Friday, 29 July 2011

Manufacturing Depression (2): The Existential Significance (Or Not) of Depression

Greenberg has many problems with the depression industry: one is that the drugs don't work on the majority of patients (he says that 70% of patients prescribed anti-depressants stop the course in the first month because of the side-effects - of which one is a loss of interest in or ability to perform sex); another is that the idea that depression is mere chemistry and says nothing about the world one is living in or the way one lives in it, robs our emotions of meaning.

I'm glad to read a professional saying that the drugs don't work and I'm not going to quibble. If it takes a large-scale PR campaign (only OTC medicines can be advertised in the UK), biased "research", confidentiality clauses, a huge sales force and all the other tricks to shift the stuff, that's because the companies know that word-of-mouth, BBC documentaries, not to mention the consumer-created websites, are going to be telling a different story. Potions with names ending in 'statin', 'formin' and anti-depressants are being hyped. Nobody needed to hype Miltown in the 1960's or Valium in the 1970's: both were taken recreationally. Indeed, according to Greenberg, word-of-mouth loved Miltown so much it got banned: it was being used as just another high.

The thing about disease and meaning is a little trickier. Cholera is a disease and it is mere chemistry, and it told the Victorians (eventually) that the water was infected and they needed to get some main sewage and a clean water supply going. They could have decreed that there was nothing wrong with the water, and blamed the patients or looked for something to cure the sufferers. Blaming the patients is always good when the no-one has a clue about the problem or a cure - fixing the patients makes sense when an actual solution would be a tough sell to funding agencies. When someone gets a disease that makes a mess of them it always says two things: there's something out there, this patient is susceptible to it, and that person seems to be immune to it. (There are a few people who seem to be able to shrug off HIV, don't forget.) After that, it's a matter of economics: is it cheaper for the taxpayer to solve the problem or to solve the patients? You can ask another question as well: is there more profit in solving the problem or solving the patients? What's profitable for Big Pharma may not be so cheap for the tax-payer.

What I'm not so sure about is that depression is always existentially meaningful. Not if we mean serious will-sapping depression anyway, rather than the depression-lite that Greenberg rightly points out is passed off as a disease.

A little diversion into some autobiography. As yet another relationship was falling apart in the 1980's, one of her final shots was the suggestion that I might be or was "clinically depressed". She was a PR who specialised in, you guessed, pharmaceuticals, but this was in the pre-Prozac days. I was a great many things back then (jerk, prick, asshole, bad-mannered, lacking self-confidence, incapable of doing fun, relationships or making good career judgements, and sophomore alcoholic to boot) but no matter how low I felt, I was never depressed. Every frakkin' day I woke up and ground it out, through insomnia that would have sent you begging for sleeping pills, through emotional upsets that left me hyperventilating, through painful physical loneliness and endless emotional puzzlement, and every day I showed up, ready to fight and fuck, however badly I might do it. Duvet days are for the weak, and pills for the pathetic. A long-term AA colleague is a pill-head more than a drunk, and while we have much in common, our diseases are different. The defiant alcoholic in me could never let himself lie down on the couch and fade away - unless it was to sleep off a drunk. I had all the symptoms of depression but not the disease. And under the DSM-IV rules, a doctor should have hesitated to diagnose me as depressed because I had a drink problem and DSM-IV prefers to deal with the substance abuse first. Which is what I did, and I felt better about myself and the world in early recovery than I ever did when drinking.

This experience makes me believe that there are genuinely depressed people, who have an anomalous body chemistry, and will eventually be helped to feel like a normal person when Big Pharma starts making drugs that don't make you want to kill yourself or feel like you're a stranger in your own body. The rest of the world just have lives that suck, either because they aren't living right (as I wasn't) or because the objective circumstances of their lives actually objectively suck. Starting the day by standing on a cramped train, having a bullying or incompetent supervisor, inadequate tools to do their job, a wife who can't cook and uses sex for reward-and-punishment, a couple of kids who ooze resentment and demands for money, the ever-looming threat of redundancy, debts, a car that needs fixing and to make it all worse, an endless stream of fatuous preaching about how they should be "eating less and exercising more" and stories about how this or that nebbesh turned their life around by doing something one-off and unrepeatable. Anyone who can bear that with good cheer is delusional, and most people aren't.

