Anyone who’s ever read a Terry Pratchett, JRR Tolkien, or JK Rowling (before she went all bleeding-heart-pinko and grown up on us) has fantasized about traipsing through misty snowcapped mountains and enchanted forests, encountering endearing local folk and mythical creatures and being held captive in imposing, multi-towered castles (or if it floats your boat – a boarding school).
The good news is, all this can be easily found in Europe if you know where to look (except for the mythical creatures). Here are my top 5 Fairytale destinations, Europe style…
5. Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Nestled in the Bavarian Alps and built by Mad King Ludwig, Neuschwannstein is the epitome of camp Fairytale kitsch. It was inspired by the castles of the Loire Valley and in turn became the inspiration for Disney’s ‘when you wish upon an star’ castle.
If you can stand the hoards of Japanese tourists and eye-watering parking fees, it makes a nice day trip from Munich. While you’re here, you can stop by at Hitler’s secret mountain lair at Berchtesgaden for a spot of ghoulish Boy’s Own-style sight-seeing.
The castle is currently undergoing renovation and its fairytale factor is therefore slightly diminished by it being entirely covered in scaffolding. Hence its position at number 5.
4. Bialowieza Forest, Poland/Belarus
Welcome to the dark heart of Eastern Europe. If those magical creatures were discovered to exist after all, it’d almost certainly be here. Bialowieza is the largest primeval forest in Europe and home to bison, bears and wolves. Travel advice: if you see a house made of gingerbread, probably best to avoid.
3. Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
More like something out of Discworld than Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is a… erm… giant causeway in Northern Ireland. The crashing waves of the tempestuous Irish sea are vaguely reminiscent of the lighthouse scene in Harry Potter 1.
Likelihood of actually seeing a giant is slim, but after a few Jameson’s, who knows. If all the Caspar David Friedrich-esque Romanticism gets a bit much, for a light-hearted add-on, you can do the open top bus tour of the Falls and Shankill Roads in Belfast and wave at the chavs sitting outside Rangers and Celtic Supporters’ pubs.
2. Tintagel, Cornwall, England
Did King Arthur and Merlin and Gwynevere really live here? Is this where Arthur pulled the sword from the stone? Did he rule his Kingdom wisely with a proto-democratic round table on this rocky outcrop in Cornwall? Probably not, but it makes a nice excuse for the locals to open crystal shops and sell homeopathic remedies in ‘Merlin’s Tea Rooms’ and ‘King Arthur’s convenience store’, so who cares?
1. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Anyone who feels himself to be imbued with the Elfish gene… Anyone who ever applied to go on Knightmare… Anyone who has ever lost his girlfriend, job and flat due to their addiction to World of Warcraft (it happened to my friend’s brother)… Anyone who knows what The Gathering is… will like it here. And just about anyone else, to be honest. It’s a lovely little town in Southern Czech Republic that just screams “Hobbit!”. It’s great. Good beer, too.
2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, an event I remember watching with both excitement and confusion at the time. Being only nine years old, I’d never actually heard of the Berlin wall before, but it looked like something very important was happening. Unbeknown to me, something very important was happening. I was witnessing the triumph of freedom and democracy over communism. Or at least the bankrupting of the Soviet Union and its replacement with capitalist hegemony.
In the spring of that year, Francis Fukuyama’s little-read piece in National Interest had predicted that free market capitalism was the only way forward and that communism was inevitably fizzling out. Pretty soon, he said, history would end, leaving humanity in a permanent state of liberal democratic bliss. It was only a matter of months before Fukuyama’s predictions appeared to be coming true: Solidarity won in Poland, GDR Refugees flowed through Hungary, the wall came down in Berlin, and – most surprisingly of all – David Hasselhoff sang atop the Brandenburg Gate. Ceausescu, Gorby et al were consigned to the scrap heap of history, like carbon paper, the ridings of Yorkshire and white dog poo.
A stroll through Berlin today might indeed reinforce the idea that the end of history is here. If ever there was a figurehead for the end of history, it’s the 21st Century cosmopolitain city-dweller. For the sake of argument, let’s call them a Hipster. Equally at home in Williamsburg and Kreuzberg, the 21st Century Hipster knows no international borders, loves all the latest technology and reinforces unequal economic structures in whichever hotspot it calls home. Hipsters are never racist or homophobic and really don’t see much point in governments or international borders. They value diversity and individualism above all else. Capitalism personified.
Of course, the Hipster aesthetic is no longer the preserve of the international backpack/jetset. Hipster went viral. Suddenly every high street in the Northern hemisphere has craft beer, pulled pork and bearded men with tattoos. The Hipster aesthetic is really now nothing more than the mainstream of youth culture: Be nice to gay people, have a cool phone, eat home-made stuff, make stuff and do something interesting with your life.
