The demise of ‘Quality’

In order to begin, we must first define what we mean by quality, which is after all, a subjective label and often carelessly assigned. One person’s quality can be someone else’s ordinary, routine, mundane, commonplace, humdrum, stale, banal, perhaps even boring; someone else’s… stuff of life.

Let me be clear, I am not interested in the recent trend to employ the word in mere hyperbole, as in: ‘He’s a quality, geezer!’ Nor am I talking about simple rhetoric, e.g. when tucking into Fish and chips on a Friday evening in winter, then washing them down with a nice cold beer, before sitting back, loosening my belt and declaring: ‘Now that was quality!’ Although, come to think of it maybe I am; indeed, this scenario perfectly illustrates my point, albeit unintentionly. As the popularity of my local chippy has increased, along with the queue to the counter, so the portion sizes have reduced; so called ‘shrinkflation.’ Furthermore, chips no longer come wrapped in thick parcel paper and bundled into shallow cardboard boxes stacked conveniently inside a paper carrier bag. No, that ‘retro’ joy has long gone. No longer can I stand the boxes neatly onto the passenger seat of my car as I hurry home to the warmth of my house and the prospect of some easy Friday night TV. No, those old, legacy, (or perhaps ‘heritage’) boxes have been replaced by crappy, low-cost, throwaway packaging — thin newspaper rolled up and stuffed into weedy plastic that smear with a film of greasy condensation and tear at the slightest touch before continuing their afterlife to pollute dual-carriageway embankments and our drainage ditches from disposal by reckless owners. But let’s not get too downhearted, not just yet anyway.

Quality is the degree to which an object or entity (process, product, or service) satisfies a specified set of attributes or requirements. The quality of something is determined by comparing a set of inherent characteristics with a set of requirements. Does the answer, therefore, lay entombed in what we mean by ‘requirements?’ Or is it, as I am proposing, that quality is just simply diminishing with time? Literally, no one has got time for quality anymore. Or no one cares enough to immerse themselves in it.

In order to see the issue first-hand, we need look no further for empirical evidence than the aesthetic literary novel. ‘Pas plus!’ It is no more. No longer do we delight in such Nabokovian sentences: ‘All at once, we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonisingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do.’ And I am not talking about the cosmetic editing out of those pesky adverbs, such is the trend in modern day novels. No, the decline is much more fundamental than that. We prefer no longer to linger, loiter or luxuriate in a bubble-bath of masterful prose. In short, no-one has time to read this shit! No-one has time for a bath! How about this glint of genius from the mighty Vlad penned on 8th November 1923 in a love letter to his wife Vera Slonim: ‘You came into my life – not as one comes to visit but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps.’ Powerful words but who can be arsed to write this sort of stuff nowadays?

Take Gustave Flaubert as another example writer; throughout his career, he showed little patience for mediocrity in a relentless pursuit of excellence, both in literature and art. Whilst on holiday in Genoa with his parents and brother-in-law in May 1845, he visited the picture gallery of the Palazzo Balbi-Senarega. There he stood for hours in front of a Pieter Brueghel the Elder painting, entitled ‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony.’ It was this picture that provided inspiration and a subject that he had been searching for in a quest for a piece of writing that would challenge him. He found drama and history, and this allowed him to indulge in a long, romantic novel destined to become his masterpiece: Madame Bovary. Sitting through long weekly sessions for eleven years with his trusted literary guide and adviser, Louis Bouilhet (an impecunious scholar-poet who became his closest friend), they reviewed every single word before finally publishing. Non-living became his precondition of art. Art and life, he believed, were antagonistic realms. But would anyone bother to go to such lengths today? Noone has time to brood over a novel anymore. In a capitalist world run by accountants, it would simply be judged ‘not cost effective’ and quietly side-lined.

And who can be arsed to write a letter? And that’s before we debate our ability to use competent prose. We have outsourced that skill to the cloud, and become lazy, error prone fools, addicted to tools such as ProWritingAid or Grammarly, along with other convenient, but subtly sinister products.

I recently bought Piers Morgan audiobook: ‘Wake Up’, thinking the anti-woke, anti (il)liberal content about how our society and public discourse has got into such a mess. I thought it would please me and be an interesting listen; and it is, apart from Piers, as a disappointing narrator. He prattles his way through the pages like a toddler gobbling his food, eager to finish in case of second helpings. Rather than indulging his listener, he conveys only that he just wants to get the job done. Most audiobook productions are similarly flawed  — chapters do not tally with the book, making it virtually impossible to find your place or repeat a passage. Is this an oversight or just technical immaturity of the platform? Or is it simply quantity over quality? The recordings are all too often muffled or feature whiny and annoying background music. Departing with £20ish still feels like a punt, whereas a book comes with accepted standards for cover and content. There are, of course, one or two exceptions to this, such as any production from the genius that is Stephen Fry, along with Martin Amis’ latest book: Life Writing. Read by the brilliant Alex Jennings, it is a captivating listen with different voices for each character and inflection in all the right places. He brings the book to life, and it is a joy to follow. Far from just ‘getting it done,’ Jennings excels in his performance and should be commended all the more considering the book is almost six hundred pages.