Most people whose lives suck aren't depressed. They have existentially meaningful emotions and states such as: hungover, withdrawn, sulky, snappy, irritable, resentful, aggressive, passive, resigned, lacking energy, unable to get to sleep, waking up too early, lack of enthusiasm and a hundred other things no two of which add up to an attractive personality. These are meaningful because they have specific causes, even if the sufferer doesn't know what yet. It's this stuff that should be treated in Dr Greenberg's therapy room and should not be eased by drugs. What most people whose lives suck need is a different life: a change of job, wife, children, salary, neighbourhood, sex life, friends, acquaintances, hobbies, sports and pastimes. Their problem is that there are no jobs to go to, divorces favour the wife, they can't dump the kids because they are not a "deadbeat dad", the employer isn't giving out pay rises and hasn't for the last three years, and between the job, the commute and the chores, there are about eight hours a week left in which to have a life.

This doesn't make for someone who works and plays well with others. Employers want malleable, can-do, don't-mind peons; mothers-of-two want husbands with jobs, who pay the bills, don't make un-natural demands (like sex), aren't going to leave and don't need worked around or managed; friends and acquaintances would rather have cheerful companions than glum ones. I'm with Greenberg that Western post-modern capitalist economies are great at producing lives that suck. But one look at the inspirational literature and snake-oil of the past will convince you that most people's lives have always sucked. Big Pharma isn't producing anti-depressants because it helps the machinery of post-modern capitalism. It's one thing for Juan Trippe, President of Pan Am to be sitting next William Allen, the President of Boeing, and say that if Boeing could build a 400-seater he would buy enough to make it worthwhile, as it would bring international air travel to the masses who could afford the cost of a seat on a Jumbo but not a 707. (That conversation actually happened). It would be another entirely for the CEO of (say) AIG to say to the CEO of AstraZeneca "If you can make a pill that turns my workers into docile worker bees, I'll make sure it gets funded by our medical insurance arm. And I think I speak for all the other guys as well." That conversation is never going to happen.

Big Pharma does produce serious psychotic-grade anti-depressants. The market is small and the drugs are so awful no-one can buy or sell them in the cafes in and around big hospitals that are the scene of the secondary market in prescription drugs. Big Pharma is not going to get rich making drugs to deal with actual medical conditions. Big Pharma is producing anti-depressants because ordinary people want to get out of it and always have. They may call it "taking the edge off", but it's the same thing. It's a nice side-effect of contemporary anti-depressants that they make people more accepting, malleable and prepared to accept the stuff that "life" in the guise of the HR Department, the wife's lawyer and the train company throw at them. There's no doubt it helps with the acceptability of these drugs that people on them put up with a crappy supervisor rather than suddenly discovering to give him a sound thrashing in a stairwell.

It isn't Big Pharma and existentially-shallow doctors who want to give people drugs to allow them to accept their lives. It's the people who want to take them: what do you think alcohol is? Not all of them, not even most of them. 70% of the people prescribed anti-depressants stop within a month, presumably because they would rather be irritable than sexually impotent. Of course that leaves 30% who carry on, either because they do prefer being impotent to irritable, or because they really are better on the drugs, or because the drugs make them better at dealing with this crazy world. Greenberg would rather that people didn't get out of it, and that they examined and re-evaluated their own lives. That's my preference for myself as well, but it doesn't suit everybody, just as the drugs don't suit everybody. The shocking thing about ordinary people is that no matter what circumstances you drop them into, they will come up feeling happy. Make them rich or poor, take away limbs or lovers, they will turn out happy. Or rather: they will be content with their circumstances and not see them as being worth trying to get the Fifth International started. And if their circumstances are so bad their natural happy-equilibrium mechanism breaks down, then they will look for pills and potions to help it back. Ordinary people don't do living examined lives. I don't know what they do do, and I hope I never find out.

