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Doing well is its own reward
An ode to retiring heroes
I hope you’ve had a good couple of weeks. Last week I was in Lyon, where I spent a year studying abroad as part of the Erasmus scheme (which no longer exists thanks to Brexit). As predicted, I got sucked into a vortex of nostalgia.
Lyon was the first place I lived in France and where I learnt French. Visiting there again after many years, I was struck by how very…French Lyon is. Apparently even among French people it’s known as being extra-French. On Saturday we went to a bouchon, which is a traditional, hearty eatery, where they serve Lyonnais specialities like tripe, boudin (blood sausage) and quenelle (pictured below). I do not eat meat so some of these dishes sound deeply unappealing to me, but my fellow diners assured me they were excellent.
We went to La Mère Jean, a place so French that the fellow patrons looked like the image an AI generator would produce from the prompt ‘draw a French man’. The food was accompanied by a ‘pot lyonnais’, a heavy-bottomed carafe of winethat can resist being knocked over by diners in the tightly-packed seating. To go to the toilet, the waiter gives you a key and you turn down various corridors to reach a courtyard where there’s a little hatch where you can see a perspective of the busy kitchen then the restaurant dining room behind. You leave feeling like a dormouse all fed and ready to hibernate for winter.
The Frenchness didn’t end with the food. After lunch, my friend Adélie, our gracious host, took us to “une manif’, or protest, against Macron’s pension reform bill. Despite the images you might have seen on the news, French protests are generally a celebratory, friendly occasion. There was a rap performer, several brass bands, a small fluffy dog wearing a slogan t-shirt and food. Adélie explained to me that one of the highlights of going to a protest is the merguez (spicy North African sausage), which apparently tastes even better when served with a slice of civil unrest.
Protests have continued this week. On Thursday, the French Government used Article 49.3 to push through Macron’s retirement bill, which would see the legal retirement age raised from 62 to 64 . The special power allows he government to bypass parliament. The move coincides with a refuse worker strike, also focused on the pension reform, which is creating rather potent symbolism re. what most French people think of Macron’s bullish approach to the issue (a pile of rubbish). A few weeks ago, I wrote a deep-dive into exactly what many French people find so objectionable about the proposition. I wrote:
“Macron has really staked his whole reputation on these reforms, it has really been his flagship project for a long time. Equally, from the start of his first mandate in 2017, he has been accused of being a ‘president for the rich’ and, for his detractors, this legislation is seen as the ultimate symbol of that. They see it as a harbinger of the direction of travel for the country, the thin end of the wedge. If they cede, their cherished rights will be eroded further.”
And on the theme of retirement, my mum this week worked the last day of her 40-year career as a social worker. For much of this time she was also working full-time alongside her job as a single parent of two children. She’s a very impressive person. Below is a dedication I’ve written to her and her career. I hope it gives you a sense of her character.
‘Doing well is its own reward’: an appreciation of my mum
As long as I have known my mum, she has been working. I have some very early memories of the pager she had for on-call night shifts and the pair of smart court shoes she kept by the door in case she had to go in to work. I remember us going to Argos to buy her Brother word processor, which she used to type up reports. The machine had a big clunky keyboard and a little green rectangular screen, which showed about three lines of text at a time. We were thrilled that you could change the font into different colours which, although they didn’t show up on the screen, would appear in vivid lollipop shades when we printed. I remember sun-dappled Saturdays, some time in the late Nineties, that my mother spent doing the coursework for a new training qualification, my brother and I happily watching TV while she worked away with characteristic seriousness and dedication.
When I was having a hard time at school aged 11, I used to walk to my mum’s office and wait for her to finish work so she could drive me home. On my way I would sometimes stop at the newsagent and buy a Mars bar (for me) and a bag of Minstrels (for her). The receptionist at her office soon knew me. She was always nice to me because Mum was always nice to her. I also recall coming in the car with my mother on visits when I was off school sick. She left me with a box of juice and very clear instructions about exactly what to do if I needed her (“I’ll be in the building over there, across the car park.” ). I remember going on evenings out with her colleagues. A semi-pro play that her old boss was in, a Christmas pub dinner when her child care plan fell through. More than once she had to take us into the office for the same reason; I have fond memories of swivelling around on a spare office chair, or doodling with the highlighter pens her colleagues lent to us for entertainment. At home, I always liked the affectionate way she described her different office mates through the years. Sometimes they were loud, sometimes funny, sometimes they understood her and sometimes not at all. Nothing annoyed her more than when they made sexist remarks, or ate loudly at their desks.
