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Mick Hume

Ghoul Britannia

Tony Blair is always saying that his New Britain/Cool Britannia is a country that is young, energetic, alive, forward-looking. In which case, why is there now such a ghoulish cultural obsession with death, decay, doom and destruction?

The new stars of television drama are criminal pathologists (McCallum, ITV, Silent Witness, BBC), competing to see who can carve up more grisly cadavers in search of 'the truth' and a bigger slice of the viewing figures.

The ultra-cool 'Britart' (as seen in the Royal Academy's controversial Sensation exhibition last year) revels in images of rotting or mutilated flesh, whether it be Damien Hirst's pickled carcasses, the Chapman brothers' 3D version of Goya's 'Great deeds against the dead', or Jenny Saville's gross paintings of the female (de)form. Anthony-Noel Kelly, recently sentenced to jail for stealing body-parts from the Royal College of Surgeons to make moulds for his silver-gilded sculptures, is the first martyr of the abattoir school of art.

No arthouse cinema would be seen dead these days without at least one film about the darker sides of life; recent jolly themes include alcoholism and abuse (Nil by Mouth), necrophilia (Kissed), and now, the tale of a misshapen teenager who kills cats and sells the corpses so he can buy glue to sniff and bribe a girl with Downs syndrome to have sex with him (Gummo).

Sensitive souls to whom such cinematic crassitude does not appeal can go instead to the theatre and see hot playwright Sarah Kane's new work, Cleansed, which begins with a character getting a shot of heroin in the eyeball, and includes among its assorted depictions of abuse and torture the novel dramatic device of rats running around the stage gnawing lumps of human flesh. It is of course, the author says, 'a love story' for our times.

In the world of modern music, serious listeners can enjoy the highly acclaimed compositions of Mark-Anthony Turnage (like the uplifting 'Blood on the floor', about the death of his heroin addict brother). Meanwhile those looking for some lighter relief can tap their toes to Radiohead, whose tunes of trauma, disease, despair and automobile accidents ('Paranoid android', 'My iron lung', 'Airbag') won them two slots in the top 10 of the recent 'Music for the Millennium' album poll. If that has you reaching for the pill jar or the bottle to escape, just remember that, as 'recovering' heroin addict Richard Ashcroft of The Verve has it, 'the drugs don't work/they just make you worse' - which, given the grim state the stars seem to inhabit, is quite an achievement.

If all of this culture of suffering proves too much, you can of course stay home and curl up with a good book. But if you are one of the many who like autobiographies, be prepared for your toes to do most of the curling as you choose from the recent flood of books by those whom the late Ruth Picardie dubbed 'the ill-literati' writing 'autopathography' about their many illnesses, addictions, syndromes and depressions.

'The endless, awful pleuritic pains and endoscopies of disease appear to be the new rock'n'roll', wrote Picardie when she herself was terminally ill. The two years since have done nothing to prove her wrong. Indeed the epidemic of sickness-inspired prose has since spread from paperbacks to the press; it now seems every newspaper needs a columnist to regale their long-suffering readers with tales of the writer's own disorder, like the award-winning John Diamond of The Times magazine and his celebrity cancer.

Do not think for a moment, either, that you can find refuge from the literary gore-fest by going back to the classics. They too are now being reinvented as the work of diseased (or at least disease-fixated) minds. In May, no lesser a venue than the Royal Festival Hall is hosting a day of talks entitled 'Sick notes', in which some Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature is due to lead a discussion 'exploring the link between disease and the literary imagination' from Plato to Plath. The highlight will surely be 'Shakespeare and the diseased body-politic', introduced by the King Alfred Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Even the Bard, it seems, can now be considered a basket-case (well, he did have those buckets of pig's blood thrown around on stage, after all).

It appears that, in order to be taken seriously in Cool Britannia, cultural work has to chime in with the misanthropic, miserabilist mood of the time. This morbid obsession with death and decay is about much more than the latest fads in music or television. It is symptomatic of a society which has lost faith in itself, one which sees humanity drowning in a bloody gut-bucket of its own making.

Perhaps the fashionable view of the human experience is most starkly posed in Damien Hirst's 'A thousand years', a living/dying artwork in which flies feed off a rotting cow's head until they are suddenly picked off by an electronic bug-zapper. Life is shit and then you fry.