What's really scary is that one day there may be anti-depressants without nasty side-effects. Then nobody will stop taking them once they start, and this time the pharmaceutical Calvinists (as Greenberg calls them) won't be able to ban it. They didn't ban Viagra, and that's only taken for one reason.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Manufacturing Depression (1): Thoughts on The Book of Job

I've been fascinated by the story of Job for a long while, even reading some commentaries from the theology section in the University of London Library back in the day. There are many interpretations of the story, in nearly all of which the interpreter forgets that it's God's fault Job has lost everything and gained a skin covered by sores, and blames the old man for his bad luck and miserable mood. These interpretations suggest that it's up to Job to accept God, or the world, or something else, so he can quit whining and get better.

Reading Gary Greenberg's Manufacturing Depression sent me back to Job again. Job was a multi-millionaire farmer / landowner whom God allows the Devil to make bankrupt and cover his body with sores. His wife tells him to "curse God and die", which is a little short of wholly supportive. Then three old buddies show up and sit with him. After a while, Job starts to kvetch about how he wishes he had never been born, and what a dreadful place the world is. His friends tell him to stop moaning, that God doesn't do Bad Things and even if the wicked do prosper, it isn't for long. Job tells them they are hardly being sympathetic or helpful. Eventually a kid called Elihu tells Job that he should quit moaning and challenging God to explain himself, because he's an insignificant sinning worm and God is, well, God. At which point God appears, uses Elihu's own phrase about "multiplieth words without knowledge" against him, and informs Job's friends of their utter ignorance of the ways of the world, that they have been talking trash about Him and need to kill some fatted calves for Job by way of apology.

So why would anyone stick this story in their Bible? Well, there's a thing known in the trade as the Problem of Evil, which is roughly that if you are all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful and love the human race, why do you let bad things happen to good people? Ordinary people seem to have an almost genetic need to believe they live in a fair world, where they will be rewarded, or at least left alone, if they behave as they are expected to by the powers-that-be, from God to Revenue and Customs via whoever is running their company this week. This is what a child in a functional family who went to well-run schools would believe, as it would pretty much describe their experience.

By modus tollens, it follows that if you are messed about or left out of the prizes, you have failed to satisfy the Gods or the various Caesars in your life. Bad fortune is your own fault, you have a bad character. The wicked may and do prosper with logical consistency under this regime, but ordinary people treat prospering as a sign you are a good person, though perhaps a little pushy and grabby, because with magnificent circularity, if you were a bad person, you would not be prospering.

If this is your view of the world, then you get to criticise God for letting bad things happen to good people. Now it's one thing for Job to call God to account - he has a legitimate complaint - but the rest of us don't get to, even by disguising it as philosophy. Well, not in any organised religion you know about anyway. Complain about God and the next thing you know, you'll be trying to usurp the Pope or something.

So the scribes of the King James Bible put in a story telling us that God runs the world according to rules we don't understand, that indeed nothing in this world happens without God's permission, and that attempts to understand human affairs in merely human moral terms amount to blasphemy. I think Greenberg is right to say that the happy ending, where Job gets his wealth back and a long life as well, is put there to take some of the bleakness away.

God's argument is all bluster, of course, and worse, it can be modified by anyone in a singular position of power to their own end: how dare you criticise "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap or Carly "Cruella" Fiorina, what do you know of the stresses and strains of being a big-company CEO? It's an argument for the absolute autonomy of Very Powerful Beings from mankind's expectations of Him / Her / Whatever.

