At the End of the Day

I was shifting rugs around in our French house here last week, and I noticed that at some time or another they’d all been in front of the fire. You could tell this by the way they all had burn marks in them.

Burn marks add character, and I think it highly possible that the entire point of having rugs in front of fires is so that they can inherit burn marks and thus gain character. Otherwise – if you think about it – what’s the point of having rugs in front of fires? I mean, they’re there to protect oak planks or flagstones, is that the idea? Because if it is, it’s a bloody daft one.

Adding character is a funny old business. In the late 1960s, my Dad the cloth merchant was sharp enough to spot that there was more money in supplying denim to retail fashion outlets than as workwear to factories. Whereas the factories demanded that every uniform be brand-spanking new, the boutiques wanted him to ‘add character’. This he did by getting his finishers to use a mild bleach to make the jeans look older. Making the apparel look more ‘lived-in’ added to the premium customers were prepared to pay.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s, New was everything: a new bike, a new cowboy outfit, or new streamlined footie boots were everything. Dad coming home with a new two-tone Ford Zephyr Zodiac was unbelievably cool. Even in the early Sixties Manchester of my youth, new hipsters, new shoes, new tab collar shirts, a new high-parting haircut, and a new dance-step were must haves if you wanted to pull the birds. But at some point after 1967, my generation rejected the new in favour of near-idolatry of the old.

Suddenly, crappy old bits of furniture had their paint stripped off and became interesting objets. As late as the early 1980s, you could go to chain stores retailing quite good quality furniture, and buy stuff constructed from worm-eaten and generally ‘distressed’ wood. (In France, you still can). It wasn’t cutting edge or anything, but for middle-aged comfortable households, it was better to have pieces that looked old rather than new. Owning furniture with heritage – that might have been inherited – became the thing.

I may have this completely wrong, but it seems to me that after the City Big Bang of the mid to late Eighties, New replaced Old with something called Contemporary. It was all about loft apartments, steel, glass, minimalism, and all the Victorian furniture I owned being suddenly worthless. And in the Twenty-first century, Contemporary has been shoved out of the way by The Latest Digital Thing.

I often ponder about why these changes from New to Old to Contemporary to Techitoy have taken place. To some extent, I view them as reflections of the predominant mores of each era: the admiration of all things American; a harking back to British traditional values; a love of all things shiny, as false emblems of a British revival; and then a childish fascination with the beads handed out to all those in thrall to Imperial Mammon…if you will, portable circuses for those who are constantly on the move.

However, prior to this century there was a reality to such fashion movements that wasn’t driven by contrived media and marketing. Neither of those influences created the crazes for Mod clothes, stripped pine, and the rejection of the antique: those were natural innovations diffused down the social pyramid by opinion-formers. The difference between such changes and the creations we see today is one of leading versus following: instead of media marketing catching up with opinion-formers today, we have confections created entirely by corporations: Facebook, Twitter, Google, 3G, 4G, smartphones, androids, and Skype.

At a deeper level, in previous fashion incarnations we created trends that business then fed and served. In 2013, the stuff we craze and crave is less about us, and more about what we can offer them. Rather than chasing behind us, it captures us, invades us, interrogates and examines us: they are the aliens, and we are the experiments. They are the masters, and we are the slaves.

I am flagrant in my use of Facebook and Twitter to seek out kindred spirits in the fight against braindead worship of false idols. The information I give those sites is as close to zero as I can get – but the terrifying thing is that, within five minutes of being there, I’m on another site where the ads are tailored to the infinitesimal clues I gave them about who I am.

George Orwell correctly foresaw a society in which Big Brother would know all about us. He didn’t foresee that the entrepreneurs in this process would be commercial rather than governmental, but the effect is exactly the same: we lose our privacy, and in doing so we give up our freedom to think things we don’t want other lesser minds to know about.

It is a short (albeit circuitous) journey from burned rugs to buggered rights. We would all do well to remember this.