Homogeneity and difference - a reflection


In Coleshill we have several cafes. There is the ‘Cafe on the Hill’, which is actually on our very flat High Street, rather than on the hill leading up to it. It’s a bit of a strange place, with two fairly small rooms, one looking out of the plate glass window, behind which used to be one half of Hull’s (the butchers) and the other, at the rear and with no window, in what had been one of the butcher’s preparation rooms. It’s popular and the people running it always seem to be coming up with new ideas for making money. During the Jubilee celebrations, they provided picnics for people taking part in the events on the Croft, the area of public land lying between the Church and the cemetery, where the band played, speeches were delivered and the audience wrapped up warm under umbrellas.

Elsewhere, actually on the hill,  there is the former Army & Navy store, now converted into a cafe and, further towards us, a cafe which does pizzas, cakes and all sorts of other comestibles which is called ‘Jaffa’s’. This seems to attract the mothers with the children (I assume their own) they have picked up from school.

But also on the High Street is ‘Costa Coffee’. This is like any other Costa Coffee you have ever seen and provides the same products that you can get in any other Costa from London or Edinburgh, Cardiff or Hull. It has no character. It must though make money, otherwise it would have been closed long ago.

The time has long since passed when High Streets in our bigger towns and cities had shops run mainly by local people. Indeed, the very idea of the old High Street is faintly ridiculous.

For serious shopping, what now have is the retail park, the sort of homogenised area to be found on the outskirts of every town of even modest size. It will contain all the well known outlets such as Currys, B&Q, Furniture Land, Sainsbury’s and Halford's. None of the quirkiness of the old High Street, but a vast range of stuff which can be bought at low, low prices.

Neither do you have to interact with a shop-keeper and ask him or her for what you want. We have self-service instead: if you need information, you have to try to prise a 'Colleague' free from stacking shelves so that you can be pointed towards the appropriate part of the football pitch sized emporium which contains the treasures you are looking for. Is this good, or is it bad? It depends on how you familiar you are with the territory. I have to confess to taking exercise at B&Q quite often and have no difficulty in finding what I want.

On the other hand, our small local hardware shop is so full that it’s almost impossible to know where anything is in the confusion of goods. It is quite the Aladdin’s cave, but it means that you nay need to queue up to speak to the shop-owner who will immediately take you to the part of the shop where you can find what you have come for.

Although I recognise a number of the staff at B&Q, none of them know me. On the other hand, the owner of the hardware shop and the owners of the Cafe on the Hill know who I am, which Is comforting. Anonymity is not good for us. At least, it is not good for me.

Businesses would say that any attempt to expand their presence over numerous sites necessarily means a large degree of similarity. Not only does their brand need to be prominently displayed, but when offering a site to the national retailers it is essential to be able to provide something which enables them to fit their standard footprint on it.

Anything requiring significant variation will result in the offer of a lower rent. Why? Well, because they will have to adjust all manner of things, from retail displays to storage in order to cope with the abnormal site dimensions. Taken too far, they will simply turn the offer down and look elsewhere. A large degree of homogeneity is in fact an integral part of their business model.

But during the Jubilee, I was reminded that it is not just in business that we see this. We also see it in religion – our church is a good example of how parish churches tend to be very similar to each other. They have a similar layout and, naturally, host tombs of the benefactors who paid for them.

In fact, when you look back at architectural styles in general, they are just that: styles. And in seeking to be representative of a particular style, they become copies of each other. There are of course attempts by well-known architects to create buildings in their own mould – some more successfully than others - but these are exceptions and they generally cost a lot of money.

Most buildings, whether commercial or residential, in the name of economy, follow a cut and paste model. When driving through Birmingham, I see very few buildings which have any real originality to them. And, when I drive around Coleshill, I can tell which builders built which estates. We own three, essentially identical, houses on one of them. Although that they are identical is actually quite handy when it comes to repairs and maintenance.

But then music too has its styles from various eras, from Vivaldi and the small scale complexity of the baroque to the broad themes and orchestral forces of the modern symphony, from medieval minstrels singing bawdy songs to Johnny Rotten and the punk era and beyond.

Every so often there are composers who will attempt a different style, but it is often difficult to distinguish between those from the same era who are not revolutionaries. I have to confess to having to concentrate in order to distinguish between the piano concerti of Chopin and Mendelssohn or between the violin concerti of Mendelssohn and Bruch.

Mozart, although in his very early days writing in the style of Hayden, produced stylistic step changes in later life. Beethoven gradually, but quite deliberately, changed the form of the concerto and of the symphony with his different approaches to composition.

But after each revolutionary there seems to be a period of stasis when the sometimes, to their contemporary audience, shocking changes, become bedded in and indeed become the new normal.

What is shocking, at least to me, is atonal music, compositions which although using musical instruments seem not to have any obvious form or structure, apart from the production of noise and a wish to shock. And from the (weak) applause, there are not many other audience members who seem to like it either.

Normally, artists try to produce what will make them money. We see this in religious paintings from earlier times. They show whichever saint may have been the patron’s favourite and with the patron himself appearing piously in one corner of the finished work.