But en passant the Book of Job is an argument that, under certain views of the nature of God, the usual explanations of human suffering are not just wrong but utterly misleading. It's also is a hefty chunk of major poetry that expresses better than anything else how it feels to be desperate, dispirited, exhausted and utterly out of faith with the world, and how hollow and pointless it is to talk someone out of that feeling.  Which leads me to the rest of Greenberg's book on depression in another post.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Why I Don't Always Want To Be A "Good Listener"

I overheard someone talking about “conversational narcissism” recently and, of course, Googled it to find out what it might be. It’s a name for the way people hi-jack a conversation you start and make it about themselves. So A starts talking about looking at new cars, and B says “Oh yeah, I was looking at (name fancy car and list high-end requirements)”. What B is supposed to do is talk about A’s search for a new car, not about herself.

The same site had some other articles about being a good conversationalist, so I took a look. Every one of them re-hashed the same old lines of the “it is better to be charmed than charming” variety. According to this line, a good conversationalist is someone who spends their time listening to the other person, prompting with questions and encouraging with non-verbal signals. This advice was given by nineteenth-century grandees to young men who needed to behave properly around nineteenth-century grandees and their numerous female relatives. The grandees and their female relatives had, of course, no interest in the opinions of young people without a station in life and were used to be being humoured as they wittered on about nothing in particular. This was the world where the advice “a good talker listens, not speaks” applies. Last time I looked, this is the twenty-first century and very few of us spend any time with grandees of any kind. And if we did, they would be disinclined to talk to us about anything, because the world has changed a lot since the days of long dinner parties in country houses. The old-school advice only works when there’s a hierarchy that makes one person the designated witterer and the other the designated wittered-to.

Absent the hierarchy, it’s a little trickier. You’re aiming to strike a balance between talking and listening that leaves both of you feeling okay about it. Why? Conversations, like any other human interaction, need to be reciprocally beneficial if you’re going to go on doing them. (That doesn’t mean equal talking, and it might mean you are the fascinated listener to a genuine authority on a subject in which you have an interest. There aren’t so many of those conversations. And don’t get pious and tell me that everyone can be fascinating about something and it’s my job to find out what. It’s as much my conversational partner’s job to try to be interesting to me as it is mine to be interesting to them.) As well as that, the other person may be tired or uninspired and wants you to carry some conversational load. They may find your questions intrusive, or worse, uninformed, and in either case will be gone fairly fast and pretty much forever. Putting them in the position where they do the talking may make them regard you as “hard work” or as someone who doesn’t share or say anything about themselves. Plenty of opportunities to mess up there.

From your side, being on the receiving end of a non-stop talker is okay if they are funny or interesting, but gets pretty tedious if they aren’t. They may be talking to be heard, not to start a discussion, and they don't need you at all, all they need is a nodding dog. That’s listener abuse: they should be paying a therapist, not using you for free. It’s like being at a big corporate meeting where they want to “deliver” a bunch of “messages”: after ten minutes you don’t want to be there and after twenty minutes your soul has shut down. And don't you want to share? Don't you want to be heard? Don't you want to find out that someone likes what you like? Because that's not quite the same thing as discovering that you like what someone else likes. The first is finding out that you can get along with other people. The second is finding that other people are prepared to get along with you. There is a huge difference.

A hefty dose of listener abuse made me give up on “social conversation” for a while. Why? Because I started to vanish. I was there to be an audience for other people, and audiences aren't equals. I wound up feeling alienated from myself. It meant I was with the wrong crowd. AA meetings can feel like that: the same old people bang on about the same old stuff with which I have no identification and I wonder what the hell I'm doing there when I could be, oh, washing my hair or doing press-ups.

So the next time you worry that you may be hi-jacking the conversation, check if feel you’re being treated as a person or an audience. If you think you’re being treated as an audience, then carry on hi-jacking. Or of course, you could make your excuses and leave.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Six Impressions Of A Woman On A Train

The other morning I found myself sitting next to a woman I guessed was in her late thirties / early forties, dressed and accessorised with informal style.

First impression: "married / LTR, confident, satisfied with her life and not badly paid to judge from the quality of the clothes." She wasn't conventionally pretty, but a grown man experienced in the ways on women would know that she was sexy as all hell and just the sort of woman he would want in bed. So I'm thinking: another person whose life is better than mine. God above, they're everywhere.

