Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pathological Britain

With Christmas Day gone, and the news that we are a predominantly secular country these days anyway, thoughts turn to the looming VAT increase, and, in the Independent's cataclysmic words: "Nine Days to Save the Economy." Elsewhere children's authors decry the removal of a grant from Booktrust, just as, previously film makers decried the closing of the UK Film Council and sports colleges got annoyed about cuts to the sports budget, and probably, Regional Developers were unhappy at the closing of the Regional Development Agencies.

I sometimes think that politics in this country owes more to programmes like Yes Prime Minister and The Thick of It than the other way round. In short, the media seems to talk about a country that I hardly believe exists, never mind recognise. Perhaps its no surprise that in a year when we got a government that not only didn't we vote for, but was not even flagged up in advance (apart from those of us who have always been a little suspicious of the LibDem's "man for all seasons" politics), that it seems like we have entered "pathological Britain." To be pathological, of course, is sign of a "mentally disturbed condition".

It's been an odd year personally, as well as nationally. But the national condition is stranger in some ways: we are used to politicians and their promising jam tomorrow, but this is something new, this drip drip of future fear and dread. Perhaps its something to do with us being ruled by boys who went to boys schools and were looked after by strangers... the boarding school is writ large in the British psyche though most of us have no conception of it other than a fictional one.

If we are looking for fictonal models for the world we live in today, perhaps more even than in the 80s, it is Orwell's prescience of media-ubiquity in "1984" that is so apposite. If ever there was a book about delayed fear that is the one. Orwell saw clearly that institutions were ever more dangerous than people, a subtle distinction given the terrors of Stalin and Hitler that he had just seen write large. Phrases like "the big society" which were meaningless when first uttered, gain power through repetition. I don't think it is their linguistic ubiquity that matters so much as the repeating of a lie so often that it becomes, if not a truth, at least not a falsehood.

This resistance to authorised cliche is, I think, one of the more important roles for the contemporary writer. It's why I've been uneasy about some of the kneejerk reactions to particular policies that we've seen of late. It is important that writers are heard and have an opinion, but the best writers are more nuanced than contemporary media theatrics requires. I'm sure Philip Pullman (who I've not read) is more nuanced in his humanism in his books than he ever is in his pronouncements, just as Martin Amis's fictional satires are far more ambiguous than his highly quotable forays into the "sex war."

It is where the small press, the independent poet, the quirky and the unloved writer comes into their own - this resistance to authorised cliche. I hope to find time over the next few weeks to write about some of the lovely artefacts I've picked up this year; spending far more on these things than on 2-for-1 books at Waterstones. It is in the retail imperative - these "non books" that are already being made half-price as too-late Xmas presents - that seems particularly pathological. Everyone who values their local shops knows you need to keep using them, to keep them - though ironically it is in the very poor areas (or the economically inactive rural villages) where they are more likely to disappear from. Clearly the business rates in Didsbury or Highgate are less of deterrent to local shops, than the disposable income (and predilection for scatter cushions) of their customers.

Yet if reading and listening outside the mainstream has another benefit, it is that it gives you a better insight into that mainstream than the insiders themselves. Walking into HMV on the high street over the last few months, its been hard to find the CD or DVD sections never mind the particular item you want (and god help you, if you're looking for vinyl or boxsets or back catalogue!) for all the MP3 players, games machines and t-shirts. It comes as no surprise that HMV is having a bad Christmas. A year from now it may well have divested itself of Waterstones, which nobody who cares about books will be disappointed about.

There's been quite a few highlights of the year and most of them have included at least two of literature, music and alcohol. On a personal level, I've been reacquainting myself with the idea that I might be a poet, rather than someone who writes poetry; though I'm sure I'll probably disabuse myself of that notion sometime in the new year. This blog feels an inevitable part of the ebb and flow of my year now, in a way that it might not always have done. It evades as much as it includes (books that I've read but forgot to blog about at the time, for instance), but diaries and journals are always partial. I was reminded of this truth when reading Bruce Chatwin's Diaries earlier in the year. It illuminated, but obscured. Yet read in tandem with his books and Nicholas Shakespeare's biography, brought one closer to understanding one of my favourite writers. That we live in a country and a culture where a large book of letters by a writer who died over a quarter of a century ago, can be brought to publication by our oft-derided publishing industry, there's clearly still a culture worth looking for.

Despite this piece's title, I'm sanguine about our pathology. I'm neither in the media or political bubble, or based in our often surprisingly navel-gazing capital city; I sit outside - politics, finance, the media, even the world of "letters" - and it gives me a better view. The task as ever is to inculcate that in the art.

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