As the millennium approaches, the new consensus seems to be that the twentieth century, which has been marked by the most astounding scientific and social advances in human history, has actually been a man-made disaster: that modernity has failed, people have ruined the planet, humanity has proved that it cannot be trusted to do anything much without tragic consequences.

Where once culture could reflect the view of man as the active, self-assured, nature-conquering agent of history, now it can only show humanity as the passive, self-obsessed, fearful victim of forces beyond its control. Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci dissected dead bodies with the precision of a surgeon in order to further our understanding of the human condition, and drew the perfect and beautiful 'Universal Man' (the one in a circle and square) as a result. Now artists hack up human and animal corpses like amateur butchers, to create monstrosities intended to depict - and even to revel in - the ugly, degraded state of our existence.

The morbid message of Ghoul Britannia is that in one way or another we are all damaged goods who should not expect too much of ourselves or other people; that as Gary Oldman, director of Nil By Mouth puts it, 'everybody needs therapy'. Deirdre of Coronation Street, the hapless, helpless hysterical victim, is a fittingly pathetic object of public sympathy today.

Presumably this is why we also have to put up with an unprecedented daily diet of celebrity kiss-and-tell stories in the media, with everybody from Anthea Turner to Jill Dando feeling the need to 'open their hearts to Sun/Mirror/Mail readers'. The sorry display of exhibitionism is a running advert for the widespread belief that people - even apparently successful people - are fundamentally emotional cripples, careering from one life-crisis to another, unable to cope with everyday realities and relationships and forced to wallow in their inadequacies on the public counselling-couch provided by the popular press.

So low has our self-image sunk that nobody seems to believe in a human-centred morality anymore. Indeed anything 'man-made', 'manufactured', or 'genetically engineered' is immediately considered suspect and morally inferior to the 'natural'. The cry is four legs good, two legs bad, favouring elephants over people in parts of Africa, and foxes over people at home. Instead of being a source of pride and inspiration, science has become a fearful spectre haunting humanity, as people gripped by the 'Frankenstein factor' seek to hold back experimentation in the name of creating a risk-free world.

Human society now mistrusts itself to the point where it is afraid of its own creations, from the motor car to the genetically modified soya bean. This preoccupation with risk is not simply an irrational response from 'the mob'. It is an outlook that has been institutionalised from the top of society downwards, as demonstrated by the New Labour government's role in the public doom-mongering over the Millennium Bug.

'Ticking away inside many of our computers is a potential technical time-bomb.' Despite the tabloid language, these words appeared in an article under the byline of prime minister Blair himself in the Independent on 30 March. Blair's government has declared that the Millennium Bug - the fact that existing computer software will not be able to cope with the clocks clicking around to 1 January 2000 - is one of the most serious problems facing not just Britain but the world economy, with all kinds of disasters likely to happen unless we take precautions.

There is indeed a technical problem with many computers and the advent of the year 2000. But it is far from being the apocalyptic prospect which the government's warnings suggest. For big companies which have in-house programmers or are supplied by the large software houses, it should pose no more serious a problem than producing a new release of their software, which they do every couple of years anyway. The same goes for well-resourced government departments and utilities. Smaller companies using standard software may need to upgrade to handle the millennium, but that simply involves investing in products that are now cheaper than ever and contain new features that could benefit their business.

In short, dealing with the Millennium Bug could have been approached as an outstanding opportunity to overhaul and update Britain's computer systems for the next century. Instead it has been talked about as a time-bomb threatening destruction. The warnings of doom have little to do with the real scale of the problem, and a lot to do with a predisposition to panic in a society that lives in fear of its own creations and nature ganging up to take revenge. And that fear is one which leaders like Blair have done much to instil.

It is often assumed that the role of those who want to change society is to complain about the way things are. But what good would that do when society is already gripped by a maudlin pessimism about the present and the future? These days at LM, we feel it is time to give a platform to those who want to advise everybody to lighten up a little and look on the bright side. By any objective criteria, people now live longer, healthier and wealthier lives than ever before. The tremendous technological and social progress made during this century needs to be defended and pushed further on, if we are to build a world fit for people to live in during the next century - and the sooner the better.

Meanwhile, back in Ghoul Britannia, those who are supposed to be at the cutting edge of contemporary culture disengage from the real world, the better to contemplate their own pierced navels and disappear up the arses of their mutilated exhibits. 'Controversial' Britartist Tracey Emin even says she now considers her own life to be a work of art. Each to their own.

Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998

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