It is a rough and tough culture shock to travel back to England from Australia at this time of the year. There it is springtime and the swallows have just arrived from the north; here the nights are closing in and the leaves are falling from the trees.
But more striking than the contrast in weather is the difference in mood. Listening on the way back from Heathrow to Norfolk to the Today programme, with its succession of depressing, anxiety-inducing items, I began to wonder whether the greyness outside had not somehow eaten its way into the national soul.
Have we always been this worried and despairing about everything? Until one gets re-acclimatised to the British view of the world, the mixture of panic and pessimism that is all around can be quite disconcerting. Australia may be a lucky country but it has its share of problems. Global warming will affect it sooner and more seriously than it will most other countries. There is already a serious problem of drought – in the part of New South Wales where I was staying, a couple of millimetres of overnight rain made the news headlines. An election involving two deeply unexciting politicians is under way. The countries were beaten by the Poms in the Rugby World Cup – again. Yet, in the media and in life, there is none of the round-shouldered, dull-eyed defeatism that seems to have become part of British life.
A country that luxuriates so excessively in its own problems is in a curious psychological state. When, in its latest issue, The Ecologist devoted its lead feature to nominating the ugliest aspects of British society, it tapped into the national mood of maundering discontentment, receiving what was described as “an overwhelming response” from its readers. Explaining why the feature was important, the magazine’s editorial argued that ugliness pointed up “a modern culture in crisis”. And what were the symptoms of this crisis? Fake tans, junk mail, the noise of fireworks, packaged salad, dogs in towns – the predictable, Meldrewish list almost writes itself.
“When you see something ugly, you can look into it in depth and see what is wrong with our culture,” says the magazine’s editor Pat Thomas. Taken together, this list of irritations would reveal what is wrong with contemporary Britain, from selfishness to superficiality, from hypocrisy to lack of respect for nature.
In fact, this type of miserabilism is entirely negative and reveals nothing that is not already obvious. Lump together the trivial (women’s magazines, elastic bands dropped on the pavement by postmen) with the serious (supermarkets, new housing estates isolated from towns) and all that you will experience is a sense of stressed-out impotence.
The Ecologist’s claim that an awareness of ugliness will lead to an appreciation of goodness and loveliness, that irritation is a force for change, is nonsense. If anything, a general, all-encompassing gloom about the behaviour of other people and vulgar commercialism of the modern world is disempowering. It is a recipe for an embittered disengagement from specific problems and campaigns.
Despair has become the British disease and it is depressing to discover that a magazine supposed to be looking to the future and thinking radically has succumbed to it. The list of irritants may be marginally different from those which appear on Grumpy Old Men or in Daily Mail opinion pieces, but the point of view which it articulates is identical: we are all doomed and there is nothing we can do about it except complain to one another.
The race to save the planet
There are many ways for public figures who live energy-consuming lives but wish to seem environmentally conscious to make fools of themselves – think only of Richard Branson. Sadly, that great man Neil Young, senior citizen of the rock-folk scene, has joined the club. Neil likes big, fast cars; he is also fashionably worried about the state of the planet.
His solution to this conundrum is ingenious. For his latest tour, he has bought a massive Lincoln Continental Mark IV and is having it converted into a diesel-electrical hybrid. This must be environmentalism at its most bogus. Either you have power, speed and size or you help save the planet. You can’t do both.
* Like a scurfy old detective arriving at the scene of a crime in some dreary policier, John Stalker, the famous ex-police chief, has announced that there’s something not quite right about the evidence in the Madeleine McCann case. In a tawdry front-page feature for a Sunday tabloid, Stalker suggests that the group he calls “the Tapas Nine”, the friends who dined with the family that night, were concealing “some issue that members of the party are embarrassed about… I have a real suspicion that we are not being told the truth.”
There is something profoundly distasteful about a senior policeman earning money by touting his views on the crime of the moment for the press. Clearly, Stalker had nothing to add to this horrible story, and so opts to sniff over ancient gossip, under the spurious guise of an old copper’s instinct. Nothing can be gained from his intervention except more misery and media pressure. If anyone should be embarrassed, it is John Stalker.