Hell, as one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s characters said, is other people. Unless, that is, you happen to be British and born after about 1980, in which case hell is the opposite: being alone for more than about five minutes. As for the absolute pit, the eighth circle or however else you describe the geography of Beelzebub’s kingdom, that is being left alone without a 3G mobile phone signal.
Of all changes in British life over the past generation, nothing has been quite so as stark as the strange death of individualism. When in 1995 the then transport secretary Steven Norris told the Commons transport committee that the reason why many people preferred to travel by car than by bus was that they saw an advantage in ‘not having to put up with dreadful human beings sitting next to you’, he was of course barked at by the left for being a heartless Tory bastard who cared nothing for the poor. But even his critics acknowleged, as the Independent did in an editorial at the time, that he was nevertheless speaking for the misanthrope who lurks within us all.
Such a comment no longer really makes any sense; not when you hear of as many as 200,000 people eschewing their home sound systems to squash together at Glastonbury, leaving aside all the other wannabe Glastos; not when you see every last pebble of Brighton beach covered with the backsides of day-trippers who could have gone to any beach in the South East — many of which actually have some sand — and yet chose here, where they must have known they would be unable to move. The inner misanthrope wasn’t much in evidence, either, among the six million people who last month lined the streets eight deep to watch the Tour de France. It can’t have been the sport they were after; a more unsatisfactory spectator experience could scarcely be imagined; a real fan would watch on the television so as to see the race develop; not stand for hours with the sweaty masses to catch a glimpse. The popularity of the event can only be described in terms of a un-Norrisite desire to be part of a large crowd.
You can see this yearning to be part of a crowd in the housing market, too. Until the mid-1990s everyone seemed to want to leave smoky, rotten old London. Yet there has been a snap-back, with people choosing to live piled on top of each other in overpriced broom cupboards, while rural property struggles to sell. (London’s population was under 7 million in 1995, and has now passed 8.5 million.) It shows up in restaurants which 30 years ago were full of couples and small groups, but which if you walk into now, even midweek, you find the tables have been shifted together for a vast girls’ night out. It shows, too, in our pubs, the backstreet ones of which have gone to be replaced by vast drinking factories catering for a thousand or more people at a time. You can see it in literary festivals, attending which seems to have become a substitute for reading books, and on Ben Nevis, which has become a four-lane motorway of sponsored walks while lovelier mountains nearby go unclimbed.
But there is no greater symptom of Britain’s newfound herd instinct than in the popularity of big screens showing sporting events and the like. A big screen is really just a huge telly. You don’t get to see a live sporting event. You just sit and watch a screen, as you could do in your own living room, but without your fridge close at hand — and in the company of a few hundred or thousand other human beings who each presumably have the same BO and irritating personal habits which inspired Mr Norris’s love for his car.
I started with a rather negative view of individualism because that is where the left would want me to start. For many, the death of individualism is to be celebrated. They would love to think of the yearning to be part of a crowd as the ultimate defeat of Mrs Thatcher’s brutal view of humanity. They would love to see the desire to share public spaces as an embrace of collectivist values. For them, the rise and rise of shared mass experiences among the young is the living embodiment of a generational divide, between an older, Ukip-friendly age group who live in fear of national over-crowding, and a younger mass for whom each extra person living on our shores merely serves to add more atmosphere to the great big street party that is modern Britain.
Yet here is the twist. The rise of the mass shared experience has not been accompanied by a revival of socialism, or anything approaching it. Quite the opposite. The generation of crowd-lovers shows little inclination to share its money. The divisions between the well-off and the less well-off grow sharper by the year, and the young, like Peter Mandelson, seem intensely relaxed about it. I stand to be corrected on this, but I don’t recall a campaign on the part of this year’s Glastonbury-goers, who had paid a minimum of £210 for their tickets, for the poor to be let in at a discount, still less for the festival to return to being free, as it was in 1971. You occasionally hear moans about the price of Premiership tickets excluding the working man from what was traditionally his game, but it is all rather mild, really. The crowds of which we like to be part are largely socioeconomic monocultures made up of people rather like ourselves.
There has to be some other explanation for the rise in herd behaviour. Some interpret it as a reaction to more solitary working environments. Where once we worked close together in factories, goes the argument, now more of us work from home, and so we get to the end of the day gagging for human company. Yet many factory workers laboured effectively alone, with any attempt to talk to their fellow strugglers drowned out by clanking machinery if not banned by the management.
In any case, the golden age for individualism fell some time after the decline of manufacturing industry. The desire to plough one’s own social furrow was strongest in the 1980s and 1990s when many of us already worked in atomised, de-unionised industries. I see something quite different: that individualism sowed the seeds of its own demise, by denying its children the time and space to develop as individuals.
Until the 1970s it was normal for parents, even middle-class ones, to leave their children to make their own entertainment. That might mean going out and forming mini-gangs — life as a child in the middle-class suburbs where I was brought up in the 1970s had its Moss Side moments. But quite often it meant spending time alone. Yet from around the early 1980s onwards laissez-faire parenting no longer seemed good enough for successful people who wanted to give their own children an advantage in life. For many, childhood became much more organised. Children became ferried around from one activity to another.
The result is a generation which has never spent time by itself and has no idea how to entertain itself without some external input. The positive side of the individualism we have lost was self-reliance and resilience. Being alone — or even just being cut off the greater mass of humanity — has become something to be feared. My eye was recently caught by the story of a ‘cliff rescue’. A party of five had gone for a walk onto the sands near Weston-super-Mare. The tide had come in, they clambered a little way up a cliff, made frantic calls and were rescued by helicopter. A narrow squeak, as it was reported. Except that the photographs showed something quite different: of people sitting on a grassy bank which quite clearly was not going to be engulfed by the high tide. Moreover, it was the middle of summer. All they had to do was to wait for the water to recede and then to walk back to their car. For an earlier generation it might have been considered a minor adventure, but for this one it was an experience of sheer terror: being cut off from external sources of entertainment for a few hours.
There is a fashionable theory that creativity results from gathering large numbers of people in the same place like Silicon Valley or indeed the less-pastoral Silicon Roundabout in east London. By this theory large cities thrive because they have a critical mass of brains, while small towns become culturally moribund. But then it rather depends what you are trying to create. If it is a social media start-up I don’t doubt you are better off in a space — as they like to call their offices — with lots of other men with ponytails. But would Gustav Mahler really have composed better music had he worked in a roomful of composers and an organic coffee machine than in his lonely hut on the Wörthersee?
Social media is the sheepdog of the new, crowd-loving Britain. It is the beast which manipulates minds and concentrates attention on a few favoured places, ideas, products and cultural works at the expense of others. No one discovers anything any more; it is all discovered for us. Social media works on the latest obsessive-compulsive disorder in us; the voice in us telling us we must do or see something because everyone else is telling us to. What has happened to the publishing industry is instructive. Social media has not quite killed off books; but they have killed off browsing while inflating sales of a few titles for which the only recommendation required is that 10 million people have already bought them. Whether these lucky books are actually read, as opposed to discussed in 140 characters, is another matter.
I don’t want to sound too much like an old grandad. Indeed, there is something inside me which welcomes the rise in herd mentality. It is the compulsion to pile into crowded places, thereby making them even more crowded, which keeps other places quiet for the country’s remaining few misanthropes like me. Keep on going to your festivals, I say, keep on piling on to Brighton beach and into Wetherspoon’s. It is thanks to you, the herded, that I could find last weekend, on a hot day in the middle of summer, a beach in highly populated southern England deserted enough for nude bathing.
I am not telling you where it is in case some jerk with 10 million Twitter followers thinks: what a great place for a festival.