She always threw herself into whatever she did and treated it with respect, both her work as a social worker and her work as our mother. Every weekend we were together, we went on some kind of outing. To the urban farm, to Hamleys, to the Natural History Museum. I can’t imagine how much work it was each time to get us up and dressed, and bundled onto the Piccadilly Line — all of that for us to complain about having to eat the Marmite sandwiches she’d taken the time to prepare, instead of the overpriced options in the museum café.
She let us make elaborate mazes for our guinea pigs out of video cassettes. We had artistic liberty to create mysterious potions from things we found in the garden; she wrote poems with us and read with us. She multi-tasked, washing her hair over the sink while I was in the bath. She’d form her soapy hair into a big point and ‘peck’ me on the head with it. Every year she organised a holiday for us, first in family rooms in youth hostels, and later in English country cottages. We’d spend months looking at the brochures together as a family finding somewhere we all liked the look of, even though sometimes my real-life reaction was less than gracious (let’s not speak of the famous “I HATE TINTERN ABBEY!” incident). During one holiday in Wales, it started raining buckets while we were driving to that day’s activity. We had bought a Monopoly set from a charity shop and my mum quickly turned that into the activity; the three of us played all afternoon in the cosy warmth of the Nissan Micra.
When I did my GCSEs, other people’s parents were offering them cash incentives for good grades. To my consternation, she would never entertain such an idea, saying again and again her own personal mantra: “Doing well is its own reward”. From the age of 14 she knew she wanted to be a social worker. As a teenager in Buckinghamshire, she wrote long, earnest poems considering the world from the perspective of the dispossessed, with titles like ‘Nobody cared about the blind man’. She listened to sad songs by Don Mclean and Bob Dylan and read world-weary plays by Harold Pinter. She always preferred the troubled, rugged Brontës to the polished and witty Jane Austen. It has been a gift to watch and learn from her all these years, to see her pursue her vocation with dedication and thoughtfulness, not for money or status or power, but because she knew that doing something well, and doing something helpful, has intrinsic value.
She cares about the things that matter (justice, dignity, decency) and couldn’t care less about things that don’t matter (pretension, artifice, keeping up appearances). She has always valued political correctness in the truest sense – using language carefully so as not to exclude or degrade people in vulnerable groups. In the Nineties there was a dreadful classroom trend for using the word ‘gay’ in the place of ‘not good’. This usage had no place in our house. Famously among my friends, she used to say: “in this house we say ‘crap’, not ‘gay’’’. She told me early on “there is no such thing as racism against white people, and don’t believe anyone who says there is”. She made us aware of how spaces can include and exclude people with disabilities (her specialist field in her work).
She has always had a strong sense of self. In her bedroom at home, there’s a little note that she wrote when she was a child. It says: “I am Kay. I have black hair and brown shoes and I am a person.” Now she has a little time, for the first time in a very long time, I hope she will enjoy her work-free personhood and relax a little, though, knowing her, I don’t think she’ll sit still for too long.
Thirty-second book club
I have been reading a book called Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman. She’s a designer and writer who hosts one of the internet’s longest running podcasts, Design Matters. The podcast features Millman’s interviews of all different kinds of creative people. I bought the book on the back of the podcast and it’s an interesting examination of our sometimes cult-like relationship with brands and products. It can be a bit too corporate America for my sensibilities in some places, but presents some interesting perspectives.
In the book, Millman interviews Stanley Hainsworth who was the creative director of Nike and then Starbucks. He was the person responsible for creating a culture where we feel comfortable to pay six pounds for a coffee. In the book, he says:
“Starbucks was not the only company in the world to make great coffee. On the contrary, there are hundreds of other companies that can make great coffee. So what’s the great differentiator? … For Starbucks, it was creating a community, a “third place”. It was a very conscious attribute of the brand all along and impacted every decision about the experience: who the furniture was chosen for, what artwork would be on the walls, what music was going to be played, and how it would be played.”
I’ve written before about the odd comfort of global chains. Most of the time living in Paris I go to local cafés and bistros etc. But just sometimes, when I’m feeling a bit homesick, or craving the familiar, I go to McDonald’s or Starbucks and enjoy the comfortingly hollow anonymity.
The book is also about ten years old and already feels like a time capsule. It talks about millennials like they (we) are the hot new generation, how people now talk about Gen Z. It reminds me that there is really such a short space of time between being very young and no longer very young!
And on that note, I’ll sign off for today! Thank you very much for reading this letter about Lyon, protest, retirement, branding and the bullet-train that is a human lifespan.
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Next week I am going to Kenya for two weeks with my partner to visit his family. I want to write while I am there, but bear with me if the schedule is more irregular.
Have a lovely week!