Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Why horrid is the new real... allegedly.

This is a blog post about horrible. If you want to read something nice, try somewhere else today.

I started thinking about horrible as a thing, as a cultural concept, a few weeks ago. I was in a cafe working on my laptop. It was an irredeemably hipster cafe, manned by two young chaps sporting the usual hipster uniform of tight jeans, lumber shirt, beard and beanie. In case you think this is just going to be me slagging off hipsters, I should point out they both seemed lovely: friendly, intelligent, and really cared that you got a nice cup of tea. They just had horrible clothes. I don't think it's news to anyone that hipster fashion is horrible.

Some people think fashion is meaningless, that it doesn't say anything, but that's mainly because it's mostly associated with women, and thus can't be a proper sort of culture. I think fashion says a lot about the time it lives in. Victorian fashion says 'Look at my prosperity - I have money to spend on all this stuff'; 1920s fashion says 'I'm liberated and in a new century'; 1960s fashion says 'Welcome to the space age, baby – but don't forget men are still men, and women are still dolls'. Modern hipster fashion, to me, seems to say 'I can't afford to pay the heating bill, and don't expect anyone else to.'

After a while, one of the hipster guy's girlfriends came in. She was dressed more or less pretty much the same as he was, except for the beard. She sat down and read a book, quietly, for a while, and I couldn't help thinking how subdued they all seemed, for a bunch of people who must all be about, I dunno, twenty-three. The only loud person was a girl who came in and talked loudly for about ten minutes, passionately, about coffee. Is it normal to be passionate about coffee when you're twenty-three? The hipster guy's girlfriend didn't talk passionately about anything. She was beautiful but you had to look really hard at her to see it: like she was a bit embarrassed that anyone might notice. I wanted her not to be: I wanted her to feel proud of herself, and of her chap, since he actually seemed like a really nice guy. I wished they were somewhere better, somewhere warmer perhaps, dressed in clothes that expressed some sort of hope, and maybe laughed a bit more loudly. I wished they had expressed some dissatisfaction more noisily than through their horrible, joyless clothes.

Of course, fashion is not the only thing doing horrible right now. There is also horrible design to go with the horrible fashion. Weirdly, some of the horrible design isn't necessarily cheap. I know of several cafés that have had the perfectly pleasant décor ripped out, at considerable cost, to make it look more derelict. One café I frequent got rid of the perfectly functional white china mugs to replace them with lidless, handled jamjars. They also attempted to disguise the fact that they traded from a lovely listed Georgian house by making it look more like a cowshed. It must have cost a fortune.

On a larger scale, horrible proliferates across our cityscapes. Cheap, badly made buildings are flung up with a bravado that suggests 'if you don't like it, you're yesterday's news, Granddad'. London in particular is being overwhelmed by the massive, hideous structures spreading out from the City of London.

Horrible fashion, horrible design, are only part of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. There's plenty of horrible coming down from on high. The chancellor, George Osborne, is like a national figurehead of horrible. Unpleasant in manner and demeanour, disliked even by most of his own side, he is wheeled out to let the nation know that things are only going to get worse. Politically, this is very odd: the usual trick of politicians is to tell people how great everything will be, while surreptitiously clouting them. But it's like Osborne is considered more real, more honest, because he's well, horrid.

In economics, and in business, being horrible is considered proof of your ability to handle a situation. There is a TV programme called The Apprentice, in which a bunch of horrible people complete to be more horrible than each other, to win the approval of the entirely horrible Alan Sugar. This, apparently, is 'real' business. Scheduled at the same time as The Apprentice, is a show about an actual business, the elderly and eccentric Liberty of London. You get to see the Liberty staff spending a lot of time and effort being nice to their customers, and the management team deploying diplomacy skills fit to end a small war, in order to work with and around some of the eccentric people involved. But it isn't watched half as much as The Apprentice: it's just not as horrible.

Horrible infects fiction too. Everyone raves about Sherlock, in which a horrible, dysfunctional genius solves crimes. Ok, Sherlock is a bit horrible in the books. But he doesn't incidentally abuse Watson, his sidekick. We've made him more horrible, because that's more edgy, and somehow, more real. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock, is lauded for portraying him like this, as if he is very brave. Cumberbatch also recently played Alan Turing, who he played as horrible and mean. Turing was a lot of things, but I have not seen any actual evidence he was unpleasant. Why? Why does everything have to be?

Ah, I hear you cry, because capitalism. Capitalism is horrid, you see. Now, I would like to examine this a bit. Of course there are aspects of capitalism that are unpleasant. But the fundamental trick of capitalism is to produce things that make people's lives more pleasant. Hungry? Buy bread. Bored of bread? Try cake. Cold? Have a coat, have a duvet, have a central heating system. You move upwards with more and more people getting these things, and everyone profits all the way. But modern economics seems to have gone off this idea, and decided that people who have heating can make do with duvets, and people who have cake can make do with bread. I would like to explain the rationale behind this, but I'm sorry, I'm unable.

This autumn, I had quite a large refund from an overcharged utility bill, and thought – being usually on a tight budget - I would treat myself a bit. Now, in a properly functioning capitalist economy there should have been a queue of people wanting to relieve me of my cash. Instead I found it surprisingly hard to spend a couple of hundred quid because so much of the stuff that was on offer was simply horrible. Badly designed, ill-made, and shoddy.

