by Alexander Freeling


When walking to work recently I passed three tourists taking photos. Hardly surprising in a town that’s full of visitors for three quarters of the year, but I felt a quiet sense of recognition. The abundance of zip-through layers. Sportswear of the kind that’s useless for any possible sport. Camo pants cut better than most suits. These were Italians.

Perhaps it was the vindication of all these hours spent reading about clothes: I could have been learning languages, but I’d still acquired some cultural literacy. Perhaps it was only the satisfaction of guessing something correctly. But I think the real reason I was privately pleased was that this brief episode seemed to prove something I’d been hoping for a long time might be true: that the sense of recognition you get when you hear a song from a long teenage summer, or when the smell of a perfume that throws you instantly into an embrace you’ve not felt for a decade, can also come not from the distant past or some deep place within, but from new fascinations and pursuits. That the things we find ourselves getting way too interested in (even if it’s gin or Italian casualwear) might be a way of making a home for ourselves.

Of course, you can also have nostalgia in the present. I know that Italy isn’t all sun-drenched villages where men called Brunello personally tend to goats as their close family members and make exquisite sweaters. There’s more than enough bleached jeans and under-sized, over-branded t-shirts to fill all their malls and ours, and like everywhere there are mundane problems and casual indifference to them, and astonishing cynicism that goes right to the top. But it’s one of those luxuries of being from elsewhere that you get to enjoy the good in a place with that half-innocence of a stranger.

That’s not the direction Britain has been lurching recently. There are genuine debates to be had about governance and equity, but then there always were. What’s changed is that complex questions are ever more quickly being resolved into a pointless debate between local and global, and we’ve been talked into accepting a poorer definition of both. As if what’s right around us isn’t also connected in a thousand ways to people and places all over the world, and as if the capacity to make serious, happy connections can’t be possible anywhere we decide to call home.

There’s an argument that those of us who feel gloomy about the increasing sense of isolation never really had the things we’re now lamenting. And perhaps all mourning, like all thinking, is about the idea of the thing and not the thing itself. But there are concrete things. The tailoring store down my street is closing. I never really understood how it survived in the first place, a slightly cramped, profoundly British store selling four-figure Italian suits in a town comprised mostly of students, tourists, and the odd professor whose tastes—if they amount to anything more than pure practicality—veers towards Norfolk jackets and cords rather than soft shoulders and wool/silk/linen blends. But its presence seemed testament to the idea that we could have both.

All the painfully loud jackets, crunchy knit ties, and luxury socks, as soft as water, with their tell-tale ribbon on the toe, are priced for a quick sale. It will feel good for a week or two picking up old stock at knock-down prices, perhaps stretching to the odd bit of utterly unnecessary outerwear. But in the long run, importing such things will only get more difficult, and more specialist retailers will suffer. This shop will probably become another VC-cash-injected mid-range jeweller. And one more inkling of Europe, however imaginary, will be gone.