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UP THE ELEPHANT A N D R O U N D T H E C A S T L E

D A V I D N I C H O L S O N - L O R D

Illustration by Axel Schefjler

HE SLUMP OF ’92 seems finally to have stood the old moral universe on its head. Once, you may remember, thrift and frugality were admired qualities. Lately, hardly a moment has passed without some cheerful crew-cut adolescent disguised as the chief economic adviser to a merchant bank announcing on television that we all ought to be spending more in the shops to pull Britain out of recession. Rarely can consumption have been so baldly equated with civic virtue.

This was not how the 1980s were supposed to end. Remember all that talk of the “ caring” nineties, the decade of ethical awareness that would succeed thb excesses of the Thatcher years? How is it that, having binged our way into record personal debt, we are being asked to binge our way out of it? Homoeopaths might favour this approach to economics but I prefer a bit of old-fashioned allopathy. If Access and Visa get you into trouble, away with them! Pay off your debts, cut up the cards, disable your bank manager. Join Shoppers Anonymous. Be nobody’s mug.

This, clearly, is what a lot of people would like to do and what they will do, one day, when they have some money again, i.e. they will keep rather more of it in their pockets. 1 suspect, therefore, that the burst economic bubble of the 1980s will come to seem, in economic and cultural history, something of a watershed.

Here, briefly, is why. First, a generation of borrowers and acquirers have had their fingers badly burnt. Like their grandparents in the 1930s, they have been branded with a new and alien consciousness — the wisdom of prudence, the treacheries of the market. Only an economist would imagine they could be switched on again, like a tap. These, many o f them, were Thatcher’s children, a notoriously care-nothing bunch, and they have been permanently psychologically scarred. They cannot be relied on to kick-start the economy.

Second, their successors — the generation now at school — will have absorbed the theory as well as the practice of low-impact living. How many organizations have turned green because of lessons administered to a grandfather by a grandchild? Is it imaginable that children with as rich an environmental education as ours are receiving will want to spend large parts of their adult lives in an Arndale centre?

Third, the new economists are on the move. It is not unrealistic to expect that by the end of the 1990s we will have a credible, comprehensive and reasonably high-profile green alternative to growthism. Fourth, goods are lasting longer and most of us have enough of them. (Note the desperation with which British Telecom is promoting the mobile phone as the people’s technology, used by chubby homely sorts like midwives and plumbers.) And fifth, demography is ageing us all: older cultures tend to be wiser and more contented.

Welcome, then, to the steady-state economy. It turned up when nobody expected it and it has our politicians in a blue funk. They don’t have a clue what to do about it and so they are pretending they can magick it away. Someone needs to take them quietly to one side and explain things. Ah yes, but who? IT IS CU STOM ARY amongst social scientists and other hard-hearted types to make jokes about the Englishman’s dream of Arcadia, on the grounds that there is no such place, and never was. It was thus strangely inspiring to see how a dream, a hunger of the imagination, lies behind the massive population upheavals of the last three decades. From the 1960s onwards people have poured out from the cities into the countryside in search o f The Good Life, or at least a better one, but according to Mintel there are still thirteen million people living in cities in Britain who want to get out and four million of them expect to do so in the next five years.

With N IM BY(N o t In My Back Yardj-ism already giving way to the BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) syndrome, the CPRE (Council for the Petrification — sorry, Protection — of Rural England) is obviously set for a big membership boost. Why is everyone leaving? Well, says Mintel, it’ s the noise, the dirt, the lack o f open space, the stress and the claustrophobia (that’s the cities, by the way). But I scan the report (a snip at £795) and find no mention of baseball bats.

This is a serious omission. All the best people round here are very keen on baseball bats nowadays. A year or two back an aggrieved customer at the Indian restaurant round the corner popped out to his car and back again before you could say fractured cerebellum, bringing a bat in and waving it around in a manner clearly inconsistent with good race relations: I had never realized the waiters could move so fast. But since then baseball bats have moved up-market. A friend reveals that after his son had four bikes stolen in a row, on one occasion at knifepoint in the park, he (the father) was moved to keep a baseball bat in his own car boot, such was his vengefulness. This Bronson-esque figure, by the way, is a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, a mender of broken bones. If the country is made of dreams, the cities have their share of nightmares.

David Nicholson-Lord writes for The Indep en d en t and The Ind ep endent on Sunday.

Resurgence No. 156 19

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