Love us. We just can’t help ourselves.
For all the homespun wisdoms and studies around how being more socially aware of, sensitive to and inclusive of those around us creates a more resilient society, we just can’t help banging on, sounding off, shouting out, and blahing about – loudly, relentlessly and shamelessly – about us, us, us.
There’s a touch of Blackadder’s Prince Regent’s about us.
In Blackadder the Third, Sense and Sensibility, Rowan Atkinson’s eponymous butler is trying to coach Hugh Laurie’s roaring roistering and very shouty Prince Regent in the art of public speaking, unhelpfully aided by two ‘actors’.
‘Unaccustomed as I am to speaking loudly in public place…’.
Yup. That’s us.
We’re simply oblivious to the cascade of fog horning we actually do. Or simply don’t care.
Perhaps it’s all part of our genetic makeup. Not happy with our messenger genes working furiously, invisibly, silently on our behalf, perhaps we need to openly trumpet our superiorities and assert ourselves on something, anything, to demonstrate our fitness for gene pool ascension. A sort of oral chest beating. A belt and braces approach to social assertion.
We’ve certainly got plenty of topics to choose from with which to do it:
- Holidays (boutique off beat long haul 6 star glamp “please find me interesting” and package all-inclusive entertainment included “… but it’s great for the kids…” meets the urbane city break couple with an ironic burlesque trapeze in their suite)
- Homes ( and the whole region meets post code fascism thing that goes with them -you know who you are London)
- Fashion & Beauty (naked stripped back Paraben and orang-utan free meets hi bake crusted fake slathered super gloss with a centre ground of super-drugged over doses of buy 3 get none free )
- Cars (muscle car versus hot hatch versus electric versus petrol head versus bike versus Classic versus Zip)
- Sex (socially this is open season – from “euughhh no thanks!” princesses and the blank-eyed cote d’Azur lizard lover to semi-detached Tudored, Tweezered and GoPro-ed all-in wrestling and Breezer bus-stop procreation)
- Education – (Toffs going state-side leaving the Publics to the oligarchs and bankers , the rise of the Old grammar, and the Churchy state scrum versus post code lottery shitsville Secondary in an over-pressured catchment area kind of thing)
- Sport (especially things like Golf and Formula 1 – but Rugby versus Football is good for a class fight – but then so is Union versus League – yikes – and cycling’s for MAMILs)
- Technology (is that the latest super triple upgrade diamond encrusted razor thin i-phone meets digital poverty and second hand devices with digital dementia)
- Drugs (council estate pill heads, skunks and suburban speed freaks rub up against school study stoners and coke horse fashionistas – with a sprinkle of Withnail and Trainspotting for good measure)
There is endless fun to be had for anyone with a Class calibrated slide rule and an eye for an accent, a shabby cuff, an overturned trainer instep in whitest white and a social smoke machine.
All of the above and many more subjects besides can offer multiple signposts to our ability to secure, protect and expand the gene pool – as a mate and provider – and more importantly, where we think we currently are and hopefully wish to land on the great ladder of Life.
But many of these subjects are impenetrable to most of us in the flow of our accelerated lives – and carry a complex and subtle range of degrees not immediately obvious.
Impact demands some quite bloody and explicit sign posting and you’ve got to pick the right ones if you’re going for the ‘speaking loudly…’ option.
If chosen properly, to suit both the environment and the audience, the best ones can be a source of endless amusement for the seasoned observer are the ones where our social anxieties, bombast and terrors come rolling boldly into view unmasked and unfettered.
Now before we go on and just to clarify, on the technology front, there is of course a whole sub section beyond the basic noisy snobberies and tribalism of who’s got what “look at my device” technology, rooted in a whole new behaviour – that of a Life lived like an open wound on mobile loudspeaker.
Who has not had the unmitigated pleasure of listening to someone blah on in full voice about riveting subjects such as the process of returning the cardigan they bought on sale for £7.39 …but I had to return it but then I find out that the sticker bar code had rubbed off so I had to go to the second counter, yeah the one across the other side in charge of bar codes, who’s that?…in the background?….ahhhhhh….how is he….anyway, and you wouldn’t believe it they only sent me back to the first one…ooh…he’s always dropping things that boy….and anyway that snooty cow was there you know the one and anyway…bip bip….oh sorry thought the bus was being re routed so anyway they put a bar code on it and scanned and then the machine woudn’t w…
Why anyone thinks that listening to the utter banality and mundanity of them honking on about everything from Cheese and Onion crisps to their bunions holds the slightest bit of interest for anyone else within 20 yards of them beggars belief. Do they care. No. On and on they go. At top volume.
Perhaps fog-horning into our mobile while staring listlessly or sometimes cluelessly out of train or bus window makes us feel more alive, or alternately, less dead, or inert.
