An old story from The Big Issue January 9th 1995, set in Whitstable
The Government is acting like Britain is a culture under siege, clamping down on anything vaguely eccentric or alternative. CJ Stone looks at how protecting the myth of old England with its middle class values is likely to breed a country at war with itself.
If the town is like a mind, and the roads are like the to-ing and fro-ing of everyday consciousness, then the back-alleys must be the unconscious. Our town has a rich and varied unconscious life in that case. It is riddled with back alleys. It’s here that the teenagers go to snog, out of sight of their parents. It’s here that cats prowl and foxes lurk in the dead of night. Where the rotting detritus of the everyday world is scattered in little piles. Where thieves wander to eye up the properties that back onto them. So familiar are we with the byways of the unconscious in this town that we even give them names. Squeeze Gut Alley, and Beach Alley. And Stream Walk, the Grand-Mother of them all, almost a thoroughfare.
Joseph and I are walking down there one day, on the way to the Station. He’s 14 years old. My son. The beauty of wandering around the town with a 14 year old is that he knows all the footpaths, all the out-of-the way places, and the quickest and most interesting route from here to there in every case.
Stream Walk meanders down from the top of the town to the sea front. In some places, naturally enough, it follows the line of a little stream, now coursing through a concrete gutter and covered with a filthy green scum floating with bottles and cans and discarded copies of Hello! Magazine. Perhaps it is symbolic of the state of consciousness in our time. Or perhaps I’m just a pretentious old git.
“Why is lightning zigzagged?,” Joe asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply; probably a little peevishly as it’s yet another question I don’t know the answer to.
“It’s negative ions in the air,” he says.
I don’t even know what negative ions are, let alone why they cause lightning to zigzag. “If you knew, why did you ask me?” I say.
“I just wanted to see if you knew or not.”
Anyway it was some such conversation. When he’s not talking about lightning or negative ions or asking questions of such equally momentous imponderability, he’s telling me the blow-by-blow plot of some movie – literally blow-by-blow – or rehearsing some advertising slogan which irritated me the first time I heard it, let alone the 200th. Actually we get on surprisingly well. He takes my general impatience as some kind of a joke and knows perfectly well how best to wind me up. The mere mention of “widget” is usually enough.
So we’re trundling down Stream Walk, happily immersed in our own little world, when we see somebody approaching from the other end. It’s a bloke, with slicked-back, greased hair and tinted spectacles. He’s wearing a black tee-shirt under a leather jacket, and black jeans held up by an alarmingly wide belt with a monstrous buckle. I wouldn’t have paid any attention to him if it wasn’t for the old lady watching him go by from the road. She has grey, permed hair and a smart coat, and we’re close enough to the two of them to see that she tuts as he passes, and rolls her eyes. The look on her face is the picture of disapproval. You can see it in the pursed lips, in the flared nostrils, in the way she follows him with her eyes: “I just can’t understand the younger generation,” she seems to be saying. “What does he think he looks like?”
The thing is, this bloke must be in his 40s at least.
Well the boy and I are still walking. I’m probably the same age as the bloke, but dressed as a crumpled Somerset Maugham in jacket, baggy trousers, collarless shirt. The whole style is my mad idea of the dignified older man. More deranged than dignified I expect. And my son is dressed casually but comfortably in a sweat shirt and light jeans. That’s the way he likes to dress. He’s also very fussy, unlike me, and can’t abide stains. It has something to do with his age I guess. Luckily he knows how to use the washing machine or his clothes would end up looking like mine.
We’d forgotten the old woman by now. Still engrossed in some complex manoeuvrings around subjects I don’t fully understand. Still chattering, gaily or peevishly depending upon our age. But she hasn’t moved. She’s standing there, primly starched, with her arms folded, watching us as we pass. I glance towards her and – you know what? – she tuts at us too, and rolls her eyes, and gazes at us as we walk by with that same, tight-lipped look of disapproval on her face. I laugh. At least it gets my mind off negative ions. I look towards Joe and he’s noticed it too. We laugh together.
The whole episode reminds me of the sense of disapproval I have lived with all my life. I’ve always had the feeling that people consider me somehow disreputable and dangerous. It bothered me. Until I realised that it’s probably because I am disreputable and dangerous.
But something else occurs to me about that old woman too, that she lives her whole life in a state of disapproval, with that “tut” in her head, unable to see beyond the particularities of style or appearance, unable to accept people for what they are. And I expect she disapproves of most things. The traffic. The way the old shops are closing down. The lack of facilities in the town for people of her generation. Dogs that foul the pavement. The breakdown in communication between the generations. The way the young people no longer seem to respect her. Hippies and Punks and people with dreadlocks, as well as ageing Teddy Boys and crumpled Somerset Maughams and – even – smart young lads in casual clothes. I don’t know. I get this feeling of a generalised disapproval, a state-of-mind rather than just a thought. But it’s not my fault the world is like it is. It’s not Joe’s, or the guy in tinted glasses. We’re another bunch or ne’er-do-wells on this confused planet, not the cause, the victims like her.
And it also occurs to me just how much the world has changed since her day. It’s not just the dress sense, it’s the attitude. Middle-aged Rockers are expressing something profound about their sense of identity. The Myth of Queen and Country isn’t half as potent as the myth of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis is King after all. Their loyalties are split in other words. Later generations went further down this road. Younger rebels have no split loyalties at all. They simply don’t believe in the Establishment any longer. They are looking for something new. And the old lady is right in thinking that she doesn’t understand the younger generation. And neither, of course does Michael Howard.
And it is this exact attitude that lies behind the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) isn’t it? Disapproval. The CJA has nothing to do with protecting the community from crime. It has everything to do with attempting to hold onto a myth, the bourgeois dream of respectability and smartness and generalised home-ownership. It is a bulwark against the rising tide of change, against the future and it’s uncertainties. Disapproval as a mental state is merely endearing in the elderly. As legislation it is far more sinister.
What’s that about negative ions again? The beauty if lightning is that it clears the air.