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Friday, October 15, 2004


Get a life

I was encouraged to read in last Sunday's Observer that, as a spin-off of the BBC2 TV quiz show QI, a QI members' club has been established in Oxford. Founder John Lloyd said, "It will be a place where you can have a decent conversation," adding, "It is for people who are curious and interested. We will be for farmers, novelists and students. It doesn't matter."

But the QI club will be swimming against the cultural tide. Lloyd acknowledged, "Our club is not cool and it is not for people who want to be hip."

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of social conversation in Britain today is the increasing limit on what it is permissible to talk about. This is not formal censorship - it's more insidious than that.

Nowadays, it is considered a faux pas to display any form of erudition, enthusiasm, hobby or intellectual pursuit. Do so and you are immediately slapped down with one of these stock phrases; 'sad', 'trainspotter', 'anorak', 'anal' or 'get a life'. Indeed, that was the instant response of one friend when I mentioned last weekend that I had started this blog.

The permissible range of conversation has narrowed in intellectual scope to the world of the tabloids and 'Hello'-style magazines. Unless you want to become the butt of jokes among your friends, you may discuss only the following topics:

- malicious gossip about mutual friends and acquaintances
- malicious gossip about celebrities
- fashion
- football (the private lives of players, but not the 4-4-2 system)
- movies (recent Hollywood products, but not art films)
- TV (light entertainment and soaps, but not documentaries)

You may talk about politics, but only if you confine your remarks to personality issues. If in any doubt, the rule of thumb is, the smaller the talk, the safer you are.

This pernicious form of intolerance extends beyond social occasions to how one lives one's life. For example, until about twenty-five years ago, it was considered perfectly acceptable to be interested in railways, and large numbers of people pursued this hobby with no risk of social opprobrium. Then, at some point in the late 70s/early 80s, a new fashion dictate emerged and railway enthusiasm has been pilloried relentlessly ever since.

Why has this change in attitude occurred? There always was a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in English culture, but this recent shift is the product of a convergence of two newer social trends, the culture of 'cool' and feminist chic.

The phenomenon of 'cool' has been examined thoroughly in an excellent book,
Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude by Dick Pountain and David Robins (Reaktion Books, 2000). Cool is essentially about affecting an air of ironic detachment. Its modern origins can be traced to American black culture of the 1940s, which was then picked up by rebellious white icons of the 50s such as James Dean and Elvis. But during the 60s, 'cool' began to be exploited by advertisers as a means of selling consumer goods and by the 70s it had entered the mainstream. 'Cool' people may imagine they are rebelling by wearing a particular product but in reality they are just suckers for commercial fashion.

Precisely what constitutes 'cool' is constantly changing but, crucially, the people who define 'cool' at any given point are not adults but children. It is playground fashion. This has created the absurd situation where many adults now take their fashion cues from teenagers, then employ infantile techniques to score points over their peers.

But 'cool' is not just fashion, it is an attitude, and it is having a thoroughly corrosive effect on our culture and society. Since 'cool' is about narcissism and cynicism rather than doing anything positive, it follows that most enthusiasms and intelligent conversational topics must be stigmatised as 'uncool'.

Besides 'cool', the other factor behind this growing intolerance is a shallow form of feminism - and here, I realise I am venturing into risky un-PC territory. Most men have horror stories to tell of how their mother, wife or girlfriend waged war on one of their hobbies. Most women do not have any hobbies or intellectual pursuits and cannot understand why men do. Nothing new there. But what some feminists have done is to intellectualise this prejudice.

An example is this particularly
nasty piece by columnist Cristina Odone (Observer, 10 November, 2002). Here, we move beyond mere intolerance of other people's pursuits into very dangerous territory, the idea that hobbies and interests are some form of mental disorder. There is a recent and worrying precedent for pathologising normal male behaviour. In America and Britain, the drug Ritalin is being prescribed routinely to pacify millions of naturally boisterous young children on spurious medical grounds. How long before the pharmaceutical industry responds to demands by women to cure their young sons of an embarrassing interest in stamp collecting?

An exaggerated scenario, perhaps. But over the past two decades, the climate of opinion towards intellectual curiosity has been made more hostile by the steady drip, drip of feminist commentators casually portraying men's hobbies and interests as a form of autism - at best an eccentricity, at worst a behavioural problem to be treated.

The widespread and indiscriminate use of terms such as 'sad' and 'get a life' has come as a godsend to those people who prefer small talk to conceptual talk and need a handy social technique for inhibiting more intelligent conversation.

Does any of this really matter? Attacking trainspotters may seem harmless enough, until you realise the consequences. Once upon a time, small boys who collected train numbers matured into adult railway enthusiasts who ran various museums and preserved steam railways, contributing much to our local heritage and tourism, and giving pleasure to many people. It's not just trains. All over Britain, volunteer enthusiasts can be found restoring and running old windmills, canals and factories. But not for long. They are failing to enlist a new generation of volunteers, because potential young recruits are deterred for fear of being mocked by their peers.

The effects go far beyond preserving our industrial heritage. The overriding need to look 'cool' is now recognised as the main reason why
boys are underperforming in the state school system. Boys are under huge peer group pressure not to study or be seen as a swot. And now, we are faced with a rash of knife incidents in schools because, apparently, it's 'cool' to carry a knife.

What is worst of all, though, is that this powerful social trend has limited our freedom to be ourselves, and has led to a general diminution of our cultural life. Intelligent conversation is one of the great pleasures of life and it is depressing when less and less people are willing to participate, for fear of what others might think. Before long, the only permissible social option left will be to slouch nonchalantly in a chair and bitch about other people - then we'll all be the poorer.

We flatter ourselves that we live in a more liberated age, when all we have done is exchange one set of social restrictions for another. What is particularly sad (in both senses of the term) is that many of my friends and acquaintances who call themselves 'Liberal' are as big a dupe for this sort of intolerant social posturing as anyone else. Let's get this clear - anyone who habitually mocks the individuality of others has no right to call themselves a Liberal.

Get a life? The people who should 'get a life' are the immature fashion victims whose only outlet is to sneer, smirk and snigger at the intelligent discourse of others.

As it happens I just posted a drawing yesterday I did of Dick Pountain
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