You Can Be Different – Just Not Too Different
I’ve always returned to London because it was just so damned different to everywhere else, but when I walked into Leicester Square yesterday and saw that the entire centre garden had been swallowed up by something called ‘the Disney Cinderella Experience’ my heart sank.
First, it’s that word ‘experience’, tacked onto everything. Then there’s the invasion of the public-private space, areas privately owned but opened to the public so that they’re theoretically for all to use, only grudgingly, because they’re guarded and filmed by headset-monkeys.
Everything is so aggressively normal now. Here in the UK we’re untouched by war, except when it spikes into our lives through terrorism. We’re better fed, better educated and healthier than our forebears. The wealth gap has returned, creating food banks at one end and billionaire flats at the other, but any form of protest has faded away and the young have no interest in politics.
This seems strange to me, especially coming off the back of writing a novel about insurrection (‘The Burning Man’ is set against a banking scandal and riot).
I left school in the seventies, when there were daily strikes and protests and even the Prime Minister said that some days he awoke and wished he was living in another country. The unrest bred insurgency and rebellion; punk was born (little more than angry posturing, but still a valid movement), people were angry, the hippy lifestyle soured into the ‘alternative’; living in squats, fighting the system, going on marches, dressing, looking and behaving with angry attitude.
The new century brought the New Consumerism, and motivated the young to make money, because for the first time their parents had it better. But the New Consumerism has been with us for a decade now, and has given way to something I would term ‘the New Sensible’. Fashion, art, music and entertainment all reflect this. Nothing shocks or outrages. In the 1960s we had topless dresses and military clothing, and an anti-war, anti-religion revisionist attitude to the past that ultimately proved healthy.
In order to earn a living wage the young are listening to what people want and many are starting to learn crafts again. It’s bad for art (although that reached a dead-end as Damien Hirst effectively became a laughing stock, albeit a still rich one) but good for business. There’s an eagerness to be employed, a fear of competition, a need to fit in. Sensible clothes, sensible food, populist TV and film, pleasant folky music – but when even my mother thinks it’s all a bit dull you know you have a problem. Why is it not possible to be shocked by anything kids do anymore?
There are plenty of fresh young voices around, of course, but they don’t reach the mainstream in the way they once did, largely because the internet has given us so much choice that we pick our compartments of interest and stay within them.
Perhaps it’s my perspective that’s changing, and not the world. If you suggest that a different era was more effective than the present you’re accused of being a nostalgist. But I’ve caught myself thinking that I don’t need to go to New York because it’s pretty much the same as London now, and that can’t be good.
I’ve just written my first SF story, ‘OFF’, (to be published in the next issue of Interzone) but what I’m interested in isn’t the exploration of the stars – it’s our sense of conformity, which is why I love JG Ballard so much.
Where do we go next? Maybe Britain doesn’t want to be surprised anymore by living through ‘interesting times’.