Or perhaps we all blah on because we’re afraid of the silence. Silence is very scary. Especially in the glittering noise of our conspicuous consumption world. The Silence gets filled up with stuff like thinking about over-drafts, and unpaid bills, and the car we can’t afford: the person we aren’t. And the fact that your other half seemed to pay far too much attention to old slippery bollocks with the ‘hot hatch’ at the pub AGAIN. Oh no. Fill that silence RIGHT NOW.
Or maybe it’s just a sign that we are lonely creatures relentlessly reaching out with any excuse to just talk to someone about something anything. Nail clippers. The benefits of GREGG’s foot long sausage roll (which to be fair does demand quite a lot of conversation).
Who knows. Anyway. Ear plugs in. Crack on.
So where was I? Oh yes. The deafening hawk, crackle and scrape of social laddering grinding across the room at full volume is a wonder to behold, especially in England, that bastion of crippling class consciousness and the emollient cold eyed Cheshire cat smile of its courtly Norman culture.
Now whether these conversations happen in a semi in a cul-de-sac in Macclesfield, a terrace in Llandeilo or a townhouse in Petworth, the broad trajectory and oath is the same.
I – the fog horn – being of sound mind and body – shall peak loudly in such terms as to clearly communicate to those gathered within ear shot what level of lifestyle I have, the laissez faire with which I take or leave ‘work’, the shade quality or quantity of leisure time I have and how I spend it – and ultimately – really really – whether I am, to quote the great Philosopher, Harry Enfield, “considerably richer than yaow”.
(NOTE: This dynamic becomes doubly interesting with couples who might in the secrecy of a closed conversation or room be accused of marrying ‘below’ or ‘above their station’: as this creates an explicit external dynamic – between the individuals and those outside around them – and the implicit internal one between two people in intimate contact and with an intimate knowledge of each other’s foibles and failings in the class department)
So, for example: hands up who’s sat in a restaurant or bar listening to the rallied ranks cawing about a skiing holiday they have just been on or upon which they are about to embark?
Amazing. It is such a perfect storm of social drama. Which resort? Which slope? Drive or Fly? What grade? Mogul? Age of Youngest on Skis? (since he was 3 months old…Obvs). dangerous off-piste-er? French skier? Snowboarder?
And up diddly up up it keeps going. Heli Skiing. Cloud skiing. Rain Skiing. Skiing across a killer whale’s back juggling a bottle of fizz and a Grey Goose chaser.
“Ohh Jasp, you ARE a just SO fucking OUT THERE”.
The ratcheting upwards of who’s the biggest cock in the skiing conversation is a great example of a topic hijacked by our social and genetic need to assert ourselves and is a miracle to behold.
And when I use the word ‘cock’ please do not think I am removing the female gender in this. Social climbing and social fog-horning reaches its apogee in the open mouths of some of the women in these conversations in much the same way with the men.
Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoy skiing. I am not terribly good at it. But I have fun. Moving from bar to bar at high speed across snow is a right laugh. But life’s too short to spend more than 15 minutes talking loudly about it. Isn’t it? And let’s be clear. I am not referring in this piece to people who actually really do LOVE skiing. The die-hards any-weather, can’t live without it addicts. I could listen to their stories all day long.
No. I am talking about the people who haul themselves and their families up a collection of slopes every year, more out of social terror for what not doing it might mean to their school run dinner party schtick than the actual pleasure of doing it.
Golf has a similar schtick. Come on. We’ve all witnessed it. The arcane yet very loud golf-speak followed shortly after by ‘the swing’ with invisible iron finished off with a tongue on roof of mouth ball ‘TSCHH” sound effect. Marvellous. And what’s interesting in the social malaise is that someone using Golf to publicly assert themselves socially may not even realise that someone else might be judging them silently for the fact they actually pronounced the word GOWLF instead of saying GOFF.
(Careful out there. The issue with social ladders is once on them, there tends to be people both above as well as below you. And the same rules apply. ‘Betters’ are like Bosses – everyone has one – somewhere – somehow – even if they are not immediately visible. They are there.)
Christmas is also a mine field of social fog-horning as it allows the social fog-horner to draw string together a whole host of levers and pulleys.
Consumption and exotic gift purchasing. Rare party invitations. Travel – preferably long haul. Higher order experiences. Exceptional distance from ‘here’ (everyday life)
Witness in a Notting Hill coffee shop three women, all American, just at the ordering point, a casual collision while all on their different morning threads – to work, to yoga instructor, to next coffee shop – living the dream, replayed in coffee shops up and down the country at every rung up and down the social ladder. (You do not need to have a banker for a husband or as a job to pretend that you can live like someone who does. What are credit cards for!)
