You Can Be Different – Just Not Too Different

Great Britain


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’.

10 comments on “You Can Be Different – Just Not Too Different”

  1. J. Folgard says:

    Looking forward to reading OFF down the road! I don’t think it’s only your perspective that is changing -to me, it looks like the world has seen so many horrible things & events that anyone a bit excentric can be equally perceived as “charmingly quirky” or “borderline potential psycho” so, well, don’t get noticed.

  2. snowy says:

    Apols for going off track, a little bit.

    Those that have diaries or digital equiv.

    9 October 2015 – 10 April 2016

    “This October – for the first time ever – never-before-seen-objects from the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum will go on public display in a major new exhibition opening at the Museum of London.

    Since its establishment by serving officers in 1875 the Crime Museum (formally known as the ‘Black Museum’) has previously only been open to police professionals and invited guests. Now, using original evidence from this extraordinary collection, we’ll unlock real-life case files to take you on an uneasy journey through some of the UK’s most notorious crimes from Dr Crippen to the Krays, the Great Train Robbery to the Millennium Dome diamond heist.”

    [Details in link above, talks, speakers and other events TBA nearer the date I presume.]

    And now we return to our normal programmes

  3. snowy says:

    Generally anything that describes Itself as an ‘experience’ should be shunned out of hand.

    “The Walt Disney Cinderella Ordeal” might be more apt, but I doubt that will shift a lot of tickets.

    It’s free, [but you will need a ticket], tempted? Even if it turns out to be a 3 hour queue to see a collection of used frocks covered in fake bling? It’s a stunt to puff up another attempt by Disney to strip mine some of the story assets they apparently ‘own’.

    In a breathtakingly bold piece of fig-leafery, profits [from a free show??] go to a charity providing films for children in hospitals. [Reading the small print, they have to guilt you into buying a programme before the charity will get a sous!]

  4. Mim says:

    Get on over to Bristol – you’ll see a place very different from London, and still with plenty of fight.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, dear. Life just gets more complicated all the time, but hey! The Black Museum (or part of it) will be available come October and if you go to Amazon (apologies for off topic) you can order Dan Terrell’s book “On Deep Bachground” and spend two weeks at the Bachfest 2000 avoiding spies.

  6. snowy says:

    Striving to keep all the slightly off topic remarks to a single thread, [Yea right! and I willl be giving a demonstration of Cat Herding later!]

    A certain Doctor of Cinema has just made* an oblique reference to somebody they know having a huge poster of ‘The Man in the White Suit’, Hmmmm…. I wonder who that could be?

    [*Not now, now! I missed the Live, catching up via the Podcast.]

  7. John Griffin says:

    In a world that can watch live beheadings perhaps the ‘shock of the new’ has expired. I am, as a mainstream former politico, stunned by the total apathy of the British. In the face of such total corruption that makes the epithet ‘banana republic’ an insult to Costa Rica, where are the angry people? I’m afraid that the dumbing down of education to a set of tests and the decline of intelligent debate in public has left us a nation of dispirited, disorganised rabble and celebrity-obsessed zombies.
    I prefer the very edgy 70s myself, alas it birthed the arch-gorgon of UK destruction, Thatcher.

  8. MsHoneyRose says:

    What you haven’t mentioned is the convergence of the obsession with celebrities’ lives, with brands and labels and the desire by everyone under 35 to “star in one’s own life”( by filming it, tweeting it, facebooking it and blogging about it.) To be socially acceptable these day you need to wear the right brands, eat at the right restaurants, live in the right interiors (bland putty coloured sofas in rooms painted with that murky green Farrow and Ball paint.)

    When I was a young woman every area of London had a little boutique where you could buy unique inexpensive u clothing, often hand sewn by the proprietor. When did wearing a famous brand plastered across your chest become more socially acceptable than wearing witty original clothing? I have never bought into any of that, but sadly despite my best efforts, my son has. I think he is boringly dull and safe, he thinks I am eccentric and embarrassing. I become more like Bryant every day.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    A friend of mine asked his class of twelve year olds what they wanted to be when they gew up. “Famous” was the reply. “Famous for what?” “What do you mean?” No concept of having to do or be something to make you famous. It is the ultimate in idol worship.

  10. Anne Fernie says:

    Why was London more fun ‘in the day’ You could easily dodge fares and travel all around town if you were broke. There were excellent, proper grass roots events (community inspired not commercial) squat parties (the new year one at the empty Peckham dole office springs to mind) of a quality that you would now pay a lot to attend. There were no CCTV cameras, no paramilitary ‘security’ guards; no ‘ring of steel’; you could wander in and out of public buildings and explore unchallenged you didn’t have to wear crash helmets and lycra to be a London cyclist; there were still watch shops in St John St just as there had been for hundreds of years; Brick Lane market was still dirty, sleazy and fun; Fleet St still had a buzz as a publishing area. No I’m not a hundred years old – only 58 and I’m talking about the late 70s-late 80s, really not that long ago. Completely off message but I happened to watch an old Margaret Rutherford film from 1961 the other day (the Miss Marple ones). Couldn’t help noticing that dear old Margaret had snaggle teeth and very visible bristles on her chin. How wonderful and I can’t imagine any older actress being ‘allowed’ to appear on screen so ‘au-naturel’ now…………..

Comments are closed.