I also wanted, on my day off, to go to the cinema, but I didn't, because there were only films about superheroes and stuff aimed at teenage boys, at the main cinema. At the art cinema they had 'gritty' on offer, instead, which is a way of saying 'depressing'. I would have seen a comedy, if it'd actually been funny, or a romance, or an adventure, or even a war film if it hadn't been relentlessly depressing. But comedy is mostly aimed at mocking people these days, and romance is deemed too embarrassing for men to witness, so it isn't really made. Films about winning wars are a bit awkward, since these days we only lose them. So I went home with my tenner in my pocket. Capitalism #fail.

During this same period, I recieved several letters from various companies, all asking me to prove that I didn't owe them money, which I didn't. It took me several weeks to respond, and the letters kept coming. They all seemed quite resentful of the thought that I might have some money that they couldn't simply remove from me at will. It's like the whole idea that I earnt some money and then freely decided how to dispose of it, and indeed that I might have any money at all, that was mine and not theirs, made them actually quite angry.

These things are not about capitalism. Capitalism is about supply and demand. Failing to provide things for which there is a demand, and forcing people to consume that which has been supplied, whether they want it or not, isn't capitalism. It's a feature of failing centrally-run economies like those of the latter-day Soviet Union.

I'm not denying that Capitalism can be horrid. It's just that it isn't intrinsically. The Victorians used it to build many beautiful structures and buildings. But try suggesting that to any modern architect and they'll laugh (or cry). Because that isn't where we're at right now. What we do now, is horrid.

I'm not quite sure when we decided that horrible was a new cultural good, and somehow more 'real' and authentic than good things. Ask yourself, are the bad things that happened in your life more real than the good ones? Did your horrid boyfriend, nasty flatmate, tasteless dinner or vile job have a tang of authenticity that the better ones didn't? No? Really, funny that.

It's hard to recognise a cultural phenomenon when you're inside it, a bit like sitting in a giant balloon and not realising there's an outside. But if you think a few things are quite horrible right now, you're not mad – they are – and trust me, in a few years this 'authenticity of horrid' will look as fake, stinky, and out-of-date as a polyester shirt. Because horrible is just a fashion, a cultural fad, and truly – a collective insanity. Being horrible will not make your business succesful, having horrid tattoos will not make you sexy, and horrid plates will not make the food taste better in your restaurant. Telling a horrid story will not make it more true. Also, the opposite of horrible is not nice, which is a little bit weedy and fake. The opposite of horrible is wonderful.

I don't know how to resist the overwhelming tide of horrid except by refusing to be. How you do that is up to you, I believe. I don't really know what we should do. I just think that sometimes it helps to be able to point at something, and call it by its right name.


PS I wrote this yesterday before the Paris shooting. I feel like ISIS/ISIL or whatever you want to call them are just another manifestion of the worship of horrible. They think they are more islamic because they are more horrible.

Unfortunately for some people horrible is just a matter of slugging through a bunch of depressing crapness. For other people it is a matter of life and death.

This is equally true of sick people in damp council flats who have had their benefits cut, as it is of cartoonists gunned down for taking the piss. 


  1. Excellent post. I watched a few episodes of the Cumberbatch Sherlock and then decided it just wasn't how I wanted to think of Sherlock. Too smarmy, too eccentric simply for the purpose of being eccentric, and too impossibly aware. Just like the impossible prescient horrible villains that abound in books and movies.
    Capitalism has been perverted in the name of 'Free Enterprise', the war cry of those that want no government regulations, no protections for the consumers, because that might slow down their path towards grabbing all the few remaining dollars the 99% of us have. And yes, it does seem to make them very angry that we have managed to hold on to a few dollars. We were supposed to have spent them, and then run up credit card or home equity debt, buying even more useless stuff.
    I think what we should do is: refuse to buy more than we need. Relearn the techniques of repairing or re-using things. Start or keep a garden. And knit or crochet or draw or write or learn woodwork.... anything to keep the mind engaged in creating something good instead of horrible. [That said, I have seen some really horrible knit things, using gaudy artificial 'yarns', but the person who made them thought them very artsy and wonderful, so as long as I can still find my plain wool yarn I'll not mind.]

  2. Great blog post! Looking through the websites of fashion stores like asos etc I see that the predominant trend is to wear 'ugly' clothes to show, as you argue, that you can afford to. The ultimate example is the deliberately ugly plastic sandals with socks that skinny models wear to look 'ironic'. I'm all for wearing comfortable shoes, but you know this is just ephemeral, almost a celebration of the ironic so that next season, they can wear high heels again to be 'new'.

    I was given the link by my friend J-P Stacey, who noted how what you've written about the fashion for the horrible chimes with my recent blog post on the adoration of brutalism -

  3. Hi there. While rooting around twitter for tobacco factory (I run the theatre) I discovered that you blocked me. I have no idea why, and am not sure I've ever been blocked before, but in a way I'm glad because it led me to your blog, which is really, really excellent. I'm sorry for whatever I did that caused offence but thank you for an excellent hour reading some of your past thoughts.

    1. Hi, this has posted anonymously so I've no idea who you are. I presume you mean blocked on twitter? I sometimes block people if someone else is endlessly reteeting them into my tl, I doubt if there's been any offence caused at all. Did I give one of your shows a shit review at some point? Did someone complain? I honestly have no idea why I might have blocked you. But if I know who you are I can unblock you.

    2. I'm Ali Robertson, director of Tobacco Factory Theatres. I very much doubt ppl endlessly rt me as I rarely tweet anything interesting. (Though there was a time when this thing happened to me...) And I'm not aware of any shit reviews, and tbh that would be water off a duck's back. I'm not remotely complaining about being blocked - it was a clumsy intro to saying how really excellent your blog is.