As the cost of the orgy of Christmas consumption pops up in the bank account, I wonder if I am being naive and foolish to pay through the nose for de luxe British-made things – such as pricey cashmere from Brora, say, or a gleaming stainless steel Dualit toaster, instead of the far cheaper mass-produced equivalent?
Victoria Stapleton, the remarkable woman who founded Brora in 1993, summed up the difference between cheap cashmere and her Scottish version when she told a Telegraph interviewer that a Brora jumper would probably be “double the weight” of something cheaper.
Why is that? Well, they use only the best cashmere from the goats of the Mongolian plateau. And once they bring it to Britain – where all the dyeing, milling, knitting and clever blending of the colours goes on – they discard the coarse hairs and use only the finest and longest fibres. This means that the finished product should be stronger and last longer.
Now I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of paying more for something that will last longer and keep its quality. At the same time you are contributing to the employment of British workers – like those at the venerable Scottish mill Johnstons of Elgin, which Brora uses – in satisfying jobs that require them to use worthwhile craft skills.
The same principle applies to the Dualit toaster I bought the family this year. It was hand-built in the UK, is fully repairable – I’ve ordered parts before and fitted them myself – and should last a lifetime. The only reason I’m replacing our 25-year-old model is to because we now need four slots instead of two.
Of course the world cannot flourish without the vast benefits that mass production has brought – and only a decadent Western fantasist would want to go back to some pre-industrial idyll where everything was made by artisans. But mass production doesn’t have to go hand in hand with the stripping away of skills, so that a job is reduced to a soul-destroying process of pushing a succession of buttons. This de-skilling surely takes away the essential dignity of work that Pope Leo XIII talks about in his encyclical Rerum Novarum.
Take bread. Bread became something different in 1961 when the Chorleywood Bread Process was invented. It was no longer bread as it had been made for thousands of years: cheap, nourishing and delicious. It became a foodstuff that required virtually zero skill to make, but did require high-powered machinery and a bucketful of mysterious additives – some of which do not even have to appear on the label because they’re considered to be destroyed during the baking process.
The resulting product – soft and pappy, unsatisfying, lacking any convincing “bread” taste and with a tendency to stick to the roof of your mouth – is what most of us consume.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are baking companies that “mass-produce” bread using an army of real, skilled bakers. They do not have to rely on high-speed mixers, massive amounts of yeast to puff up the dough quickly, and additives. Their bread is not sold dirt-cheap as a loss leader to get customers into the supermarket. Its realistic cost reflects the far greater time involved in fermenting, proving, shaping and baking the dough. That is a magical process which runs through the Bible like a wheaten thread – and simply cannot be improved on.
The loaf that emerges from the ovens of real bakers is something that enhances life. No country with any respect for its food culture would accept the kind of bread that we eat routinely.
For pure, joyous escapism my wife and I spent much of December watching, for a second time since we first saw it in 2013, the crime series Breaking Bad, set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about a secondary school science teacher turned methamphetamine manufacturer.
There is something strangely relaxing about watching people who are constantly in a state of high stress. They’re more stressed than you are. It is a sort of cognitive therapy.
Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, imbues it with a strong moral undercurrent. One way or another evil does not go unpunished.
There is a moment early on when the antihero Walter White admonishes his former pupil and fellow meth cook, Jesse: “No more bloodshed! No violence.” Since they have already dissolved someone in acid so potent that it burns a bloody hole through the floor, Walter probably knows that this is a vain hope.
Later, Walter’s wife, Skyler, is terrified, and begging him to admit that he is in danger. He replies: “I am not in danger … I am the danger … A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.” By then we know he has truly “broken bad”.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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