SOMETHING IN THE AIR

Gas MasksThe title of this post is lifted from the 1969 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman, a song that seems to encapsulate within its grooves a moment at the end of the 1960s when the tumultuous events of 1968 hadn’t entirely exterminated the optimistic spirit of ’67. Though very much a project sponsored by the same state that was simultaneously slaughtering peasants in Vietnam, the momentous achievement of putting a man on the moon suggested the general cultural zeitgeist remained forward-looking and convinced better days were just around the corner. John Lennon expressed as much when profiled in an ATV mini-series aired in December ’69 called ‘Man of the Decade’; the belief may have been misplaced or naive, but it was genuine and heartfelt. A generation born in a collective air-raid believed a different way of doing things was possible. Imagine no heaven, no countries, no possessions.

It certainly feels as though something is again in the air in 2016, though the odours of that something are not of incense, peppermints or even napalm; I can’t really put my finger on it, but there are a lot of people I know who seem to be wading through a dense, noxious fog as dense and noxious as that which permeated every nook and cranny and rookery of Dickens’ London in the memorable opening of ‘Bleak House’. Granted, many are experiencing personal crises that aren’t necessarily specific to 2016, ones that could have happened at any moment in history, in any turbulent chapter of this planet’s story as much as in any so-called Golden Age forever recalled with nostalgic reverence. They could have taken place in 1916 or 1966, and the world outside their window wouldn’t have played any discernible role. But all of the internal events that are affecting the lives of loved ones right now appear to be synchronised with external events to an unsettling degree. Perhaps that’s the impact of the age of 24/7 social media; perhaps not.

A close friend who is finding life exceedingly heavy going at the moment said to me last week that ‘everything seems to have gone wrong since Bowie died’. I thought of the vinyl label of Bowie’s 1973 LP ‘Aladdin Sane’; the song from which the album took its title is listed as ‘Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)’. The information contained within the brackets marks the two years prior to the twentieth century’s twin global conflicts and clearly taps into the paranoia of the time by suggesting a year in the 1970s will serve the same calm-before-the storm purpose. True, it could merely have been Bowie playing with that paranoia for artistic effect or simply reflecting his own nihilistic worldview that he took onto another apocalyptic level with 1974’s ‘Diamond Dogs’. But ‘Aladdin Sane’ was released just a few months before the bleak economic meltdown of the Three Day Week, an era marked by rumours of right-wing military coups instigated by MI5 and/or retired colonial colonels with private armies on one hand and left-wing communist coups instigated by Moscow on the other.

What appears to be in the air today is not so black and white, but a multi-layered mosaic of malodorous uncertainty. It is the murder of Jo Cox as well as the ongoing massacres in the US; it is the litany of unexpected celebrity deaths as well as the terrorist atrocities on the Continent; it is the failed Turkish coup d’état as well as Brexit; it is Donald Trump as well as austerity; it is Syria as well as curbs on free speech; it is incompetence and corruption in public services as well as refugees drowning at sea. Possibly because of the way in which we are able to instantly access news, to quickly switch from one horror story to another or to be bombarded by them on Facebook and Twitter even when we’re not seeking them out, they seem bigger and uglier than they ever would have seemed in the past, when limited television news bulletins and 24 hours-later newspapers exerted breathing space between each horrendous headline. It’s a theory, anyway.

Were that the root cause of events in which we have no direct involvement seeping into our individual neuroses and exacerbating them, fair enough; but I wonder why so many seem to be struggling in the first place? If we compare the comforts we can call upon to the real hardships endured by our grandparents or great-grandparents, we haven’t got a leg to stand on when it comes to complaints. The dazzling variety of choice, whether in relation to electronic goods, TV channels, food, clothing or virtually every luxury item that constitutes an acquisitive society should suffice, yet endless choice itself can actually be quite overwhelming and incapable of filling the inexplicable inner vacuum that our forefathers seemed capable of filling without any of our fripperies.