Then I saw the text she was composing on her smartphone. I know I'm not supposed to look, but I do. What can I say: if you want privacy, don't travel on a commuter train. So. What I saw was along the lines of: "I feel like my right arm is severed without you...we don't have time for cuddles and kisses... we never seem to have time to be together, it would be so nice to live in each other's pockets for a while...that was why the camping holiday was so good, such closeness..."

Second Impression: Huh? Wha? Did someone just pull back the curtain? Is this the real world? Can't be. This is a script note she's sending to the Eastender's writing room? Right? On a smartphone using the number-pad to type at 08:30? Not plausible. This is for real? This seriously sexy woman is pleading for some more body-time with her husband / boyfriend? I can't remember all the words, but at the time I didn't think she was complaining as a prelude to a negotiation. She was expressing hurt. That's why I was struck by it. A woman like her, so together on the outside, is hurting that much? Jesus! What's going on out there?

Third Impression: Camping? I know people do that, but it's suspicious. Decent people stay in hotels. With showers. And room service. And then, composing and sending a text that intimate at 08:30? Well, composing it, maybe, but sending it? That might constitute some kind of stalking. Or harassment. Speaks to possible craziness and imbalance. Don't decent people say these things, face-to-face, rather than by text? I suppose it might be the modern equivalent of the love-letter. And then the whole living-in-each-other's-pockets thing, which might be construed as unhealthily close. Well, for me it would, but I'm a dormant co-dependent. Maybe for civilians, it's okay. And who said the guy was her husband / boyfriend? Maybe she's the affair, hence the lack of time.

Fourth Impression: she moved along the platform with considered pace, rather than the distracted movement I know I do when I'm Having An Emotion. Which makes me wonder if the text wasn't some kind of manipulation. But who comes up with "right arm is severed"? Those are not words I would forget or mis-remember. It's vivid, not the phrase someone writing a manipulation piece would use, unless they were scary cold. Against all my generated reasons for thinking otherwise, I'm going with this being real, but speaking to her being slightly scary.

Fifth Impression: Maybe that's the way she should respond to the situation she's in, rather than tolerating it until she winds up with a bitter and resigned soul, incapable of another relationship for the rest of her life. She can be sincerely expressing pain and setting up a negotiation at the same time. She's giving him advance warning of the end of the relationship if he can't do something to stop the hurt. That would explain the air of purposefulness. It might sound a little manipulative, but what's so noble about staying in a relationship that hurts? Maybe it's what an actual healthy person does.

Sixth Impression: I mentioned she was sexy as all hell? I did didn't I?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Hofesh Shechter: Political Mother

I've had a few cultural WTF moments, of which the longest-lasting and most memorable was a Glenn Branca concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall I chose at random. If you've never heard his music, it's made, or was then, by a group of musicians playing cheap and raucous guitars. Badly. At the end of the first piece, I asked the person sitting next to me if this was what they had expected to hear, and they told me it was. It's one of the few ways of making music I haven't clued into. That and Robin Holloway.

Anyway, to Sadlers Wells last Friday evening, to see Hofesh Shecter's Political Mother, again on spec. I should have known something was up from the buzzy, almost party atmosphere and the fact that the front ten or so rows had been removed and there were a lot of people standing in front of the stage. Then the lights went out. Dark. Then the music started, a string sextet, and some dancers came out and I was fine with that, I prefer abstract dance, and then the nine piece German Heavy Metal rock band on a platform above the string sextet blasted off, joined shortly by three drummers on the stage underneath the string sextet. That was a pretty good WFT moment. Loud as it was, the sound system was clear and precise, so it wasn't painful. The video below gives you an idea of the dancing, but no idea at all of the sheer physical presence of the music and the impact of the setting.