In spite of all this, if someone were to ask the question “Does it feel that, in 2014, we have reached the end of history? Do you feel like everything will more or less stay the same from now on?” The answer most of us would give is a resounding “no”. Not only are we becoming increasingly aware of a multi-pole world emerging where America, China, India, Brazil, Europe and Russia vie for economic and ideological hegemony, we are also witnessing a challenge to the liberal democratic dream in the west by so-called popularism. Figures as comically disparate as Nigel Farage, Vladimir Putin, Osama Bin Laden and Hugo Chavez remind us that history is far from over and that either the barbarians are at the gates of Rome, or that Rome needs to realize that Shanghai, Mumbai and Sao Paulo exist too.
A list of the top ten world population growth hotspots reads like a compendium of despots, beheadings, child soldiers, modern-day slavery and rule by military coup. I would wager that transexual rights are pretty far off the agenda in Liberia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Sierra Leone and Oman. Even Russia and China may never be as zealously enthusiastic about minority rights as the west. (As Hitler showed, it is possible to have a capitalist system which supports majority rights at the expense of minorities.)
Fukuyama and others imagine that, given time, the international markets will correct the whims of national politicians and that capitalism – albeit in a Chinese or Indian flavoured model – will prevail. So far, it appears that once people reach a certain level of material wealth, they have the time and energy to question authority and to push for democracy. As Fukuyama said in a recent article in the Wall St Journal, “Even as we raise questions about how soon everyone will get there, we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History.”
Fukuyama would point out that the market, by its very nature, cuts down national boundaries and that, through the internet, infrastructure and immigration, humanity will be forced to be liberal, like it or not. His entire prediction, then, is based on a single idea: Capitalism will prevail. If we are to predict whether his predictions are correct, we need to decide whether Capitalism has a future.
The fundamental basis of our economic system is the idea of growth. Without growth, there can be no stock market, no investments, no loans, no banks. There are three ways to get growth: Exploiting nature (eg – by manufacturing goods or by burning fuels), exploiting human capital (eg – by making working weeks longer, or introducing zero hour contracts), and exploiting money (eg – by insuring money or betting on futures). That’s it.
Aside from the cheery realisation that our entire economic system is based on environmental destruction and human misery, the other thing these facts should tell us is that growth capitalism doesn’t have long left to run. The UN says with 80% certainty that what I’m going to call ‘peak humans’ will occur before 2100. The earth cannot support more than 12 Billion people, whether they eat GMOs or not. Similarly, the oil, gas and mineral deposits of the planet are finite. Fracking and shale gas have delayed the inevitable, but I don’t think that even the most gung ho of petrol heads expects to be running on gas come 2080.
Two of our three pillars of economic growth (ie – the exploitation of human and natural resources) look pretty unlikely to survive the century. This means that capitalism is going to have to change drastically if it is to survive. The question of whether you can make money out of money without human and environmental resources like manufacturing, immigration, air travel and wage competition is oddly both pie in the sky and a pressing concern. My intuition is that somewhere along the line, debts need a human being doing a crappy job so they can buy crappy things. I’m no economist, but I can’t help but think that over-dependence on ephemeral assets is the stuff of crashes, bubbles, bank runs, dust bowls and wheelbarrows of banknotes.
The next couple of years will be a vital turning point in deciding whether the world will switch towards a more sustainable economy. The economic recession has forced many people into creating their own sustainable businesses, far from the clutches of the stock markets. In fact, the amount of money made by profit-sharing cooperatives outstripped that of smartphones by a significant margin in 2012 (in spite of what the mainstream media failed to mention).
Young Western people are into things like knitting, baking, sewing, buying vintage clothes, collecting old things, growing stuff on their rooftops, riding bikes, eating less meat – all hallmarks of a post-Capitalist, sustainable economy. The big question might be whether or not the young people in China and India catch the same bug.
In the years since the fall of the wall, we have seen a homogenisation of cultures, where the global rich’s youth are a tolerant, democratically inclined, liberal-minded elite which grows by the thousands in number every day. We could be forgiven for mistaking this for the end of history. But counter to this, the years since 1989 have seen the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the rise of Popular parties, and a population spurt in some of the world’s least liberal countries. We know that something is going to happen with global warming: It might mean catastrophic destruction of major cities or perhaps a move to sustainable local energy cooperatives. In technology, we are going to see artificial intelligences overtake humans and the reflexive phase of human history will really kick in once genetic manipulation and nanotechnology is applied to our own bodies and brains. Either way, it’s pretty clear: Fukuyama don’t know shit: History is only just beginning.