I suppose age could play a part as well; most of my friends are over 40; I myself am careering towards 50. But recent surveys suggest the kind of social isolation that appears quite commonplace within my own demographic is as high amongst teenagers. And it’s a vicious circle. Something awful in the news drags us down when we’re already feeling low because we’ve just received some stupid bill that we can’t afford to pay, making us vulnerable sitting targets for the next horrific news event as well as the next dispiriting demand on our limited finances; it can get to the point where the internal and external are practically interchangeable as sources of anxiety and helplessness. I think a sense of helplessness is crucial too: we don’t have the money required to pay the bill and we can’t do anything to alter whatever depressing news story has invaded our private space via the mass media. Both feel as though they are ultimately out of our control.

I don’t know what the solution is. Watch less TV news and don’t regularly buy a paper? I started doing that about a decade ago, but I wasn’t online back then. It’s so much harder to avoid the big stories now. They eventually find your address. And, if you’re feeling lousy to begin with, these big bad wolves will huff and they’ll puff and they’ll blow your house down. But one little pig did survive, of course; so maybe we should simply build with bricks and we’ll get through it.

© The Editor

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17 thoughts on “SOMETHING IN THE AIR

  1. Staring into the face of being 60 and looking back, I see three factors at play:

    The loss of security in everything that is important to us. No job for life, zero hours contracts, not even the guarantee that the state will deal fairly or efficiently (I’ll come back to that) with you when you need help, short term rentals and no longer homes for life in the social sector. It’s a deliberate attempt by those who would consider themselves our betters do de-stabilise the living conditions of the lower orders to make them grateful for what crumbs they can get – ooh, let’s share a box room with eight strangers taking turns to sleep in the bed on a shift pattern, aren’t I lucky, I’ve got 16 hours of work shovelling shit this week…

    With that efficiency in mind, every system we depend on is creaking, probably because it has faced under-investment (deliberately), but dealing with any bureaucracy, whether HMRC, DWP, NHS, the council or even DHL/UPS, or banks, or utilities, is frustrating and tortuous and although we never doubt what the result should be, we always doubt that result will be implemented. Despite computerisation, which should make everything faster, simpler, cleaner, we have people working those computers who are stressed, demoralised, underpaid and this results in what I now call “the crapification of everything” (which I have nicked from another site) – getting a delivery on time, getting a refund processed, getting a payment approved, getting an appointment, everything is falling to crap. People don’t input the right information. Life becomes a slog. Things fall apart. The centre does not hold.

    Finally we see that our projected living standards are not expected to rise much and for the first time in the past 500 years, children are not expected to have a better/easier future than their parents.

    I don’t think anyone can escape those factors. We are all struggling in our own ways with different aspects of the same phenomena. All we have in the face of this is each other and comfort, such as it can be construed, from music, art, and literature.

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    1. Gin subdued the ‘lower orders’ in the 18th century and heroin did it in the 20th, both of which served a purpose in negating dissent and ensuring there was a ‘me’ as opposed to an ‘us’; and, of course, a ‘me’ looks at the great immovable weight keeping them in their place and knows resistance is futile (as the Daleks used to say). Alas poor Winston Smith, I knew him well.

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      1. The Borg, not the Daleks – they only exterminated!
        Resistance is not futile – as Winston Smith briefly experienced, sometimes it is its own reward. Keep out of the shadows, Pet.

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  2. Chin up, kidda. The only solution I can think of is to ‘fuck it’ (or, better, to ‘fuck it all’). I’ve turned off the telly in disgust twice during the last few days – there’s only so much one can be exposed to before it all melds into one endless, paralysing nightmare.

    I’m at least lucky in that I have a rotten memory, particularly for historical events; if you were to ask me in a months time what had just been happening I’d have likely forgotten already. Ah well, what difference does it make?
    I was toying with a link to a video of Donald Trump receiving religious guidance (seen this morning thanks to an article on Barthsnotes) but you’d have to be in a good mood not to be terrified by it (despite its obvious comic nature) so I’ll follow Windsock’s advice and choose a bit of music instead:

    Take care.