I would love to know how choreographers write for these large ensembles where the dancers are doing similar, but not the same, things at roughly the same time, except for four dancers who are clearly doing something slightly different. Especially when everyone has to make those fast wavy hand, body and leg motions. It's east enough to choreograph a bunch of classical swans, because they're all doing the same thing at the same time, and that's the point. I have the impression that Bob Fosse started by having everyone doing the same thing and then gave each dancer their own little variations. How Shechter deals with a troupe that size, I can only guess.

If you get the chance, you have to see this. Oh, it's probably some political allegory or statement or something, but I couldn't really care about that. It's damn good fun.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Short Break in Wales (5): Whitesands

I went to Wales because I read in Tatler (oaky, yes I know) that it was the best place in the UK to take a summer holiday with the kids. Go while school is still in and it should be okay for grown-ups as well. It is. Just before you get to St Davids on the A478 there's a right turn to Whitesands Bay, and it's another windy road that gets you there. There's a car park and the usual decent but not special cafe. Plus this.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Short Break in Wales (4): St David's Cathederal and Bishop's Palace

For reasons best known to themselves, but I suspect tied to my earlier remarks about the quality of the farmland, the Welsh liked to put their churches and cathedrals as close to the shore as possible. I'm willing to bet that there isn't a book on the Great Cathedral Boom of the 11th and 12th centuries that answers the questions a modern person would ask: how was it financed? where did they get all the labourers and craftsmen? and why was the so many craftsmen spare? what else wasn't being built while the cathedrals were? and why on earth were they built so often so many miles from anywhere, so damn big?

I didn't get the usual shots. The ruin is the Bishop's Palace. Cromwell and others really had it in for Bishops.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Short Break In Wales (3): Poppit Sands

Poppit Sands is hidden at the end of yet more narrow roads: you can very easily miss the right turn in St Dogmaels, which is less a village of itself and more a suburb of Cardigan. My parents used to take us down to a farm in St Dogmaels for a fortnight in summer. This would be back in the days of, well, after the opening of the M50 Ross-Spur and before the start of the construction of M4. Look it up. Anyway, the local beach was Poppit Sands. I had memories of it being wide at low tide, but not of it being vast. This is the view inland.

It's approached along this road. Really. This is one of the best beaches in Britain and it's approached by a single-lane country road.
What makes Welsh beaches special is this: sea, sand... and if you click on the photograph, you'll see cows. There's workable, in fact high-quality, farmland to within yards of the shoreline. Which tells you that there are no strong winds whipping the salt water onto the land and making it hard growing.
 It's all lush and gentle. They have coastguards on all the major beaches, with flags of mysterious (to me) significance, and they have decent if not European-quality cafes as well.
 The river in these shots is the Teifi - hence the official Welsh name Aberteifi for Cardigan.
Personally, I believe that no English childhood is complete without a summer holiday spent on beaches like this.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Soho Square Muggy Monday

About a week or so ago, it was very warm and humid.  This what happens to Soho Square when that happens. Someone comes along with a lorry and tips five tons of late-twenty / early-thirty somethings all over the grass. That this many people worked in Soho not in catering amazes me, but then the place is jammed with movie industry support businesses and various internet companies, and this is where all these folk work.


Click on the pictures: full-size and lots of detail.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Short Break In Wales (2): Newport Beach

You can see this beach as you drive through Newport on the A478, but to get to it, you have to drive a couple of miles along narrow, windy roads. It's worth it. This is the town.


...and folks sure like their boats in this part of the world...
...you can park on the beach to go windsurfing...
...or laze on the sand-dunes...

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Short Break In Wales (1): Mwnt

Mwnt is a secret. Almost. There are no signposts, as there are to Newport Beach or Whitesands, and it's at the end of some narrow, twisting roads with a couple of left turns you could miss if you aren't used to looking for those old-style signposts. When you get there, it's beautiful. The locals come out in the afternoon to do a little fishing or just walk up the hill and kiss. It's a large cove at the bottom of steps that are steeper than this makes them look (that's a tea-shop and wet-suit hire emporium at the top, with facilities). Above the beach, miles from almost anywhere, is the church, which is still used for weekly services.

