UK Culture: What’s it like now?

Some of the best popular songs include phrases or references that capture key aspects of the way life is being lived in the surrounding – the overarching – culture. In the 1960s the Rolling Stones in their famous ‘Satisfaction’ highlighted the way people were subject to the relentless intrusions of marketing; Dylan’s ‘Highway 61’ told us about the culture of surplus that was unfolding around us whilst his ‘Times they are a’changing’ and ‘Ballad of a thin man’ defined the shock of the new and the erosion of old certainties. Later, Sinead O’Connor’s brilliant ‘Three babies’ and ‘Black boys on mopeds’ pinpointed the divisions, racism and fault-lines in Thatcher’s Britain whilst Pulp’s ‘Common people’ spoke of the emergence of a new, almost inverted form of democracy. Even the poetic Leonard Cohen identified the sense of resignation that people had come to feel about systemic inequality in his ‘Everybody knows’. If artists and writers are supposed to engage with the nature of their times and confront, as Cynthia Ozick insists, the ‘truth’, then it’s worth trying to discover what it is they are engaging with: So, what’s life like for us now? How’s it being experienced by song-writers, poets, artists, essayists, photographers and documentary film-makers? What’s going on in the social arena? How are relationships unfolding in the late modern UK? And what’s it like for me as I grow older and become increasingly irrelevant?

Some years ago the sociologist Jean Baudrillard had raised a number of trends in our culture that seemed to illuminate some of the possible contours of our condition. Baudrillard pointed out that there has been an acceleration of ‘all exchanges’ including the economic, political, social and sexual. (Quick quick! Here today and then there’s even more ‘here’ tomorrow!) This acceleration has even made it difficult to sustain a sense of history; we can’t slow things down enough to determine which event has led to the next. It has meant, almost inevitably, that our relationships are likely to be unstable: the more contacts you have the more chance there is to make relationships and inevitably to have relationships broken – as more attractive opportunities come along for one (or for both) of the partners.

The acceleration of exchanges has been facilitated by widespread and ever-present hi-tech communications; as a result he already noted that relationships were more fractured, interrupted and simultaneous. And there were are two consequences. First, people feared not being informed, not being ‘in the loop’, not knowing what was going on and of ‘missing out’. Second, ands perhaps paradoxically the level of freedom was diminished as people were caught up in a network of requests and agreements, meetings, encounters and appointments. As people rushed and lurched from one apparently social situation to another the chance for intimacy was diminished. Breathless, we scampered from one set of interactions to another: it all seemed faintly maniacal but now it’s second nature.

A second phenomenon characterising our culture concerned the genesis of a silent majority (or majorities). In a sense this is unremarkable: no one usually gets very excited about a silent majority. But what was remarkable was the fact that the silent majority existed as a force of inertia and displayed a seemingly ‘immense indifference’ when it was, in principle, better informed, better educated and better able to access the locales of power. The silent majorities shrugged their shoulders in resignation. Baudrillard thought that ‘this inert matter of the social’ was not produced by a lack of exchanges but by the multiplication and saturation of exchanges which, in effect, cancelled each other out. After all, if there is always an equal and opposite view it’s difficult to take action. If there are several views and no way in which to establish the superiority of one over the other – then – well – all we can do is throw our hands up in despair and turn our attentions to that small part of the world over which we do have some control. In a way we had more or less reached a state of stupefaction.

And a third social development was connected with the extremes of high-fidelity – and the end of the real. Baudrillard asked us to consider what happens in a high-fidelity culture: essentially music ends and the electronic wizardry of high-fidelity takes over in such a way that ‘music disappears as such’. What is provided as ‘music’ is something that has vanished into a model of perfection. And just as high fidelity cast radical doubt on music so human performances were themselves moving beyond the real, moving beyond the authentic. We simulated the real, the authentic. We had moved beyond truth. And it raised the question: Do I feel love (a complex tangle of emotions) or a ‘high-fidelity’ love modelled on what the ideal thing is supposed to be like? This is a love that has gone beyond the real. (And there is even a kind of high-fidelity of the authentic – which casts doubt on the authentic itself.) In principle, we could get quite indignant about being thought of as a kind of ‘fake’. But as we engage socially or fill in forms for jobs or manage customers and clients, and, as we tell our stories, isn’t the version we script of ourselves a bit too good to be true?

