Christopher Howse

So were the Noughties nice?

Not really, says Christopher Howse. The decade started with a bang, and continued in a half-awake fantasy punctuated by anxiety. The most that can be said for it is that it was short

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Outside my local pub it says in big letters ‘£500’, and underneath: ‘This is the fine if you take your drink out into the street.’ What law imposes this fine, no one knows. It could be something to do with 24-hour drinking legislation, or even anti-terror laws.

The reason people want to take their drinks into the street is that they’d like a cigarette, which they cannot have in the pub, under another law. The pub now smells not of cigarette smoke but of cooking fat, drains and sweat. The destruction of the pub is a notable cultural achievement of the Noughties, a decade with plenty of other demolition jobs under its belt: the universities, public-service broadcasting, local shops, popular music, house-ownership and the notion of ‘retirement’ in old age.

The Noughties is not a name that has caught on in America (where zero is not commonly known as nought), but it seems to be the most acceptable name for the decade in Britain.

Unlike the Sixties, which came in on a dreamy cloud and ended as a nightmare, the Noughties began, late, with a bang — on 11 September 2001 — and continued in a half-awake fantasy punctuated by spasms of anxiety. The alarm-bell of 9/11 woke us from a phoney start in the Millennium Dome, when the Queen’s arms were jerked up and down to ‘Auld Lang’s Syne’ by ministers of the Blair government. Just as we had got used to the idea that Armageddon (even in the form of the supposititious Millennium Bug) had been postponed, al-Qa’eda galloped in on apocalyptic horses.

So it has been a short decade, or it will have been unless something happens in 2011 to finish it off nicely, as the first world war did to the Edwardian era.

Some trends have piled up in our decade. The technology of culture has, for example, reinforced social atomisation. Now that the internet does more than provide train timetables (with even Wikipedia proving valuable), there is less need to speak to anyone, except by mobile phone. Bookshops close, and so do record shops, since music is downloadable too. So are films, news and Tweets.

How many times have you seen someone on a mobile phone all the way through his transaction at the supermarket checkout? It is as if the girl at the till was not a human being. With ‘automatic’ checkouts, even her human contact is eliminated. Nor does anything last. It is easy to take pictures on a digital camera, but few are printed or kept in albums. With email, there is no need to write with a pen, but nor are there love letters to keep.

Blogs have not, in the Noughties, made the breakthrough expected of them. For the most part, they are like poetry: more people write them than want to read them. Their authors would find a bigger audience if they photocopied a dozen sheets of A4 and left them on the Underground.

In looking at the Noughties and asking ‘What does it all mean?’ it is tempting still to seek a defining snapshot from television. The Nineties were captured by The Royle Family, which ended in 2000 (though it still sees specials). The feckless Royles, clustering around the flickering hearth of the television, embodied the comedy of recognition and embarrassment. Ralf Little, the actor who played Anthony in the family, migrated in the Noughties to the never-ending, unembarrassed but toe-curling Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. God forbid that the 72 endlessly repeated episodes of this purported comedy, created by Susan Nickson when she was 18, should define our decade. Yet there is worse: Coming of Age, a sitcom about sixth-formers. It was written by Tim Dawson, still a teenager when the first series began. The episode titles give an idea of the contents: Dick and Fanny, I Suck Coppers, Up the Botty and Pussy Boy. The BBC has commissioned another series for 2010.

Fortunately Two Pints and Coming of Age are no snapshots, more a hurried aerosol tagging of a stretch of blank wall by graffiti artists of limited imagination. Banksy they aren’t.

Television still dominates the popular culture of the Noughties, with four hours a day consumed — on average. Since you and I watch less, someone is watching much more. But the Noughties are the last decade of television regarded as a live medium. This is the end of a common culture discussed the next day. The future choice of viewing, wide but shallow, will be downloaded any old time, for a price.

I’m not convinced, though, that life is imitating reality TV. Big Brother, it is true, began in 2000 and is still alive. At the beginning of the Noughties it averaged more than four million viewers, while its 10th series in 2009 captured only half as many. That means about 58 million do not watch it. The bigger audiences for the X Factor are no different than big audiences for the talent show Opportunity Knocks in the 1960s. And the emotional voyeurism of Big Brother is no worse than that of Double Your Money — in 1955 the first British television show to offer cash prizes. ‘Double Your Money and try to get rich,’ went the theme song as viewers turned on the electric logs after a hard day boiling and mangling the washing and queuing at the butcher’s for mince to make shepherd’s pie for tea.

