There's a quote from J.G.Ballard I think about a lot.
‘The future is going to be boring. The suburbanisation of the planet will continue, and the suburbanisation of the soul will follow soon after.’
These last few weeks, away from my desk, writing little, eating brie and sloshing beer, have been a time where I’ve thought a lot about this notion. In a year when 13 million people in this country elected to take to the high streets on Boxing Day to take advantage of bargains, savings, discounts (I never understood how spending money allowed one to save money) despite a grueling recession that seems to show no signs of abating, I found myself increasingly questioning what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t simply shut up and join in all the fun. I was starting to feel very much an outsider in someone else’s vision of the future.
Before Christmas I’d made one trip to Brent Cross shopping centre to do my shopping, an experience not too bad if I limit it to once a year. I am not a good shopper. I don’t believe in shopping as an activity in itself, it gives me little pleasure even when I am buying things I want (i.e. books or possibly a pair of DMs) and the mass psychosis of such places seems too apparent. Walking around Brent Cross, itself now a shabby inferior to the citadels of Westfield that stand guard in East and West, I became blinded by choice; what is the difference between an address book bought from John Lewis or Paperchase? Are River Island jeans the best? I became crippled with indecision, high on a mixture of coffee aromas from Starbucks, body odour, conditioned air, scented soaps from The Body Shop, damp rain drying on jackets. Luckily the trip was short, I got what I needed done. I went home and complained.
Christmas rumbled into view. I went to Kent to visit my family, spent a dispiriting Christmas Eve lunch in some Harvester-facsimile by the Thanet Way where I ate a microwaved vegetable lasagne and gulped down a pint of lager to inaugurate the holiday drinking spree. It was drizzly wet, the previous night’s storms having left many parts of the county under floodwater, and the grey concrete car park next to the screaming traffic would have depressed even Ballard. Kent is a county I associate with country pubs, sighing waves, walks along seafronts, muddy trudges through woodland, the cry of curlews, sand martins at Reculver, marsh harriers at Stodmarsh, boozy nights in The Old Neptune. I was coming face to face with a reality I found hard to accept. With my near decade long residency in London, I realised I’d over-romanticised the places outside the city, especially the place I grew up in, as a place of semi-rural retreat. I opened my eyes on a grey December day and saw the vision of progress for so many people. New housing developments with faux-rustic names, chain eateries next to major traffic thoroughfares, gastropubs, imitations of American malls. Suburbanisation of the soul indeed. It would be so easy to lie and say I was superior and above all this.
I forced myself to remember some uncomfortable truths. Aged 16 or so, as a schoolboy in Canterbury, me and my friends heralded the arrival of sandwich chain Subway with open arms. This was the wider world coming to Kent! We paid our money and shoved meatball subs slathered in honey mustard into our mouths. Sure, we took regular visits to London but the real attraction, really, was the shopping. When Bluewater had opened, in a disused quarry near Greenhithe, we were happy. I remembered that everything I now hoped would still be there were the very things I had been desperate to escape from aged 18 or so. I'd done nothing to help preserve a world I hoped would still be there.
Later that afternoon I went to see my father in Herne Bay. He lives two doors from the house recently adorned with a blue plaque commemorating Marcel Duchamp’s brief stay in the town in 1913. We took the dogs down to Herne Bay seafront on this bleak winter day, two Jack Russells, throwing a chewed and saliva-sodden tennis ball for them to run after and retrieve. Few others were about, the other dog walkers stern and silent. The world was wet and quiet. A v-shaped formation of cormorants flew overhead and black-headed gulls bobbed on the waves. As we walked we saw storm clouds gather out to sea moving over the Thames Estuary from Essex toward us. I took a photo quickly and sent it to my girlfriend. ‘Be careful,’ she texted back. The news lately had been consumed with rain, storms and flooding. The black clouds moved toward us and we changed our course back toward the slopes to coffee and warmth.
As the freezing rain hit my face I smiled and thought of Duchamp’s famous statement to his friend Max Bergmann. ‘I am not dead, I am in Herne Bay.’ We pulled our hoods up, called the dogs, and headed home through the storm.
Christmas Day I took a long circuit around Whitstable, initially in bright sun and then hit with freezing sleet. The town was quiet and the walk helped clear the previous night’s beer I’d drunk with by brother in Faversham, in an old Shepherd Neame pub in the old market square. Things felt better. This blandness of the mind was, surely, a choice we make.
Christmas dinner passed as usual. The evening rolled around and I had the TV on. In among the shit and the gameshows, something in the schedules shone out. Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ followed by a documentary about that story’s writer, MR James. Clips from the wonderful BBC adaptations from the 1960s and 70s,
Whistle and I’ll Come to You, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts.
Lonely maladroit men adrift on bleak East Anglian coastlines, beset by either supernatural forces or their own crumbling mental states. Hints at a darkness and sadness in the English landscape, hidden histories that could be unearthed but only at a terrible price. The knowledge that revelations happen at borderlands; between land and sea, forest and field, marsh and town. For such a morbid subject, it cheered me up no end. I made a note to rewatch all these ghostly stories, to start exploring the stranger byways of British popular culture. The Gatiss adaptation was a welcome change to the usual crap – and what became abundantly clear was how impoverished our imaginations are becoming. Once, esoteric ideas were happily broadcast at primetime on the BBC when millions of viewers, untroubled by the choice a digibox and TV on demand brings, would watch. Now it seemed anomalous for this to happen on a mainstream channel.
Boxing Day, the news happily reported the 13 million shoppers and someone spliced a picture of Westfield Stratford’s shoppers with an image from Dante’s various circles of hell with bitter glee. I wondered how many of these shoppers got genuine pleasure, were happy, doing this or if they simply didn’t know what else to do. That day myself, I walked out along Faversham Creek with my mother heading toward the Oare Marshes, taking photos on my smartphone of locations used in the Channel 4 drama Southcliffe, a show that revelled in the bleak Kentish marshes and hinted that something was seriously wrong in small-town England. The sun shone. I spotted turnstones and listened to the cry of a curlew.
The afternoon was spent walking round my home town of Whitstable, uncomfortably busy for my liking. Always a disappointment when people have the same ideas as me. I couldn't help but think, there are too many people in the world. A dangerous misanthropic route to go down. But then the world surprised me. The Dead Horse Morris group, charcoal faced and colander hatted, were doing their annual Boxing Day Mince Pie tour around the town, performing folk dances, singing bawdy songs, flinging brussells sprouts through the air, using logs of wood in suggestive ways. I stood in the crowd and took photos, filmed a bit of their dance, and hoped this tradition would continue.
That evening I spent boozing in The Old Neptune, Ron Chadwick portraits of Bowie and Amy Winehouse up on the wall, a small plaque on the wall commemorating Peter O’Toole’s appearance here in the film Venus.
I drank and I realised that this death of imagination, the poverty of inspiration, would only be something I could opt out of for a limited period. What would I do when all options of escape had been concreted over, turned into new developments, gastro’d, hemmed in, managed? I have a vision of the future that I don’t want – an endless expanse of flats and cafes, interspersed with JD Wetherspoons and city-like shopping centres with only tarmac and concrete to connect them all. What do we do when there is nowhere left to run to? When even the comforting past becomes redeveloped?
These were my Christmas thoughts as I headed back to London.