Baudrillard’s analysis is cast at the level of macro-sociology and cultural anthropology. Overall, it may well be the case that we live in a realm where there is less intimacy, more resignation and less authenticity (or honesty) than we originally hoped we would experience …

But here’s a seemingly inconsequential sign of the times: As I walk on the pavement and down the street someone, perhaps more than one person, is coming towards me. It may be almost anyone – singly, in twos or threes, perhaps a group. They show no sign of making way. I feel obliged to step aside; I step off the pavement. I tip-toe in the gutter. There’s no apparent reciprocity. It doesn’t seem to occur to people to signal an arrangement where we both share the pavement. And it’s like that when I’m driving. Even if I have the right of way it’s by no means certain that a long-established highway code will be upheld.

‘It’s something to do with the pursuit of ego,’ I was told. ‘It may even have come over from America.’

Wherever ‘it’ has come from is intriguing but whatever the answer is, Baudrillard’s plausible observations raise the question about the nature of the underlying messages through and by which we are now being socialised – the deep and powerful psychological nuclei (or ideology) against which the many surface aspects of our lives are organised and expressed. It seems that we are on the road to being inhumanly human: Certainly I have become rather disenchanted and unsettled because, in the era of the ‘fake’, I have basically lost trust in just about everything. (And almost everyone.)

BUT sometimes, on the pavement or along the pathways, when I stand aside, I hear someone say, ‘thank you’. Or sometimes, in the town or city, a mother asks her children to make sure that there is a space in which I may walk. It’s as if I’m hearing the silent majority. And that reminds me: I have to be careful not to get a distorted picture of life in the UK now. Nearly everything the media shows isn’t real. I’ve got to try and stay in touch with the facts and not the illusion. The illusion is beguiling – it’s spectacular, dramatic. Everyday life isn’t like that. Everyday life is people struggling along, getting to work, making the best of things.

So, I bet the silent majority is doing its best to spend the time following a huge range of worthwhile activities. I bet that, overall, it’s really got a generous heart and is warmly charitable and pretty sympathetic. And I’m sure that it’s laced with practical virtues and solving the problems of living with more-or-less good humour. That’s another enduring part of UK culture’s deep structure: we’ll have a big laugh and it helps keep us sane.

However, it does seem as if the silent majority has allowed a certain ethos to take precedence over something more obviously ‘ethical’: happiness and pleasure are pursued rather than justice and equality; the freedom of the individual and special interest communities have priority over the collective and the search to realise inspirational ideals. That is not good.

Against this, however, I have noticed a quiet and almost indiscernible counter trend. Three examples will do: the trend I am referring to was featured in a film recently screened at the Berlin film festival. The film is called, ‘Here’, and is by the Belgian director Bas Devos; he presents a fictional case study of two people who by chance meet, and who in their different ways, find a serenity in the modest and intimate micro-aspects of their lives. Devos is interested in counterposing the relationship between the one, a PhD student, a bryologist, who studies mosses, and the other, a construction worker, who loves to make delicious soups, with the modern world where progress increasingly deprives people of worthwhile human contact. In other words, the film profiles a modest trend of caring for the delicacy and beauty and good taste that is all around us.

The second example is a reminder of how to live well that has been outlined both by John Heider and Tove Jansson. Heider, in a book on leadership, encourages people to turn away from the bright lights and live a simpler life which would include ‘reading the classics.’ He doesn’t specify which classics but he doesn’t have to; the classics help to transform the way we look at the world, life and ourselves. Jansson’s ‘The summer book’ reprises an observation made by the Impressionist painters: it notes that you don’t have to venture far from your home to find beauty (below your feet or in the heavens above) and the pleasure of ‘leaving’ your self behind.

The third example was something I discovered on the above-ground platform of Kilburn High Road station in North West London. Kilburn High Road station is served by the Jubilee line of the London Underground. As the platform stretches away from passengers’ entry and exit points, someone or some group has created small rectangular herb gardens and something called a ‘forage’ garden. It’s an obvious and simple idea and whoever has initiated and supported this has exemplified what we could all do – albeit differently – wherever we are.

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