By a paradox, food in the Noughties has improved, while the ability to cook it has declined. Cookery programmes are popular, but few learnt to cook from a mother, since both Noughties parents must go out to work. Yet it’s not all Turkey Twizzlers. Farmers’ markets and the organic fad mean that good veg and meat is easier to come by. We seek local mud on it.

By ‘we’ I mean householders. But by the Noughties houses had changed from places to live into certificates for ever-expanding wealth. The bubble burst, as no one can be unaware. We may blame the bankers, but house-price speculation was an insane expression of avarice. So the young, leaving university with debt and a useless degree, cannot afford houses. That is one more dose of anxiety for them.

The anthem of edgy Noughties self-aware anxiety is Lily Allen’s ‘The Fear’, a hit at the beginning of 2009. ‘I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless,’ she sings, in a satire on celebrity. Her fans sing along, their iPods blotting out the quotidian world: ‘I don’t know how I’m meant to feel any more./ When do you think it will all become clear?/ ’Cos I’m being taken over by The Fear.’

Lily Allen, the thinking girl’s Amy Winehouse, born in 1985, is clever, funny, likes a drink, and has hosted a BBC Three chat-show. She is said to have attended 13 schools before beginning her music career at 15. Though she satirises the cult of celebrity, many teenagers think they could be a Lily Allen. They can’t, because they are not clever enough or musical enough. The best they’ll score is a night out in the back of a stretch limo with some girlfriends, drunk and screaming out of the window.

Lily Allen was very hot for Copenhagen. Climate change is one Noughties substitute for religion. Another is a stated awareness of international inequalities in wealth, somehow compatible with buying very cheap clothes made in the Third World from supermarkets. A third, enduring substitute is health. Never mind whether global warming, world poverty or sickness can be avoided. The process is the religion.

Health makes it immoral to smoke, or to eat saturated fats. In the educated this induces guilt and compliance. But as with past conventional moralities, this is one that many working-class people eschew. Life in the cooked-breakfast and tabs deprivation of Glasgow North-East may be brutish, but at least it’s short. In Kensington, old people go on and on, but not in the fa mily home. There is thus less transmission of their cultural assumptions, including the concept of individual liberty. State control, on grounds of security against terrorism, health, safety or even equality, is exemplified by the self-styled Identity and Passport Service. ‘We are transforming identity management,’ boasts its website. ‘We regularly exceed our customer service performance targets.’ You bet.

Britain in the Noughties has also exceeded its targets in warfare, finding, in Gordon Brown, a Prime Minister who has asked for Osama bin Laden to be ‘taken out’. Just when younger people have grown to respect old soldiers on Remembrance Sunday, and to throw flowers in invented rites at Wootton Bassett, they have been presented with murderous government policies. In Pakistan, US drones kill suspected terrorists, and any family who happen to be with them.

One of several alternative fantasies for dealing with such a world is the popular video game Modern Warfare. A worse fantasy response is screen horror and torture (as in the Saw and Hostel series). By compressing human suffering in a film, without space for emotional digestion, horror becomes unreal.

A different genre of screen fantasy is the mythopoeic war against evil, with The Lord of the Rings the best-selling film series of the decade. Its popularity, and that of the feebler myth of the Harry Potter series, hint that the secularisation of Western society is not following an untroubled path. The attraction of believing in anything rather than nothing explains the success of culturally degraded tales such as The Da Vinci Code, the Matrix films and television series such as Heroes.

In 2009, the editor of the Economist was right to call the book he wrote with his US bureau chief: God is Back. Its mistake, though, was in sketching an American, individualist, pluralist, text-based religious resurgence. In fact the Catholic or Islamic models — communally involved in ritual and committed to a specific creed — are the ones thriving in Africa and Asia. Religions are not being privatised and yoked with commerce. Rather, their arrogation of a standpoint superior to that of big business and civil authority makes them subversive and dangerous. It may also give them the ability to offer healing to a broken Noughties culture.

Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph.