Wednesday, 29 April 2009

More random thoughts on Twitter, the young people of today, and the rumour that we are all going to the dogs


Posted by Tania Kindersley.


The low hum of the mythical golden age which infects the media, the national conversation and the very zeitgeist itself has snarled up into a roar. A new book in America claims to have identified an ‘epidemic of narcissism’. In a similar epidemic of word association, once narcissism is out there, it immediately leads to Twitter and blogging. Miss Whistle has a lovely post up about a dinner party where an opinionated gentleman had a nice rant about all the self-regarding idiots who Tweet. In last week’s Spectator, Bryan Forbes, a good director and a kind man, had a mad as hell piece about how we are living in a society of vapid celebrities and lying politicians, while the education system spews out ‘armies of illiterates’. The headline yelled of our ‘morally impoverished culture’.

The overt message of all this is, as usual, that we are all doomed. We are a bunch of craven solipsists, palsied by our obsession with Britney Spears, atomised in our little virtual worlds where we must document what we had for breakfast, for the world to know. The implied message is that because it is all shit now, it must have been wonderful then. I keep scratching my head in a frowny effort to work out when this marvellous time of moral rectitude, selflessness and unimpeachable public life was. I am not going to test your glorious patience by running through the list of child labour, anti-semitism, glassy-eyed housewives hopped up on tranquillisers, plutocrats screwing down wages, and lack of welfare that littered much of the 20th century. I don’t need to remind you that some of the most lauded world leaders had peccadilloes that would not survive a moment’s scrutiny by today’s tabloids – Gladstone with his ladies of the street, Kennedy with all ladies, street or not, Churchill with his brandy. I am not going to send you blind with statistics, although I could point out that in this moral wasteland that is modern Britain, over five million people work as unpaid carers, their ruthless selfishness driving them to look after the halt and the lame.

Instead, I am going to direct you to Twitter, the lair of the contemporary narcissist, where all the me-me-mes come out to play. Over the last two weeks, this is what has been going on in my little corner of the Twitterverse –

A viral campaign has been raging to try and influence the Iranian government to free Roxana Saberi, the journalist incarcerated in Evin Prison. (I’ve written about this before, and I shall write about it again.)
Sarah Brown is using Twitter to raise awareness about the thousands of women dying needlessly in childbirth.
People have made actual jokes.
A fellow in America is mounting a furious one-man action to get Joe Scarborough sacked from his show on MSNBC, because he keeps shouting at people about how waterboarding is not really torture, and what are we supposed to do to suspected terrorists – give them birthday cake?
Recipes have been swapped, interesting articles highlighted, and general helpful household tips exchanged. (One of the best things about Twitter is that it is like a filter for the morass that is the interweb: you find interesting people to follow, and they then direct you to interesting things they have found out there in cyberspace, saving you amazing amounts of time and trouble, and letting you become informed about subjects you had no knowledge of.)
One man in France has continued his genius idea of writing a novel every day in three lines. The vignettes are surreal, intellectual, funny and surprising.
This morning, for no particular reason, a quotathon has broken out – Scott Fitzgerald vs Oscar Wilde vs Winston Churchill. I suspect it may continue for some time.

I’m not getting pious about Twitter. It has its patches of dullness and pointlessness just as life does. There are people who tweet of bagels and muffins; there are people who trade in banality; there are people who indulge in an orgy of shameless self-promotion. But it is not the sewer and sink of all our ills, and to say so is just cheap and lazy, and, ironically, blastingly dull.

And as for the young people, this fabled army of ASBO illiterates, capable only of texting and annoying old ladies on the bus and saying ‘like’ a lot – if you believe, like me, that they are getting a bad press, just go and have a look at The Speaker on the BBC iplayer. I’m not much for reality shows, but this one makes me cry. It has its flaws – breathless, slightly manipulative voiceover, excessive sense of its own drama – but it is a true tonic for the troops. The simple premise is to find young people who want to win a public speaking competition, put them through a series of tests, see who has the right stuff. What is astonishing and tear-making is not their undeniable talents, but their characters. They mostly come from working class backgrounds, comprehensive schools, council estates. They are bright, witty, passionate, determined and kind. In the snapshots we see of their home life, they are surrounded by love from friends and family. I refuse to believe that in some scurrilous piece of social engineering, the BBC has managed to find the only children in Britain who inspire hope and admiration. I think, whisper it, that they might be representative of something that is not going to the dogs at all. I think they tell us, without ever saying the words, that we might not be doomed after all.

37 comments:

  1. As ever, an apposite and heartbreakingly beautifully written post. I'm always excited to see a new post from you and never disappointed. x

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  2. Wholeheartedly agree with yr compelling post!

    And as far as narcissism and blogging are concerned, whatever else one may feel about those such as Guido Fawkes and Nighthawk - not to mention Iain Dale and Andrew Sullivan - they have done an invaluable service in outing so many 'secrets' that otherwise would have lain dormant.

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  3. 'We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.'
    - R. D. Laing
    This appeared on my quotes of the day on Igoogle and thought it particularly 'apposite', to quote Mrs T. Is twitter recording the present as it disappears and therefore performing a vital function in both forcing our minds to the here and now - as you once said in a former post - and disseminating information we would not normally have had access to. Having a slight obsession with Henry VIII and his times, it seems only a good thing that information is now accessible to everyone, as opposed to only men/government/freemen/literate/the king.

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  4. Deliciousness from the first sentence. I am humbled.

    xx Miss W

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  5. Oh you are all so lovely, proving with your generous and thoughtful comments that the blogosphere is in fact colonised by enchanting people instead of foaming narcissists.

    Had usual fret that I had gone banging on for too long, and am now having usual smile of joy at your reassuring responses.

    Power to the people, I say.

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  6. Oh, and Miss W - you were the one who inspired it, with your brilliant dissertation on the grumpy man at dinner.

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  8. Lukewaterfield - the best, simplest comment, thank you, thank you.

    Exromana - Such a kind comment.
    The golden age thing never ceases to amaze me. When exactly were those glorious good old days? Simon Heffer and Quentin Letts and Peter Hitchens do so dream of them. Have a horrible suspicion that it was when we women Knew Our Place.

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  9. "I keep scratching my head in a frowny effort to work out when this marvellous time of moral rectitude, selflessness and unimpeachable public life was." that's a phenomenal statement.

    i wholeheartedly agree with this. you speak of anti-semitism, housewives on prozac- i remember when there was no twitter, heck, when there was no internet- i was in a levels- and the world watched as the hutsis and tutsis killed one another. what is this obsession with the "good ol' days" when, exactly, was that? wonderful, beautiful post.

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  10. yes, "pre- a room of one's own" i suppose. although, in pakistan, where i am from, we still dont have one and by the likes of it...never will. hope is dead, let alone anything else...

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  11. V good. Well said. But if I have to read: "I am SO tired" or "Good morning! Just checking my e-mails!" one more time...

    The damn thing can be so banal.

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  12. Appositeness abounds. Only wish I was as erudite. Your posts are a joy.

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  13. You write so coherantly it is always a joy to read, (and hopefully learn from). Each post, and the comments you receive give things I want to find out more about. Thank you for exercising the gray matter.

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  14. just had a long chat with dad (re your post), who thinks the 50's were the days of humility..."moral rectitude"? when his mum and dad would go about on a vespa and not feel ashamed of it...

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  15. great post. wonderful. read something nice which makes us to think seriously.

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  16. Exromana - such interesting commments, thank you. So sad about no hope in Pakistan - not even a tiny glimmer? I know things are atrocious there just now, and not enough is written about it, as if second class status for women is a given, not worth remarking on.

    As for your dad - idea of humility is fascinating, and there is no doubt that all eras had their high points. A sense of entitlement can be seen now which is not necessarily a lovely thing. But my mother was a young woman in the fifties, and there was no question for her of university or job; sometimes, even now, she looks a little wistful at all the chances I have had which she did not.

    Thank you so much for sending your thoughts. The conversation generated on blogs is for me the best part.

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  17. Charlie - You are kind. Also brave - I think you are the first gentleman to have ventured onto my blog. A hundred welcomes.
    I do admit freely that you have a point about the banality. I grow ruthless at cutting the duds. Is that too mean? But I refuse to speak to bores in life.

    Asitis - erudite is the best compliment, thank you.

    Titian - you always say the most lovely things. I don't forget you have been here since the very beginning, when I had NO idea what I was doing.

    Anigalla - such a very generous thing to say. I do warn you though that I feel a dog post coming on, which is likely not to provoke thought but accusations of shameless anthropomorphism.

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  18. i agree tania, opportunities in the 50s were limited and women were (are?) straitjacketed (depending on where one lives). however, it depends on the optic you are using-in a country like pakistan my grandmum pursued an MA in Economics and my mum also got her MA in 1970. My grandparents won the foxtrot competition at one of the fancy hotels in Lahore- that was back in the 50's. They were breaking barriers- however, we have now reverted to the Barbarians' era in pakistan. the only glimmer of hope i see is escapism. we expats have done an about turn and just taken off. dont want to hijack this "conversation" and make it about rights (or lack thereof) in pakistan, sorry about that! it's just that your post has made me think of certain events of the past, in my history, which are encouraging me to want to answer the germane questions/issues you have raised. thanks so much for it. shall forward to friends and fam.

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  19. Exromana - now it is you making me think. I realise that when I speak of optimism and progress, especially for women, I do see it through a Western prism. The absolute tragedy of Pakistan is that barriers that had been stormed are now crashing back down. (I think something similar happened in Iran, too.) It is an incredibly important subject, and, as an unreconstructed old feminist, I want to investigate more. I am flying to the Google as we speak.

    Also, it does make me think more than ever that the Britons who rant on about how we live in a moral swamp should try surviving for a day in the Swat valley now the Taliban hold sway there. I don't think they would like it so much.

    On a more happy note - I do completely love the picture of your grandparents winning the foxtrot competition. Let us hope against hope that those days can come again.

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  20. Hi - great article, flagged up by @indiaknight. Who's the French Tweeter posting a daily novel?

