Monday, 20 April 2009

''…incubators of apathy or delirium"

I went down South this weekend, to see my friend Felix, who is exiled in Suburbia. The sun shone, I only bought two books (biographies of Melita Norwood and of Unity Mitford), ate and drank too much, and generally had a good time. I didn't get to the football because the tickets were lost, though I did notice on Sunday that Manchester United supporters were more common at railway stations the closer I got to London. Stoke City beat Blackburn Rovers, so ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha to Laura, in particular.

However. Felix is living temporarily in Chalfont St. Peter, part of the very rich suburban belt around London. I find it hard to express how creepy, how strange it is. The closest I can get is to say that it's exactly as J. G. Ballard feels. I thought this yesterday, and then heard on Radio 4 that he'd died. His work had tailed off in recent years, but if you absolutely must read about the dysfunctional, savage, irrationality lying close to the surface of the most ordinary communities, he's your man.

Chalfont, Gerrard's Cross and all the areas like them are prime Ballard territory. They genuinely are different to our communities. Most striking of all is a mixed register or individualism and conformity which made me assume that they're all terrified - of each other but also of being different. Every single house had electronically-operated cast-iron gates. Virtually every house had a massive SUV - usually BMW, Mercedes, Audi or Range-Rover, despite the absence of anywhere to go off-road. Every house was a 1930s or fake-tudor modern house (with added Palladian pillars of the wrong size). Each house has a name to distinguish it, yet no name does: Hillcrest, Meadow House, Journey's End - nothing related to the specific place on which the settlement is built. The effect is so disconcerting that it would make John Betjeman, poet of the suburbs, itch.

I guess the point of the architecture, the gates and the SUVs is to show off affluence. The vehicles and the gates also announce separation. Your children aren't important - mine are. The air you breathe isn't important, mine is. My effect on you is irrelevant, your impact on my life must be eradicated. What's important is that I sit 2 feet above you, that I am invincible. It's power but it's also fear. Fear of you, fear of mixing with you, but also fear of being left behind. If the neighbours have an X5, you have to have one - or an Audi, a Porsche Cayenne, anything except a small car. There's no collective responsibility, to each other or to the environment. They're driven by the need to be the same as, yet separate from, their neighbours, whom they don't know other than as figures glimpsed through several layers of laminated windscreen or iron bars.

The gates are part of this system. I walked (subversively) past gate after gate after gate, wondering what they're for. Crime is low. Gates won't help much. Do they keep people out or in? Are these things signifiers of a desire to one day move out to a proper country estate, complete with a mile-long drive? Then I realised: they keep ME out and THEM in. The existence of the gates draws a physical line between them and us. Simply by being there, I was cast as the barbarian at the gates, and began to feel like one - excluded, demeaned, reduced and resentful. There are no barbarians until the gates create them.

Yet, the effect on 'them' is equally profound. Erecting gates separates them from an imaginary horde. It makes the inhabitants an embattled redoubt of civilisation, rather than as part of a community or society. However - what is their civilisation? It's little more than a fascism of conformist acquisition, genteel but competitive consumerism lacking values, morals, beliefs other than the vaguest of sentiments. The gates mark their failure to join a society, not their superiority. Consider this: at the height of the Roman Republic, at the Victorian moral high-water mark of the British Empire, the aristocracy built public baths and libraries, founded charitable institutions and schools, donated land for parks and joined Improvement societies. Many of them were tedious meddlers, or arrogant, or frankly scared of 'the mob', but they all realised that with power comes responsibility. In decadent phases - the Roman Empire, pre-revolutionary France, Enclosure Britain, this social compact broke down. Rich men built estates with high walls, swimming pools for themselves, home cinemas for footballers: private luxuries and a life separated from common humanity. This is the stage we're in. These middle-class gates signify insecurity, hatred and fear without responsibility. They don't want to share their country with us. They resent paying taxes, sharing schools, hospitals and open spaces - and our rotten political system has rewarded them. We make it easy for them to withdraw into private estates, expensive holidays, fee-paying schools and hospitals, then wonder why they hate us so much, why the Daily Mail has so many readers. They take the rewards of our society: cheap goods because we (and our foreign comrades) are paid badly and enjoy few employment rights, a well-educated workforce and a stable government while doing their selfish best to undermine the system which provides these pleasures.

Even worse, all the houses with gates are separated from each other. Despite living in identical houses and driving identical cars, they don't have the benefit of being a community of like-minded people because they lock themselves away from each other. Once the button is pressed, the gates swing shut and they're alone, anxiously gazing through the bars like institutionalised chimpanzees, developing paranoid fantasies and planning the next purchase of a shiny Germany SUV like the family across the lane whose names they don't know.