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    1. (It really is turning out to be a shitty day/week/etc. as I can’t even post a link properly. That was meant to be the fourth track, ‘Cross Yourself’. Bloody playlists! Fuck it. All!!!)

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  3. There certainly is ‘something in the air’ and it is manifested in Trump/Sanders, Brexit/Corbyn, Grillo/Le Pen/AFD etc. It’s hard to define what has caused it, but its timescale does roughly trace back to the widespread use of the internet and social media over the last decade, perhaps not a coincidence. These channels finally provide a way for the individual’s voice, not one but many millions, to be heard by the masses, unmoderated by the mainstream ‘checks’, and this is giving previously-unavailable power to those voices which, when heard, can now resonate with so many others, so suddenly a ‘campaign’ is born. Not a campaign in the traditional sense, but a growing pressure which the old establishment is struggling to handle.

    No idea how it will proceed from here, but my best guess is that it will lead to the fragmentation of traditional big-party politics. There is no need any more to accept the ‘grand compromise’ offered by any big party, when you can now have your input at every individual issue-level – the Brexit-effect. This is, of course, completely incompatible with FPTP electoral systems, and indeed the binary presidential choice offered to our friends across The Pond.

    So if the public pressure changes, then those systems will need to change – the resultant ‘blended governments’ may be dramatically better than the ones we’ve had before, or perhaps utterly incapable of making anything happen because they lack any coherent mission. We may hope for the former, but fear the latter. Take your choice – I’ve no idea.

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    1. As you point out, there are few certainties to cling to at the moment; all the old ones suddenly seem utterly redundant. Not that they were often much cop; it’s just the not-knowing what will supersede them that provokes panic, I suppose.

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  4. Actually in 1973 we were well served for news, even by the BBC. This from the Radio Times, 19th July 1973:- http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/schedules/bbcone/london/1973-07-19

    Five news programmes that day, including regional news; three current affairs programmes; and two entertainment / information programs, Blue Peter and The Burke Special on BBC1 alone. The heavyweight programme was ITV’s News at Ten. So I doubt we’re that much better informed (or bombarded) now than then, other than real time camera feeds (few of which add anything useful, just a talking head in Downing Street and etc.)

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    1. As luck would have it, I actually have that edition of the RT! I noticed on the day in question, the first news bulletin on TV isn’t until 1.25pm (after the Welsh language version of ‘Songs of Praise’!) and the last of the day, which is wholly regional, comes at midnight. Unless an insomniac in July 1973 was tuned into the World Service after that time, accessibility to breaking news would have to wait until at least the first headlines of the following day, which came at 5.00am on Radios 1 and 2 – a situation that’s hard to imagine today. I think the main difference now is that there’s no media ‘downtime’ – and there’s more media.

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      1. Interesting article. Thanks for the link. As for the archive Radio Times, coincidence has it that I keep a heavy batch from 1969-79 in a drawer of the same desk I write upon, so I can genuinely access them at the drop of a hat!

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  5. Apologies for not replying earlier, it was late in the evening and I’d had too many to appreciate your point. I don’t believe that many people care about current affairs in general: my sore finger equals your broken arm equals a famine in Africa. 24/7 news is just another channel option on Sky, less interesting than Love Island.

    As an illustration, consider the Snowflake reaction to Brexit – the ignoramuses lacked any of the background required (even minimally) to understand what had happened, saw no big picture. Their reaction was not about fresh opportunities beckoning, freed from unelected, heavyweight, expensive control-freakery but about the perceived loss of a security blanket.

    Sorry to disagree but news, especially BBC news, plays a very small part in most ordinary peoples’ lives. It might be available but Big Brother evictions on channel whatever will prove more enticing, Brave New World would be on the horizon, but for the uncomfortable necessity of their having to earn a living, when perspectives necessarily get changed.

    P.S. I’m not entirely blameless – I still have most NMEs from 1972 to 1976 (though not immediately to hand).

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    1. Oh, I agree the concerns that occupy me and thee are not widespread across the population. I tend to forget that I particularly have to keep an eye on events in order to keep churning posts out!

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