Monday, 4 July 2011

How To Manoeuvre A Ship In A Confined Space

One fairly hefty Stena Line ferry at her moorings at Fishgaurd Harbour
... starts to move sideways...
...and then rotate...
...before straightening out...
....and heading off to sea

It's done with bow- and stern-thrusters, water-jets that add an astonishing amount of manoeuvrability to even a large-ish ship. It took about three minutes to spin the ship round. 

Friday, 1 July 2011

Cool: The Complete Handbook (Harry Armfield)

Back in the day a guy called Harry Armfield wrote a book called Cool: The Complete Handbook. Amongst other things it has the best movie list, reading list and music list I have seen. Armfield describes Classical Cool, whose icons are Steve McQueen and Miles Davis. Cool is not about accessories you had - though some, like the Zippo lighter, are iconic - not was it about being pretty, though that helps. It was about how you comported yourself: with a certain individuality, a touch of anti-establishment attitude, and an ineffable distance from the concerns, values and rules of everyday life. It is logically possible to be a parent and cool, but so far no-one you know has managed the trick. (What teenagers call "cool parents" is a different thing.)

Classical Cool can embrace a wide range of people and callings. There are cool mathematicians (Alexander Grothendieck, who eventually quit his teaching job and became a hermit); there are cool physicists (Richard Feynman, who did his physics in a strip club in Rio, picked up air stewardesses and looked like a handsome cowboy); there are cool magazine editors (Anna Wintour), there are even cool programmers (Linus Torvalds, godfather of Linux) and politicians (Winston Churchill). Cool had an unresolved relationship with drugs, and is as austere as a Palestrina Motet. It's restrained, understated, off-beat, non-conformist: it's a sibling of the idea of the Gentleman. Classical cool is masculine. There are classically cool women, but not many. Feminism is not cool, nor is therapy, and anyone who holds intimacy and closeness to be amongst the highest of human values is never going to be cool.

A number of Amazon Marketplace suppliers have second-hand copies Armfield's book and a couple of weeks ago, when I was thinking of those lists, I ordered one. It was as good as I remember it. It was written in 1986. You may not remember 1986. I think I was there at the time, but I don't remember a lot of it. 1987. That was the year that followed it. David Harvey, in his best-seller The Condition of Post-Modernity, identifies 1972 as the year when the old world was replaced by the post-modern world. I will beg to differ. It was 1987. The second summer of love, Ecstasy was actually made of MDMA, Balearic beats finally made sense and the behemoth that is dance / club culture rose from the deep. Classical cool as a cultural force vanished by 1990, the exact symbolic moment being when Kate Moss was chosen for the cover of the Third Summer of Love issue of ID magazine.

Dance culture was the opposite of Classical Cool. It was based on taking a drug that made you love everyone around you. It needed you to dance for hours, mostly like a prat, with unstoppable enthusiasm. It isn't about the Art, it's about the Vibe: the audience don't care how the DJ's get the sound, as long as they get it. Classical Cool was never compatible with day jobs, capitalism or careers and it was pretty much closed to the masses. Dance culture is populist and the Opium of the Office Worker. Cool is the moving camera of Robert Altman: Dance is 3-D and CGI.

Dance / Club Culture doesn't care who you are or what you do, as long as you are prepared to put on tonight's themed costume join in the crowd. All you need for entry is whatever it takes to get past the bouncers. All the nerds making their wonderful dance music of whatever genre are not cool. The Yahhovians I see in my building every day are variously funky, trendy, a couple are hot, but none are cool. Nobody playing Angry Birds has ever been, is now or ever will be cool. Classical Cool is too austere for these times, when people need distraction from the ghastly economic and employment uncertainty they face on a daily basis, as well as the now seeming financial impossibility of their ever living the lifestyle.


If you are under forty-five, read Armfield's book, and you might understand why certain of your older relatives and co-workers can't quite take you seriously. If you are under thirty, the world it describes will be simply quaint. Read it and learn. Then both of you move on to Bernhard Roetzel's Gentleman.