We should pity them. They fear us, though they don't know us. They'll never meet us. They ferry their children from gated houses in SUVs to private schools, never hearing an accent or opinion they don't like or already know. Strange voices, unfamiliar cooking smells, different skin tones, unpleasant sights never greet them because little of the world can be glimpsed through the bars they've erected for themselves. They're lonely, but they don't know it. They're scared, and they do know it - yet there's nothing of which to be scared.

Ironically, however, these gates, those metal behemoths won't keep them safe from what they're really frightened of: poverty. Each gate demarcates a patch of land, a big car, three holidays a year, a plasma screen and a clutch of school fees which now can't be paid - a parcel of debt which is a direct consequence of their fear. All these things are acquired on credit, on the assumption that moderately sized houses near London will always increase in value, because other people have them. Not having them is a source of the deepest kind of shame, driving this odd class to take on larger and larger mortgages, to put it on the credit card, then acquire another mortgage, another credit card ad infinitum. Now the party's stopped. Cars and houses are repossessed, the holidays stop, the school fees go unpaid, they move to unfashionable areas of London, swap Waitrose for Tesco or even Asda, and they get resentful and angry, as though it's not their fault. Perhaps, who knows, they revolt as Ballard detailed in Kingdom Come and Millennium People.

Should we fear these people? Pity them? Hate them? Perhaps all three? They're lost and lonely, the victims of Thatcherism, yet they hate and fear us. They despise our values, whether these are socialism, environmentalism, Old Toryism, class solidarity or a working-class version of their own ideological position. To them, we are simply a horde outside the gates. Yet if they could only overcome their fear, they'd learn that it's the gates which make us enemies, not enemies requiring gates. Only separation makes divisions between us, and only fear makes them separate. Is it their fault? Partly. They're victims of hegemonic forces (capitalism, largely, with a toxic brew of class- and race-related ideologies), yet they're intelligent enough to know that they're wrong. These SUV drivers use hemp bags instead of plastic, perhaps even offset their flights - they know that they're wrong, but they're too scared and selfish to embrace the collective future, to admit their weaknesses, their faults.

Gates and heavy cars and private schools are ways to avoid the difficult realities of life. Underneath the bluster, the snobbishness, lies terror - of us, of a life which requires responsible behaviour, responsible choices. If you know any of these people, help them out. Smash down their gates, torch their cars, burn their mortgage agreements. (Only joking. Invite them to diverse parties in poor areas. Take them to the pub. Plant a tree).
This house is available now, for £1,795,000.


Demented Demon. said...

Very well written and thought out. Have you thought about writing all your thoughts into a Miltonist publical leaflet style then perhaps resisting arrest for mocking the Queen?

Anonymous said...

Maybe 'they' just like a bit of peace and quiet?! You can't generalise like this if you don't know them.

The Plashing Vole said...

Firstly, 'they' don't like peace and quiet. They drive massive cars, live near motorways and watch huge plasma TVs.

Secondly, speculative writing such as this allows for generalisation.

Thirdly, you're assuming that I don't know them. I do - through experience and academic research.

The Deer Friend said...

Dear Plashing Vole,

I enjoyed this, mainly for the egocentric reason that it is always nice to read a well-written text that expresses ones own opinions - somehow makes me feel better about myself. What glorious illusion!

But I must say that I worry when anyone speaks about anybody else as "they" as opposed to "us". What exactly does that mean? If the aim is a deeper understanding of people (which is my aim, anyway, but that's of course just my personal priority), these distinctions don't really help the case, do they? You see: Seing you outside their gate, the person looking out through French windows onto their garden, their trees, their cars and their walls probably thought something like: That gate is no good: THEY can look straight in!

Obviously, you need to get the anger and frustration out. And beneath all that sarcasm I imagine I can hear that you truly sort of feel for people who choose to live like that, am I wrong? I generally feel that I'd like to see much more of that: Attempts to understand - no, more than that: attempts at identifying with others who appear to be so very different, but really are not. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe people differ much more than I choose to believe.

The Plashing Vole said...

Hello. Thanks for your comment. I do pity these people, as much as I fear and despise them - their choices aren't made whimsically or out of the blue, but as the consequence of ideological and cultural consequences.

Part of my point is that 'we' and 'they' don't exist until the gates bring the division into being, from the point of view of the inhabitants and those, like me, staring through the bars. Once the gates are up, tension and opposition are inevitable. You may be right that bigger gates will be the consequence - though it may be the case that they want us to see what they've got without being able to touch: that untouched possession is less important than visible possession.