URBAN MYTHOLOGY

Whilst the majority of last week’s D-Day anniversaries were fitting tributes to those who fought them on the beaches, it was inevitable a degree of nostalgia – even for such dark days – would creep into the commemorations. In the case of the Second World War, we have the comforting hindsight of a happy ending, which participants were denied at the time; but nostalgia – whether for the War via ‘Dad’s Army’ or talking-heads TV celebrating more recent cultural epochs – is a romantic electric blanket that is at its warmest when the chilly present seems to lack certainties. There don’t appear to be any certainties at all right now, and nobody has any idea what comes next other than predicting the worst. By contrast, the past is a benevolent piece of furniture we can curl up in and know where we are.

That said, distance sometimes enables us to discern jewels that were hidden when we were busy living in the past – as Jethro Tull once perhaps pointed out. For example, I’d only have to glance at a handful of posts on here from 2016 to come to the conclusion that 2016 was a terrible year – yet, from my own personal 2019 perspective, I can now see it was one of the happiest times of my life. If anything, this serves as a salient lesson to enjoy what one has whilst one has it instead of waiting for it to be claimed by nostalgia and the belated appreciation that is tinged with wistful regret. But I digress.

When watching the 60s/70s drama ‘Public Eye’ recently, it was telling that, amidst the inevitable presence of so many elements of British life long since gone, a particular plotline caught my eye: Lead character Frank Marker moves from one town to another and has to make an appointment to meet the man who is now his bank manager in order that his account can be transferred from his old branch to his new one. Despite Reg Varney making history with his inaugural withdrawal in 1967, hole-in-the-wall cash machines were hardly a fixture on every street corner through the 1970s, if at all. Alfred Burke’s character couldn’t simply relocate elsewhere and continue to withdraw money from anywhere he happened to be – neither could he manage his financial affairs himself online; all of his payments were physical and if he wanted to invest or withdraw, he needed to go to an actual building and make the exchange over the counter by engaging with a fellow human being.

In a week in which I witnessed the doors of yet another neighbourhood bank branch close for good, this scene from ‘Public Eye’ also reminded me how that mainstay of 70s sitcom jokes, the bank manager, was once an office almost on a par with the local vicar, GP or police constable in terms of ‘civic dignitaries’; they no doubt still count for something in Ambridge, but in urban areas the bank manager is virtually an extinct species. If you, like me, reside in an urban area, you won’t have a bank manager either – nor do you probably know a vicar, a copper or even a GP, at least if your experience of the impersonal surgeries in which a different doctor dispenses medication every time you visit is anything like mine.

In most cases, the clout such professions carried has gone because the environment that elevated them has gone. The absence of belonging that many in an alienating metropolis feel can partly be traced back to the point where the strands of benign authority that helped bind communities together became frayed and then snapped; from village elder to local squire to Sgt Dixon, the people required at least one go-to figure to resolve their disputes. Even if they still do, those figures aren’t around anymore; and, anyway, if authority equates with age, the village elder is most likely now rotting away in a care home. We can’t rely on the police to come running when we dial 999, we can’t get an appointment to see a GP, and our bank no longer has a branch on the high-street. Even if you favour collectivism, you’d be hard pushed to generate it in such a fragmented landscape.

The old concept of community, in which everyone had a part to play and a function to perform, had developed from the village roots of towns and had in turn arisen from ancient tribal divisions of labour; in those parts of the world where the literal meaning of ‘tribe’ still applies, one tends to find these roles remain intact and crucial to the community’s survival. In the west, where communities had grown through being supported and sustained by one specific industry, a sense of place was strong in a way that – following the subsequent black hole of underinvestment since the industry’s collapse – has been rendered utterly redundant. A town’s residents can connect with someone on the other side of the world but might not necessarily know a single person living on their street.

Today, community can be more of abstract concept, often equating with identity; the general trend is for the rejection of shared common ground in favour of individual separateness. Even when people defined by their differences or ‘diversity’ are quick to gather in a facsimile of community, their emphasis on individuality precludes genuine community, hence the endless splitting into endless subdivisions of every community based around identity, underlining how diversity can diversify to the point whereby nobody has anything in common anymore. The 21st century incarnations of the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front are permanently engaged in social media spats that make unity seem like something people only did in the old days. We receive a tantalising taste of it when we pause to commemorate lives lost in conflicts that required unity to succeed; but the fact that WWII will soon cease inhabiting living memory to join the Napoleonic Wars as mere history keeps it firmly in the context of the past.

Politicians being, of course, the cynical old manipulators of the public mood that they instinctively are, sell themselves to the electorate by appealing to the craving for community as it used to be. The pitches of the wretched hopefuls vying to become the new Tory leader (and, unfortunately, Prime Minister) are crammed with fatuous references to ‘bringing the nation together’ as they line-up like a bunch of vacuous suits to be sneered at by Alan Sugar. The fact that they all appear to be falling over each other to see who can produce the best drug-taking anecdote is a bizarre development that could be viewed as either an attempt to appear human (not easy for a Conservative MP) or to pre-empt any dirty digging on the part of their opponents. Personally, my opinion of Michael Gove has not changed one iota now that I know he snorted coke 20 years ago; and to be honest, if I was married to Sarah Vine I’d probably be permanently off my tits on mushrooms, seeing that as the only viable means of achieving domestic bliss.

Understandably, one response to this strange rash of substance abuse confessions from the kind of people you really don’t want to picture snorting or skinning-up has been accusations of hypocrisy. For decades, the Conservative Party has repeatedly opposed any grownup discussions on the antiquated drugs laws and has constantly played the finger-wagging nanny against anyone daring to recreationally indulge. Then again, this ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach that the current confessions appear to emphasise is perhaps especially grating because it sounds so parental, albeit emanating from the most uncaring and irresponsible parents imaginable. If we need our village elders today, Westminster is not the village where we’ll find them.

© The Editor