As a regular commuter to London (pre Covid), I would often find myself on a late-night train home. Once I finally made it on board, I was always hopeful of settling back into my seat, perhaps with a cup of tea, and, by the pale glow of the lamp, read or just listen to an audiobook as the weary carriages flagged their electrical passage homewards. But the look of the cosy cabins from the cold, dark platform was always better than the reality within; with the stale smell of previous occupants, litter, upturned table-ends and general disarray, entering the cabin was always underwhelming. Whenever the tea trolley finally bulldozed its way up the aisle, we were told deliberately in earshot to prepare us all that there were ‘No hot drinks this evening!’ This was broadcasted in such a challenging way to expose any dissenting voices as unreasonable, should anyone be brave enough to question the announcement; it was a fait accompli. Often, I used to sit at the end carriage by the sliding door into the kitchen and overhear the crew talking amongst themselves: ‘Yeh, the passenger in 3C complained he didn’t get a cup of tea. Tosser! How dare he… this is bordering on assault! I thought I might have to pull the emergency alarm chord. Should we should notify the driver and get the Police to escort him off the train at the next station?’ Yes, such has our dismal train service been commoditized, that any empathy or human interaction has long ago been extinguished. From the outsourced ticket hall with its computerised dispensing machines with one perfunctory kiosk left open, to the outsourced car park service with smaller spaces and ever-increasing prices, to CCTV cameras that are not clear enough to catch criminals yet still clear enough to catch your number plate and rob you for payment, service has become a misnomer.

On one occasion, I spoke to the guard about two passengers that had jumped on, sliding into seats across from me and hoping to go undetected. To avoid the barriers (and therefore payment), they were plotting how they would disembark one station before our scheduled arrival in London Euston. As this type of behaviour is frequent and my commute regular enough to notice, my fury boiled over into a polite cough and an attempt to converse with the guard. But he had no intention of confronting the offenders. With a sigh, he lamented: ‘I’ll be off shift in ten minutes, mate.’ His response made me feel like a nuisance. Seeing my blank expression, conveying no doubt that further reassurance was required, he picked up his feet and was off again, chirpily adding over a departing shoulder: ‘Report it on the website or when we get to Euston, buddy.’ However, missed off the end of his sentence was: ‘Coz I can’t be bothered to do my job! Instead, you should take time out of your day and fill out a ‘Customer Feedback Form’ that no one will do anything about. Yes, you should do my job for me!’ There are not enough characters available to me in the online ‘Customer Feedback Form, that could do this episode justice.

But we digress — from CGI film production, to manufactured, computerised pop music, to microwave meals, to the football world cup in air-conditioned stadiums in Qatar, we have become a society based on consumption at the expense of quality. The list of things goes on and on… Amazon home delivery, all-inclusive package holidays in the sun, our insistence on annual smartphone upgrades for everyone, the export of Halloween and religious holidays to the entire population of the world with all its twinkly, glittery paraphernalia.  As custodians of the planet, our gluttony is killing the environment, scarring our collective psyches and souls, and silently smothering quality.

So, what of the consequence? Where is this all heading? Perhaps this has become more of a philosophical than financial point of discussion. Is it even worth me analysing this? And what about the ultimate? What about death? Even this has become a service-based commodity. And no, I am not talking about the suffering and indignity of death during the pandemic; I am talking about your regular, run-of-the-mill death, pre Covid-19. Box ‘em up, shove ‘em on the conveyer belt, hurry and grieve and let’s all go to the pub. Flowers, service and car, all available in a convenient ‘package’ deal for only £1,999 — your one-stop-shop for death.

There is no room left to ponder, to lie in the long grass on lazy summer days and think. As a child of the eighties, I long for those days of boredom. It made me think for myself, use my imagination, be creative. The difference was, I was active. Bombarded by content, humanity has become passive. Things happen to us, whether it is YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon Prime. We have become desensitised to death, to porn, to criminal behaviour, even to terrorism in its ubiquity. That is why we react, rather than respond. We are not engaged; we are enraged. Anyone on Twitter with an opposing point of view is hounded out of existence. We don’t debate, instead we choose to hate.

Sadly, quality has transmogrified into an elitist aspiration and become the new class divide. It is something to be sneered at. Those who seek Quality, are not one of us. Merit and Quality no longer unite people; they divide them.  We have become vain, egotistical, shallow, almost zombie-like, in our weak existence that resembles mere reportage for fear of offending. Empty virtue signallers tarnish those who pursue quality in all its formats, rendering it unbearable and therefore unattainable. It will be up to future generations to decide if they are brave enough to recover it and ask: ‘is this really what we want?’