While something big wasn’t happening in Westminster, whales full of plastic were swimming onto beaches, dolphins were becoming trapped in plastic, and moving from Facebook to another headline in The Observer, “California wildfire survivors now face dangerous flooding”. The number of people missing in California is above 1,000, and now there’s heavy rain forecast. Apparently, this isn’t good news (good news isn’t news; discuss): the rain will put out the fires (I assume, although it’s difficult to rely on any assumption these days), but all that water falling from the sky is a threat in its own right.
Third word in this piece is “love”. When I started writing, I had the first three sentences in my head and a vague idea of where I wanted to go next. I was going to say that yes, there is a big picture, but I’m beginning to suspect that it’s bigger than we can see. [If this paragraph ever gets saved in a format that doesn’t degrade over time, and if you’re the forensic archaeologist tasked by the museum to decipher this ancient script*, my message to you is: love the white gloves. And to the ancient-historian standing behind you: no, we really didn’t see it coming. We couldn’t see the bigger, long-term trends that you take for granted as part of our history.]
Where was I? Flipped out there for a second. Oh yes - the bigger picture. Way back a long time ago (January 2012), the “American novelist who is also host of the Peabody-winning public radio program Studio 360,” Kurt Andersen (he’s on Wikipedia) published an article in the magazine Vanity Fair titled You Say You Want A Devolution? Andersen’s theme was that culturally (not, back then, technologically), we’ve ground to a halt. That article stuck in my head; I might have mentioned it before. You can find it here. Andersen wrote: “Since 1992 … the world has become radically and profoundly new.”
Can we agree on that? Between 1992 and 2012, a lot changed? Yes? [No? Where are you? I’m on my way.] But Andersen went on to say: “Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world … has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past – the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s – looks almost identical to the present.” Look at what they’re wearing and what they’ve done with their hair, and you can tell a sixties person from a fifties person, and both from a seventies person or an eighties person. But not a late-eighties person from a noughties person. [Let's leave shoulder pads out of this.]
I looked up “goth”, just out of curiosity, and apparently the “goth subculture” emerged in the eighties, and has roots in the late nineteenth century. Then I read Jo Ellison’s article Another spoonful of nostalgia? No thanks on the back of the Life & Arts section of the Weekend FT, that same weekend of the 17th/18th November 2018, yes, and the theme was that, well, Jo Ellison wrote: “Idling over an ancient 1983 issue of The Face magazine on holiday last month, I was struck by how many cultural touchstones were still so familiar, and yet I was horrified to realise just how little things have changed.” Ah, The Face [^smiles faintly, faraway look, remembering^].
Jo Ellison hit para return and continued: “When did we get stuck in this compulsion to recreate the past?” Fashion, film and culture in general have become stuck on nostalgia. In fashion, which supposedly “venerates the new” (Jo Ellison), designers are being “drawn back into their archives” (ditto). Clothes are self-expression, which I suppose we’ve internalised via our assortment of smart devices. I remember, vaguely, those successive experiences of catching up with something new, from hair that suddenly needed to be like this, to that sudden aching lack of, I don’t know, flares or drainpipes or - no, I’m not going to revive the memory of that outfit. I look at old photographs, and I think: did we really dress like that? In public? On purpose?
We did. And it mattered to us. Perhaps technology is a jealous god, and demands all our attention. Perhaps we’ve found technology’s unintended consequence. We’re so keen to be spontaneous that we trap spontaneity and repeat it - a store put out a witty Christmas ad a few years back, and now the annual debate over big-store Christmas advertising is, ah, traditional. There’s so much we want to do, but because tech’s made everything else so easy we’re too impatient to learn how to do it, so we teach. Count the online training courses in things you want to do; count the number in which instruction number one is, for example: write a good novel, or, say, first come up with a brilliantly innovative idea. Scrivener’s wonderful, to reply to my friend who asked my opinion of it, and it’ll do everything for you except have that original idea.
