also against competitive individualism, which provokes mental harm and binge eating.

Such observations provide a contrast with Australia, which might have let more sunlight in when it was the land of the “fair go”,  when lucky country inhabitants would say, “she’ll be right, mate”, when the cuisine was “one continuous picnic”, and when waiters were notoriously slack. But a loose Australia was left comparatively exposed to a hazardous new regime.

Paris is the capital of a relatively tight French republic that demonstrates that any future Australian republic cannot merely banish the monarch, but has to put real power into the hands of the people through a strong state. Here in France, for both good and ill, people gather relatively keenly behind the tricolour, and take seriously “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (“liberty, equality, conviviality”).

Australians have an embarrassing flag, carrying four Christian crosses that signify colonialism, theocracy and beer-swilling. It’s symbolic of a less committed polity, which has its attractions, but which leaves Australia a wide-open marketing opportunity. In recent decades, we have had insufficient cultural bulk to resist the neoliberal agenda of let-profit-rule. Certainly, French food is being corporatised, too, but less thoroughly than in Australia, where business pressures intensify relatively uncontested just about everywhere – through the internet, on the sport-grounds, in privatised émigré gulags, and across the arts, where the common good is being replaced by the sponsor’s. If audiences don’t flock, then the “market” has spoken.

That is more or less the complaint in an article, “Culture crisis: The arts funding cuts are just a symptom of a broader malaise in Australia”, in the latest Monthly.

Writer and critic Alison Croggon is worried principally by attacks on a more elevated culture – “the yarts” – but she makes a similar comparison.

“The past three years have seen an unremitting ideological war on knowledge, inquiry and, significantly, cultural memory,” she writes, citing cuts to scientific bodies, universities, research programs, museums, archives, galleries, the ABC, National Library’s Trove, and, of her special concern, grants to small arts companies, and individual practitioners.

Right from the start, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a ruthlessly neoliberal agenda, promising “a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market.” That’s liberty for business, and hostility to égalité and fraternité. He wants a nation “that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative”, which the context makes clear means financially creative, even financially disruptive, as he later added.

While Turnbull’s government might flounder with set-pieces, his Ministers have gone to town using administrative methods to prosecute the culture war against Australia Council recipients and the like.

As Croggon explodes:

The forces of convention have slammed down again. Just as the arts funding debacle is seeing a new conservatism rise on our main stages, so too our critical culture has returned to its default chitchat.

She then reveals: “I’m writing this at La Chartreuse, a former monastery in the south of France… In the 17th century, this room belonged to monks. Now that La Chartreuse is the headquarters of Le centre national des écritures du spectacle (National Centre for Theatre Writers), or CNES, it’s occupied by artists.”

See original imageShe couldn’t imagine a similar institution in Australia – “a centre with comparable resources, devoted solely to the development of writing for theatre … The imagination stops dead. It is simply an impossible thought.”

I have figures to demonstrate France’s more financially assertive collectivity. According to a survey for 2014, general government spending as a proportion of GDP in France was 57.3%, which ranked second highest of 29 OECD countries. Australian expenditure of 36.2% was second lowest. We were even worse than the U.S., also in the bottom bunch, on 38.0%. A huge chunk of the Australian budget goes, through outsourcing, not to socially or culturally useful spending but to corporations.

More specific figures for public funding on the arts are harder to locate, so I gave up after clicking on a Canadian report from 2005, quoting older British data. For what they’re worth, France then spent £37.8 per head on the arts (or 0.26% of GDP), while Australia spent £16.4 per head (or 0.14% of GDP).

Croggon bemoans the collapse of critical, let alone angry, arts in Australia and, along with those, the decline in arts criticism in newspapers and apparently now even in blogs. If that’s the case, we need to protect and enhance serious criticism around the dinner-table. We also need conversations about a republic that puts the people more in charge of their fate through a sizeable, non-capitalist state.

Epicurus, Brillat-Savarin, and meal matters

Meals MSV300071 (3)atter …

A surprising number of meal-related blog titles are occupied. Another difficulty in settling on a name is that, while some people actually used to consider meals a narrow topic, my publications have already roamed over such matters as:

  • other writers who endeavoured to make a diner’s sense of the world, such as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and physiologist of taste Brillat-Savarin;
  • the problem of the “cooking animal”, namely, why do we cook? My book on cooks recommends a distributional theory – cooks share food around – against the much more common transformation claim;
  • two centuries of food industrialisation, explaining the horrors of Australian cuisine, until the heavy marketing of finished meals from the 1960s eventually revived interest;
  • Australian and New Zealand cakes and biscuits;
  • The flat white coffee as the greatest Antipodean gastronomic invention, and much more.

Adding to that, my next book is a critique of economics, based on the fact that meals matter more than money.

So, Meals Matter