I was at the physio for my aching back and numb neck the other (they mostly ignore the numb neck though that was why I came in the first place) and I was subjected to presssure to say that things were getting better. This is less tight than last time, said Ben, the physio. I did not point out that last time another physio had seen me (Flo) and this was the first time Ben had set eyes on me or my back. We can see improvements he said. Can we? I thought. I suppose over a three or four session block (this is the NHS) they are asked to create what people nowadays like to call a narrative with a happy ending. If my back has a narrative I’d opt more for the Waiting for Godot option.
This reminds me of one time when I was in Paris and a man heard me speaking English and asked me to come to a restaurant where they were shooting a Gordon Ramsay programme for British TV. I went. Ramsay was standing gracelessly outside the place, scowling at everyone. We were served a rotten meal, offered by the waiter a choice of red wine or white wine (talk of dumbing down) and then I was even presented with a bill (I had at least expected it to be a free meal). I asked the waiter what the programme was called and was informed: Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Oh cheers, you might have told me. As I was leaving I could see cameras set up for interviews with diners. I asked one of the production team if they wanted me to give my opinion about what I thought of the meal. No thanks, they said. What I had just eaten was the improved menu cooked up by Gordon Ramsay. This restaurant had already been turned around. My opinion, if it were negative, would not have fit into their narrative. The telly format is that the expert in cooking, personal makeover, house makeover, life makeover, whatever, operates an improvement. The implication is that our expertise is unimpeachable. We’re still asked to believe that the bankers know what they’re doing. Why this insistance on the inevitable upbeat outcome? I too am a believer in incremental effort as the best way forward to improvement, but only a fool or a propagandist would believe the narratives we’re fed. It is an example of form dictating content. We jam anything we do into the same brightly coloured box. And Ben, my neck is still numb!
Over the last thirty or forty years the definition of what it means to be a man or a woman has mushroomed. Now, as a man, you can wear a dress, wear make-up, fancy men, fancy women and men, dislike sport, do no DIY, enjoy fashion, hug and kiss other men without it meaning you’re gay, be touchy-feely, like ballet. Nobody bats an eyelid at any of this stuff. As a culture we have toiled tirelessly to create a gender category that can embrace all-comers. That has been a great achievement and one we are still working on, denouncing gender stereo-typing wherever we see it: in sport, in advertizing, in all cultural products. But now comes the sudden rush of gender reassignment. This may be a case of what what Proust calls a change of cultural acoustic that I for one am unable to follow. If the span of male attributes is now as large as I have intimated, what is it that makes someone want to say they need their gender to be reassigned? What is the elusive woman trait that this person has isolated within themselves? Might that trait not just be another way of being the complex 21st Century man that we have come to know and celebrate? I myself am an unable to put up a shelf; when the mandatory car chase comes on telly I go and make a cup of tea; action films bore me; I don’t drive; I am an ardent multi-tasker, though I do draw the line at Sex and the City. Tell me, will I too need to be reassigned?
I was complaining about neighbours. I was saying I just don’t understand that when they get home late and all the building is quiet they think it is all right to be talking loudly and putting loud music on. And then I checked with my younger self. Did I ever do that? In Paris where I lived when I was younger did I never have parties in buildings that were quiet? I suppose I did. In fact, I absolutely did. And did it ever worry me? Did I think about it? No, because I was too busy worrying about my party. If people would come. If the right people would come. My preoccupations were busy elsewhere.
It is a fault of the imagination and an inbility to see that time has passed, that you have changed. When I was about twelve I used to steal chocolate bars from the Spar. That doesn’t sound like me either. And let’s not think about how I used to behave with members of the opposite sex. We change. Probably even things I did last year might now seem incomprehensible to me. Even last week. And our imagination refuses to take an interest in other people’s preoccupations sometimes. The neighbours. The members of the opposite sex. We are the ghosts of the person we once were. What is this new body we now walk round in? We are like the replicant in the sci-fi film that takes the place of our former selves.
Legislated nostalgia might be defined as a phenomenon that forces people to have nostalgic feelings about things that they have not experienced. We see it around us a lot at the moment. Mugs and t-shirts with Keep Calm and Carry On splattered all over them. Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food chain of shops and book. Both of these cultural omnipresences create collective nostalgia for the so-called blitz spirit, a spirit that few of us now have experienced and the fictional world of Orwell’s 1984, a world no-one has experienced, and many people are happy to partake of these worlds as they feel they tell us something true or at least cosy about Britishness. As Owen Hatherley notes in his book The Ministry of Nostalgia, this may hold within it sinister political undertones. Equally, however, it tells us something about the nature of our sense of nostalgia. The other day I had fish and chips and mushy peas at home. The drink I have to have with fish and chips and mushy peas is tea. This is nostalgia for what I used to have as a child, and this is a truly personal nostalgia. But so many other nostalgias are collective cultural phenomena. I am a great one for insisting on using the words of my youth, even though they may be unfashionable nowadays. I go to the pictures, at a a pinch the cinema, but never the movies. Pictures is my childhood; cinema is my young manhood. Movies, though, may partake of a greater collective nostalgia than either of these, perhaps a legislated nostalgia, though personal nostalgia trumps the collective for me. I suppose we all live in our own worlds, with our own sets of saturated meanings immanent in the words that mean things to us. Sometimes for political reasons you have to force a shift in yourself, though sometimes your self cannot accept a shift too far away from your own past. My mum used to call black people darkies, thinking it was more resepctful. I remember Mohammed Ali on Parkinson refuting the word black and insisting on the word brown. I’m not clear anymore on whether the word black is acceptable or not in whatever circles, whatever cultures, classes or countries you mix. In a sense, when people get old, what happens is that they are unable or unwilling to leave the nostagic words of their youth and this insistance in clinging to the words of their youth, also the behaviours of their youth, has become toxic.