So the first asks the second:
“So hey, when are you heading out?”
“Oh gawd, we HAVE to go to New York first, some dull party but then up to the Cape, and then straight to Vale as soon as his mother lets us escape. How about you?”
“Yeah pretty much the same. He’s on his got to get away tip at the moment. Dunno. Might go to St. Barts over New year but that’s about it.”
The deafening silence of the third woman is palpable. Both turn to her and one speaks.
“Hey what about you guys?”
VERY LONG PAUSE.
“Well, think we’re going to have to stay put this year what with John’s work …”
BIGGER PAUSE – SILENCE – and she turns to the server.
“…can I get a Grande decaf cappuccino please…”
SHUT DOWN – SMALL COMPRESSED SMILE – OUCH.
The pause and silence is deafening. All the signs are big: really, really BIG – and not in a good way.
The two ladies look at her, shuffle a little, small smiles to each other.
This is uncomfortable. Not this is AWKWARD.
Three large klaxons have sounded above the lady’s head accompanied by flashing neon.
STATUS ALERT – might not be able to keep up/social death/slightly embarrassing
MONEY ALERT – might not be able to afford shiny life this month or year – do we invite her?
JOB ALERT – husband shaky job position or worse – NO ONE stays in London over Holidays.
Hopefully her remarkably over-priced hot, wet frappecrappachaiccinolate will take the edge off the moment. Nothing says Everything is Awesome quite like an over-priced coffee.
That much cow product in one over glazed cup would put most people into a cow coma of dairy proportion – something that I think she may well appreciate at this very moment.
Sometimes things scream louder in public than any raised voice – or should I say sometimes the world of logos and marques SCREAM louder in public that any raised voice but to much the same effect. And of course there is the collision of semiotics and invisible gesturing that needs to be folded into this. Social sign posts come in all manner of variants
In one conversation with a very sartorially obsessed man, I noticed the usual scoffing at a large bloke in a Tacchini sweatshirt – 80s Footie Casual FLASHBACK.
The gentleman pointed out that it was a larger than life example of crass status making –vulgar logo bright colours – gaudy etc.
When I mentioned that he and the Tacchini man were no different he looked aghast. The higher order pomposity of him was firmly pricked.
My point to him was this. I ‘knew’ that the shirt he was wearing was from Hilditch & Key. I had one in a similar fabric, French cuff, cut away collar. His shirt SCREAMED Jermyn Street – in much the same way that Sergio Tacchini man’s screamed Wembley Market.
This stuff matters – to everyone. No-one is immune. This stuff – this pointless scrabbling for identity and the scatterings of ‘things’ that prop it up – it’s part of who and what we all are – whether the ascetics of the Sustainability world like it or not.
(To be fair our ability to wield the Luxury Of Conscience as a day job is a massive assertion of status, identity and educational favour in itself – one that few on this planet, even those in the emerged western cultures, can dream of let alone afford to pursue.)
We need to be really careful when we incite people to stop consuming shiny things they can’t afford and that damage the planet.
So, when someone tells me they’ve developed a new sustainability methodology, garnered some new insights or developed a campaign that involves the words or sentiments ‘stop, reduce diminish, lessen’ and all of the other reductive words we use in sustainability communications, I think of all of these people speaking loudly in public places – sometimes shamelessly, sometimes unconsciously but always slightly desperately asserting their social ascension or at its very least their social survival on the ladders of the ‘look at me’ gene pool.
If we stopped trying to mitigate and compress their competitive genetically fuelled need to assert themselves in the world – and equally stopped trying to erase their ‘terrible’ world view (good luck with that) perhaps we might be quicker to find a language of human resilience in which we can all share and take part – and somehow get more than the usual 7-13% depending on your think tank or academic referencing to give half a crap about how we live and what we consume.
NOTE This piece was sparked by my reading yet another recent and of course exhaustive Sustainable Lifestyles White Paper Report while sitting in a pub in East Sussex populated by a rather noisy cross section of society.
They were all outwards and upwards – celebrating their very survival in the game called life. They were all at the end of their week, sweeping grumps and whines away with pints and wine and thoughts of pies, curry, pizza, pork scratchings, or clubbing and gear followed by lie ins, golf, swimming, mountain biking, shopping, shooting (birds not films), movies, football, rugby and then what form of Sunday they might have before the shitty bitty day job and weekly worries heaved back into view.
I can safely say that not one of them was at any juncture discussing climate change, acidification of the oceans, human suffrage or equality and diversity – and until we find a way or theme or thread that brings these conversations into the pub meaningfully and without sounding like the Vibe Killer has just turned up – we’ll stay on the margins wondering how ‘terrible’ things like BREXIT TRUMP and the rest of the sorry shower of deniers and their master plans manage to get the thumbs up in this world