It’s as if we’re circling originality, circling creativity, round and round, very close, never quite connecting with whatever it was in our heads that made new ideas so easy. I won’t repeat my usual rant about all the films these days being remakes, because I’m pretty sure it was boring enough the first time, and I am (pretending to be) reluctant to mention the review of my book that couldn’t be posted where it was intended to be posted because it didn’t conform to that platform’s requirements. You can’t enthuse without conforming? [Wait a minute – only four stars?] It was emailed to me instead. But what I will do – getting back on track – is wonder aloud whether we’re in the middle of some vast transition from before to after; from pre-tech to post-tech?
Naah. Rubbish. See above re something big not happening. But I do think of technology in terms of unintended consequences these days. I do wonder, watching the politics, watching the culture, checking my Facebook, checking my messages, rechecking my Facebook, scrolling through my emails, checking my Facebook – no, wait, haven’t I just done that? – and just making sure that I haven’t got anything waiting for me on Instagram or Messenger, I do wonder whether it’s time for somebody, somewhere – hold on, just a sec … oh no, sorry, it’s just another Leave Home Without Your Phone message from the phone company – I do wonder whether, um, sorry, isn’t technology distracting? I had this idea, and I – hold on, my phone again.
Have you heard about the Christmas film, by the way? No, not – at least, I don’t think there’s another Star Wars due, is there? No, I’m talking about the one about the nanny. She’s called Mary Poppins, apparently, and she does magic. She has an umbrella. No, it’s nothing to do with the Dursleys; Harry stays at school during the holidays, doesn’t he? What bear from Peru?
Oh, hold on. “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again,” said J M Barrie. Do you hear that sound outside the window? No, don’t open–
Oh. It’s you. Again.
It’s in the drawer, out of sight. As always.
Don’t let it get away. This time.
*I would provide a simultaneous translation into another language and script, perhaps two, as a self-conscious reference to the Rosetta Stone, but I doubt any of today’s available translation software would give you a close enough match.
That many young, attractive people have never gathered around the screen of your smartphone and laughed together in a touchy-feely way at whatever they saw there. [They have? Show me your smartphone.] You may have bought alcohol with a fancy logo on the bottle, but that was rarely because you were heading off to a late-night beach party with bonfires and lanterns and raucous background music, where several hundred of your coolest, funniest, most diverse (but still young and photogenic) friends were just waiting to let you in on the joke. [Really? I’m on my way.]
I’m going to guess that you don’t pop next door to chat to your friend about your washing powder. Or your brand of instant coffee. You don’t conduct tests on stains made by your baby, because your baby rarely makes exactly matching simultaneous stains bang in the middle of two white towels that are laid out side by side on your kitchen worktop. [She does? I’d love to come to lunch, but I think I’m busy that day.] Do you really think that desirable person in that eye-catching outfit is going to give you that expression as you drive slowly through the empty city in your stubby little primary-coloured new hatchback? No, never works for me, either.
What we think we think is important (sorry, but that really is what I meant to type) is different from what we actually think is important. Even politics is a form of self-delusion. The petition for a “people’s vote” (second referendum because of how much we didn’t like the first) on you-know-what had a target of 350,000 signatures and was close to that when I last looked. The petition to get Iceland’s Christmas ad shown on TV had passed 670,000 signatures by last week. There’s a Norway option and a Canada option for Brexit and maybe we need an Iceland option.
Why are we so exercised about a trade deal? Because it’s about prices in the shops? Because we need something to matter? Because it's on television, between the ads? Wait a minute - are we so exercised about a trade deal? Perhaps it's the being exercised that works for us, and not the trade deal. Perhaps we're just miffed that the voices of the centre (that cannot hold, by the way) never stop for long enough to let us speak? But hey - never mind. Populism has so many forms and now so many definitions but so few friends in the media that it's in danger of becoming fashionable. With the young? Like punk? Perhaps the whole thing will finally jolt us out of this current - or maybe it won't, but so what? There are Brexiteers hiding in the shrubbery at the far end of the communal garden. Does that matter? The dogs bark but life goes on.
The music you play is still beautiful. In Falmouth, the trees still talk in the wind and the sea gets rough and bracing and then, as you get closer, noisy enough to fill all the senses. There are still birds in the sky, and clouds passing. There’s a castle here, and last night we went for a walk around the moat: trees black against the last of the sunset; three dogs. Natural sounds are beautiful; the sea is the sea and always will be; life goes on.