Rather than getting angry and radical, we’ve become more culturally conservativeby Hephzibah Anderson / July 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
It’s Saturday night and there you both are, lounging on the sofa in your his-and-hers slankets, freshly microwaved fish pies balanced on your laps, and the telly muffling, if not quite drowning out, the sound of your neighbours rowing. Again. Because it’s 2008 and along with eating out, divorce is now just another item on a long list of indulgences that the average Briton can no longer afford. But never mind, the two of you are “dining in”, and for a tenner to boot.
Like other money-saving experiences begot by the credit crunch—glamping, for instance—the reality of “dining-in”, Marks & Spencer’s response to straitened times, lags behind its marketing. Just as queuing for a tepid campsite shower is never going to approximate to a spa experience, so a ready meal remains a ready meal—alright, a sequence of ready meals in the case of those multi-course deals with a bottle of Chateau Grande Recession thrown in. Yet as the scale of the greatest economic calamity in living memory revealed itself, this was a charade in which we became willing participants. After all, staying in was the new going out. And with images of queues snaking around crumbling Northern Rock branches still fresh in our minds, joblessness looming, and high-street giants like Woolworths and Comet teetering, who wouldn’t want to hole up and hope that just a few lifestyle tweaks could set things right? A full decade on, the dining-in deal, that innocuous bundle of foil containers, thrift and denial, epitomises many of the impulses that continue to drive our culture, high and low.
Comfort, that was what most of us initially sought. We weren’t going to get it from the news and we certainly weren’t going to get it from economists, wise after the event, but we could find it in abundance at Aldi and Lidl, where we headed en masse to stock up on cut-price, off-brand staples. In America’s Great Depression, it was cigarettes and cinema tickets that bucked the trend, their sales continuing to rise as nearly everything else plummeted. Here in the UK we reached for sweet, fatty snacks after 2007. Maybe some hardwired evolutionary trait was kicking in, insisting we add a little extra padding for the hard times ahead, easing one belt out a notch as we were compelled to tighten another. Our rediscovered appetite was still raging in pinched 2010, when Mary Berry and co debuted a telly contest that allowed us to mainline sugar and butter with a sprinkling of notions of unity and past glory. It wasn’t just any old bake off, it was The Great British Bake Off.
We craved another flavour, too, one that precipitated a spike in sales of dishes like cottage pie and rice pudding: school dinners. Or more broadly speaking, childhood. The basic explanation for our financial pickle was simple enough: we’d spent beyond our means. But in an increasingly secular society, that didn’t seem justification enough for the hardship that was being meted out, especially as technological advances continued to make instant gratification ever more instantaneous. Why couldn’t we just keep borrowing? Or print more money?
“Vintage hits like Dad’s Army—televisual jam roly-poly—were brought back from the dead”
As it turned out, printing more money is exactly what the central bankers in charge actually did. The rest of us, however, without their economics degrees were left feeling like dolts. A dawning awareness of the interconnectedness of global markets only underscored the extent to which our personal, financial, wellbeing had slithered beyond our control. Thus infantilised, we began dressing in “adult” onesies, lapping up film franchises starring superheroes and heroines drawn from graphic novels, and buying “adult” colouring books. (I say buying because I’ve yet to see an adult actually use one, and would like to believe that they go unopened. Please do not disillusion me.)
That mistrust of globalisation also helped fuel locavorism—eating only local food. Was it something about hearing the words “too big to fail” so often that made us newly enamoured of the small? Small-batch coffee, small-batch bourbon, small-batch cigars—they all enjoyed a definite moment.
Meanwhile, we weren’t just comfort eating, we were comfort dressing too. Women began trading high heels for ballet pumps, loafers and Chelsea boots. The woolly hug that is the Christmas jumper was embraced and even made it on to catwalks where it cocooned Burberry and Jil Sander models. By 2012, Topman could be found stocking 34 different designs. And for those of us prudently adopting a wardrobe of trend-proof basics, a new word was conjured up to make us feel edgy: normcore.
That word encapsulated a resurgent desire for shared experience in the face of crisis, just as dining-in, even while it kept us home, hinted at the communal—implying a fixed time and menu. As we tuned into The X-Factor (or Strictly Come Dancing), we could depend on other households around the country tucking into their king prawn linguine (or vegetable moussaka) as they did the same.
The art world seemed to be channelling this new spirit of inclusiveness. In 2009, Antony Gormley’s “One & Other” used Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth to enable 2,400 Britons to become living artworks for an hour each. The following year at her MoMA retrospective in New York, Marina Abramovic´ invited gallery-goers to become co-creators by sitting across from her and taking part in an installation.
Nostalgia was another predictable response to hard times. Vintage hits like Dad’s Army and Are You Being Served?—televisual jam roly-poly—were all brought back from the dead and given new chapters. It was the same in music and literature—bands like 1990s heartthrobs Take That re-formed, Agatha Christie’s estate hauled Poirot out of retirement to solve a series of cases dreamt up by novelist Sophie Hannah, the Ladybird books returned as spoofs for the adult market.
