This week I did an edit on the first third of The Book. Terrifyingly, I read it and thought that it wasn’t that bad. This is a somewhat narcissistic opening, I know; the main reason I’m putting this here, now, is so that I will have told The General Public – or at least, the four of them that read this website – that it has reached the one-third done stage, and that will force me to finish the damn thing rather than giving it up in a quivering fit of raw fear.
OK, now I’m wondering if that last sentence makes sense to anyone reading. The fear isn’t logical, I know. Still it’s not the first time that Making Something That Actually Looks Like It Might Be Okay has just hit me with this dread sense of responsibility. The problem with trying to make something worthwhile is that, until it actually becomes worthwhile, all you’ve really got is a gaping opportunity to make an arse of it and piss all over it and let yourself down. When I speak to other “creative” types (god, I hate that word) they don’t seem to suffer from this, at least not outwardly. They talk about ideas as opportunities, they see projects as exciting avenues to do things; it seems to me that they see exciting possibilities, not windows of great potential fuckups and desperate, sweaty, self-inflicted regrets. Or maybe they just don’t want to bore other people complaining about it.
All this leads me to suspect that temperamentally, I’m not actually that well-suited to the creative process. With hindsight, this makes my choice of profession / pastimes look like a mistake. I’d have been a bloody good accountant, I reckon.
I’m writing this on a train, which has just been colonised six screaming children and a young Glaswegian couple who’ve decided that giving them enormous quantities of chocolate and Pepsi is a brilliant way to settle them in for a (presumably) eight-hour train journey, and an iPod dock and speakers are a perfectly reasonable thing to give your children on a train. There’s no reason to get particularly annoyed about this, and even though being judgemental is fun there are few things in life more annoying than people who get priggish about other people’s parenting. Besides the obvious answer is to switch carriages and forget it.
So I just have to figure out a way of moving without making it obvious I’m moving away from this gaggle of kids. I could pretend to be getting off at the next station but, if I’m spotted, it’ll become obvious that I moved and employed subterfuge to do it. It’s also possible that people don’t notice and judge me anywhere near as much as I assume they do, but I’ve never been prepared to take a chance on this and I don’t want to start now.
I’ve been doing plenty of travelling, given the comparative rarity of being in Britain and it not raining. Not so long ago I saw the Rhyl Flats wind farm, one of the most paralysingly beautiful sights I’ve seen for some time; blades turning silently out to sea, parallax shuffling the grey silhouettes of the windmills past each other, the slow noiseless motion of the blades contrasting with the stolid stillness of the towers. It was quite lovely.
Not everyone would agree, which is fine: they might prefer the slow sweep of the uninterrupted horizon, and that’s fine too. What does bug me is people who don’t like the look of wind farms, and therefore argue that they don’t work either. We know that the spurious crap about their inefficiency is post-rationalised because, while there are plenty of people who accept wind farms as an ugly but unfortunate necessity, nobody ever says that wind farms are a conspiracy by the green lobby and don’t really generate electricity and then follows it up with “it’s a shame, because they look quite nice.”
This annoys me not just because of its colossal self-serving stupidity, but because it’s just about the least grown-up form of discourse imaginable and grows out of something more insidious. Almost everything in the world has mixed benefits, but it’s increasingly taboo to praise any aspect of something that’s been branded as bad; once something’s tarnished it’s de facto a waste of time. There’s loads of examples of this but here’s an obvious one: some readers might remember a few years ago, when Bryan Ferry got into all sorts of trouble for “praising the Nazis.” What he actually said was that the Nazis knew how to present themselves, that Albert Speer’s architecture and Leni Riefenstahl’s films were bravura exercises in just that. Anyone who understands history would know that there was nothing particularly controversial about any of this, that self-presentation was a key part of fascism’s appeal and a vital Nazi tool, that they didn’t actually rise to power in Germany by saying “vote for us, heh-heh, we’re evil.” However, Ferry broke the cardinal rule that you aren’t supposed to publicly acknowledge that the Nazis were good at anything, as if they took over Central Europe while acting like Basil Fawlty.
On that note: this week it’s emerged that Jeremy Clarkson Is A Racist. You can almost taste the polite liberal delight at this, because Clarkson is a tedious reactionary boor who spouts ill-informed stupid opinions and calls them witty. In other words, he should be racist. And so reciting the eeny-meeny rhyme while ostentatiously censoring the word “nigger” for laughs just becomes further proof of his indubitable racism – rather than just a boring guffbag making a shit attempt at transgressive humour that wasn’t even broadcast. It’s even been conflated with the Ron Atkinson furore from years back, even though suggesting an eqivalence between them is borderline delusional. A few days later Steve Davis was branded sexist for offering a few views on why women aren’t very good at snooker, which newspapers reported as him saying they didn’t have “the single-minded determination” when what he actually said was that men are more likely to be sufficiently geeky, obsessive and inadequate to spend eight hours a day practicing the same four snooker shots over and over again. You can argue the accuracy of this point but it’s certainly not ludicrous, and it’s not in the same league as – say – “women are genetically and physiologically incapable of understanding the offside rule.”
(If the above are both oversimplifications by liberal types, it’s by no means a thing that only Guardian-readers do. It’s commonplace for climate change sceptics to talk about “the left” pushing climate change down everyone’s throats, even though there’s nothing inherently left-wing about environmental politics and many environmental campaigners are firm free-market advocates.)
The point here is that the defences given by Clarkson’s and Davis’ mates give the game away. James May assured everyone that Jeremy Clarkson is “not a racist,” just as Victoria Coren made it clear that Steve Davis is “not a sexist.” This notion of “A Racist” or “A Sexist” is frighteningly commonplace, even though it’s obviously daft. It’s true that there are people out there who consistently hold repugnant views, but the overwhelming majority of hurtful remarks are made by people who are essentially decent but were ill-informed, unaware, didn’t think something through or were just being lazy-minded. It’s possible to say something racist without actually being “A Racist,” but increasingly we’re given a binary world where you’re one or the other. And the way of judging if someone’s A Racist or not is whether they’ve said something on a preapproved hate-list: in Clarkson’s case it was the word nigger, in the case of Steve Davis it was the suggestion that men might just have more natural aptitude for something than women.
Fair’s fair, both those things are pretty good indicators 98% of the time. The problem’s that racism, sexism, homophobia and Insert Prejudice Here are often subtle and nuanced things, so it doesn’t help if they’re discussed in a way that takes all the nuance out.
Top Gear isn’t directly racist: it just makes acceptable a form of behaviour that makes racism more likely to happen. Its humour is based on laughing at anything different, ridiculing anything that exists outside a certain chauvinistic white male perspective, by generally normalising a pig-ignorant brand of obnoxiousness. It does all this even though, in all the years it’s been on, there’s only been one commonly-cited racial generalisation (that one about Mexicans being lazy). But if the only criteria for judging prejudice is “did they say the N-Word or not,” then why bother?
So there’s the downside to political correctness: it replaces debate with taboo. In one sense, this isn’t so bad: it means we avoid having the same reductive debates over and over again. On the other, it does mean that dickheads can say all sorts of objectionable shit so long as they’re slightly clever about it.
Actually, given that I once explained at length to a friend that money you spent on a credit card wasn’t real money, maybe I wouldn’t be such a good accountant after all. My point was that you just had to pay off the minimum due and they’d keep increasing your credit limit, so you didn’t really have to pay anything back ever. This was a colossally stupid and not entirely serious point but in fairness, this was before the recession so it was pretty much how the economy worked.