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  21. Mr Christopher - thank you so very much. The Twitter novelist is at http://twitter.com/novelsin3lines. I think he is a genius.

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  22. People just like to express themselves, don't they and blogging, tweeting and facebooking is tool.
    Not everyone likes speaking.

    P.S. Are you the lady that wrote 'Goodbye Johnny Thunders'? If so, I did like that book very much, read it years ago.

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  23. I have an interesting connection to you Tania, although we have never met. One day we should discuss. It involves a novel I wrote years ago that was rejected on the grounds they had taken yours but it hadn't been successful for them (I understand now you are very successful!). The novel is now being published, in a very new version, and is called One Apple Tasted. I am in a fear and trembling about it of course being a first novel in middle age. Anyway, love the way you write!

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  24. By the way, my name is Josa Young.

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  25. My favourite person from a completely narcissistic point of view on twitter? Bill Bailey, he's hilarious! I find him funny, but am so glad Twitter isn't just that.

    It's funniness and it's more. Couldn't ask for better!

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  26. Hodmandod - how incredibly funny. Ah, yes, those were my wilderness years. Fairly nice reviews, NO SALES. Was sacked by publisher. Had to fall back on inner resources, all stoicism and humility. The joy is, Backwards ended up on the Sunday Times bestseller list, mostly thanks to the lovely India Knight, who championed it.

    Huge luck with your novel. Don't fear, Mary Wesley was first published when she was seventy. Middle age is nothing.

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  27. Mystery - I worship Bill Bailey. I am going to hunt him down at once. And you are right, funniness is not to be sniffed at, in these Troubled Times.

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  28. Inspired by your words (and somewhat contrary to the Gentleman description) I have initiated a Stalinist purge of dullards. Or would Stalin have kept the dullards?

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  29. I bought "Don't Ask Me Why"! I had to go to Waterstone's in Picadilly for it - no amazon in those days. And I liked it A LOT.

    Re this post - I've just been listening to The Reunion on Radio 4. Thalidomide victims, their parents, doctors. Absolutely heartbreaking and I thank God that I wasn't pregnant during the "good old days" when women were prescribed insufficiently tested drugs for nausea.

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  30. 'Don't ask me why' is in my top three books of all time and has influenced a number of things in my life, from calling my parents Ma and Pa to an eternal and lifelong dream to move to dorset, which is now in planning stages, and a proper respect of beautifully cut suits, hemingway, working in bookshops and pink hair.... and then i went back and bought every other single book T wrote and even sought Out to lunch and the other one whose name right now escapes me. I scoured Amazon for years waiting for the next TK title... (can't wait for the next one. (sorry if this is blush-inducing but it just goes to show that publishers can get it so wrong, so I wish Hodmandod all the best and I shall look out for his book too).

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  31. Jo - that is such a lovely thing to say. I AM blushing. Slightly terrified though to think of you reading Out to Lunch, I was 21 when I wrote it, knew nothing, and wanted to write a cross between Vile Bodies and Love in a Cold Climate. Result was the most affected silly book in the world. It took me several years to calm down and learn to carry a tune. But I do still have a fondness for Don't Ask Me Why and am so glad you liked it. You will be glad to hear that my obsession with Hemingway is still going like gangbusters.

    Cassandra - can't believe you read it too. Is it quite an amazing coincidence that we should end up being friends in the blogosphere all these years later? It is making me smile.

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  32. Well actually - having read out to lunch and other one post everything else - i rather loved them because i could see the essence of Virge in them, which made me love them for that and i could see what you were working up to. It's rather nice to see an author's work in progress for a character and situations and how willa and davey were culminations - for eg - of alabama etc. )If i've got that wrong, sorry, but i think it's fascinating.) Thus my fascination with the blog, and as many have said more eloquently than me, your superb, elegant, thought-inducing prose.

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  33. Jo - oh, the goodness and kindness of you. So many lovely compliments, I am slightly overcome. Just found your own blog - I adore the title - and saw that you have given a huge shout out there for Backwards. I am so pleased you liked it and that you really got what Sarah and I were trying to do. I can't tell you how happy it makes me. Interestingly, in my latest post I thanked LLG for a similar kindness on her blog, and now I add you in huge capital letters to my gratitude list. I am constantly amazed and overjoyed by the absolute kindness and generosity I find in the blogosphere.

    And - yr Out to Lunch comments are fascinating. I had not thought of it in quite those terms, but think you might be right. Of course it makes me feel less shy about how amateurish it was, so thank you for that too.

    Txx

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  34. and now i am blushing. Have a lovely bank holiday weekend with the dogs!!!

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  35. Oh and PS - am going to Cecil Beaton exhibition in Piccadilly on Monday - am frantically re-reading Bright Young Things for context meantime - will let you know how it is, but looks utterly delicious - will be buying postcards aplenty for a montage for my bedroom wall. or as bookmarks - cannot decide.

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  36. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6149248.ece

    Sorry - am posting far too often but suddenly remembered this utterly inspiring and tragic story from the Sunday times last weekend and thought that it would be of interest to everyone, if you didn't see it.

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