After the sudden bang of the crisis gave way to the unremitting grind of austerity, we finally hauled ourselves off the sofa and clocked our expanded waistlines. The activities we turned to also seemed to hark back to a simpler, more modest era—cycling, wild swimming, allotment weeding. That last one contained the seeds of another credit-crunch pastime: self-sufficiency, one more escape to times past. As beehives and chicken coops popped up on urban rooftops, crafts enjoyed a renaissance, and urban foraging became a “thing,” it was hard to dispel images of The Good Life. No wonder that reclaimed wartime slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” stuck so tenaciously.
“Beehives and chicken coops popped up on urban roofs, while crafts and urban foraging became a thing”
As it turned out, we weren’t set on a course that would see us re-enacting The Grapes of Wrath, but the impact of the Great Recession was nevertheless very real, and, as numerous studies have since confirmed, felt especially keenly by those who’ve traditionally been cultural disruptors: the youth. If they’re too pinched to spend in ways that shape the culture, then what are you left with? A headlong retreat into nostalgia.
It’s not that there haven’t been protest songs. PJ Harvey, Bruce Springsteen, Lily Allen—they’ve all written them over the past decade. And yes, there’s always Banksy, even as the broader contemporary art makes the headlines for dizzying auction records rather than for unsettling the establishment.
And there have been films, plays and novels that have directly engaged with the credit crisis and its ramifications—from Lucy Prebble’s 2009 hit play Enron and John Lanchester’s novel Capital to Michael Lewis’s account of the subprime origins of the credit crunch, The Big Short, later made into a film with Ryan Gosling. But more generally, escapism is what we’ve demanded. We may have been cutting back on foreign travel, but the past remained a popular destination, with the likes of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Mad Men and the musical Hamilton catering for a range of cultural proclivities. Fantasy also did the trick, thanks to Game of Thrones and any number of vampire and zombie sagas. Even the future, no matter how bleak, was preferable, viz a burgeoning market for dystopian fiction that culminated in Naomi Alderman scooping the Baileys Prize this year with her novel The Power.
Rather than getting angry and radical, we’ve become more culturally conservative, in everything from grooming trends (beards for blokes, long tresses for women) to sexual fantasies (Fifty Shades encouraged its middle-aged fans to re-enact flamboyantly un-PC tableaux). Speaking of which, millennials are less sexually active than young adults were 30 years ago, and even one of that generation’s biggest contributions to society—the mainstreaming of transgender identities—has a reactionary slant: there may be more options when it comes to ticking gender boxes, but those boxes still demand to be ticked.
Another surprising theme has been excess. The reverberations of 2007 would, you’d imagine, have left us newly appreciative of what really matters in life. Well, yes and no. Procreation, that’s what it’s all about, right? Suddenly, a third kid was the must-have middle-class status symbol. That in turn boosted a demand for loft conversions, because who could afford to move? But then the Davos class took it one step further, teeing off the iceberging trend (building a massive basement).
We became gluttons for the new puritanism. Binge-drinking has been supplanted by #boxsetting, aka binge-viewing. We’ve even managed to binge on sobriety, going cold turkey for a month each year rather than scaling back long-term.
If luxury no longer enchants, it’s partly because it’s gone mainstream. Designers now pimp themselves out to the likes of H&M and Uniqlo, while five-figure handbags can be rented by the hour and anyone can download Uber and play at having a chauffeur. Conspicuous consumption is still going strong, too, it’s just that now it’s all about getting rid of stuff. You need to be time-rich to declutter your mind through intensive meditation, a New York trend no doubt shortly heading our way. You need to be plain old cash rich to indulge in raw-food veganism, paleo diets and juice cleanses. “Wellness” is what the new pampering calls itself, and one of its bibles, Gwyneth Paltrow’s website Goop, which launched in 2008, is about to become a Condé Nast magazine.
Wellness in many ways seems the ultimate response to the credit crunch. With so much that’s out of our control, it seems to offer the bizarre suggestion that we can bring our gluten-addled, sleep-deprived bodies to heel. The ailments it seeks to purge are often as tauntingly abstract as the very concept of credit, which after all becomes tangible only once it’s been spent and has therefore become debt.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, dining-in is still with us, and Tesco has just jumped on board. Has the domestic scene in which it might be enjoyed changed in the past decade? The slankets are gone, thankfully, but if you’re of a certain age, your significant other might now be wearing sweaty cycling lycra, sipping a cold craft beer while you attempt to channel the zen that’s supposed to flow from dejunking your home according to the principles of “organising consultant” Marie Kondo. More effective is the gin you’re sipping—small-batch and local, of course, though you wish it didn’t have such direly Hogarthian connotations.
As for the neighbours, the rowing has stopped. Either they’ve discovered Fifty Shades or else they’re living out a plotline from that other crunch-inspired literary trend, the one that’s replaced chick-lit, whose shopaholic ways the Great Recession finally put paid to: domestic noir.