It’s funny how time just moves on and, imperceptibly, things disappear without fanfare or farewell. Of course, technology is the reason for most things to become outdated. Among the recent cultural cullings are: Watching VHS, listening to CDs, using encyclopedias, knowing people’s phone numbers, arranging to meet someone at a specific time, booking your holiday at a travel agents (or through Ceephax if you were awesome), wearing a watch, writing a letter.
While the digital age has heralded much of this change, some of it is unrelated to technology and more of a fashion thing. It’s no longer relevant who is at number one in the charts. Neither is it cool to visibly belong to a youth subculture. Except in, like, Retford or Cumbria, where defiant Emo kids still cling longingly to the idea that thickness of eyeliner equates to emotional depth. As a DJ, I am no longer expected to announce people’s birthdays or ask “anyone here celebrating A-level results day tonight?” in a nightclub, thankfully.
But one thing that has passed imperceptibly into the past is Grannies. By which I mean real Grannies of the kind still depicted on TV like this:
Proper Grannies were so ubiquitous that we never thought we’d see the back of them. We thought that, as you got older, we’d all automatically start wearing nylon dresses and calling the radio the “wireless”. It seemed a natural part of the ageing process: As soon as your hair turned grey, you suddenly felt an uncontrollable urge to eat tongue sandwiches and switch to electric blankets and eiderdowns.
But something happened….
The proper Grannies went to the great whist drive in the sky and the baby boomers started reaching 50, then 60, then 70… Suddenly, your Granny has done more LSD than you have and makes better pesto to boot. Granny wants a Kindle Fire for Christmas. Granny has 2000 followers on Pinterest. Granny is glamping at Glastonbury (Emily Eavis follows her on Twitter).
So, before they are gone forever, let us remember:
Carriage clocks for 40 years’ loyal service
Listening to Perry Como/holidaying at Lake Como
Calling electricity ‘the electric’
Knowing/caring who Princess Grace of Monaco is
Motorbikes with sidecars
Tea urns in village halls
Saying ‘five bob’
Saying someone has ‘elfin’ features
Knowing how to play the piano
Thinking milk is healthy
Those brass lady/bell ornaments
What with the rise of British Bake-off and Sewing Bee, the hipster-fuelled return of knitting and the Swing music revival, some might argue that Granny culture is making a comeback. Or, like vinyl records, Caramacs and milk floats, it never actually went away if you knew where to look. More elderflower wine and damson jam is being consumed at more WI meetings now than at any time in the past 20 years. So while there is always a hint of tedious 21st century irony in the latter-day fad for bunting, shabby chic and Keep Calm and Carry On, at least we have some reminders of the Reenies and Mabels and Ethels who made our childhoods so full of joy. And Murray mints.
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[EDIT: I’ve made this post sticky, as this topic is back in the news again! Mostly since Oxford university researchers announced that over 40% of jobs will be taken by robots soon . It’ll be interesting to see what really does happen, whether (as I suspect), people will just be kept busy doing ever more ludicrous tasks.]
In the early 70s, perhaps catalyzed by LSD or Marxism (or possibly both), academics in the humanities very briefly experienced a mini enlightenment. One of the most enlightening articles from this era, which I would recommend anyone read – if only the first couple of paragraphs – is Marshal Sahlin’s The Original Affluent Society.
In The Original Affluent Society, Sahlins explains that contemporary (ie-1966) hunter-gatherers like the Kalahari Bushmen or Inuits spend on average three hours a day working. Yet they live in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Imagine how easy it must have been for stone-age hunter-gatherers living in temperate parts of Europe or America to survive. Their surroundings were so abundant they could procure everything completely for free from nature’s larder within minutes of their doorsteps – if they indeed had doors. They also had the knowledge to just go out and make anything they wanted – again completely free and gratis, using their extensive knowledge of the environment. This is why it’s a good idea to remain skeptical about the development agenda. If a person is “surviving on $1 a day in Africa”, it might actually mean they are actually rather well-off. Introducing waged labour and that economists’ pet obsession, property rights, to these communities turns them from being the most affluent people on earth into the poorest overnight. Way to go economists.
So, what does this have to do with us? Well, if you’re like me, you’ll have noticed: hold on a minute – three hours a day? In the arctic? WTF are we doing here in the West? We have the mechanisation of agriculture, digitisation of just about everything and roboticisation. Yet we humans are working more and more hours. We work 40 hours a week – probably around 4 times the amount of our paleolithic forebears. Something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. We should be living in some kind of utopia where everybody is drinking drinks with umbrellas while robot slaves do our housework. What happened? Why do we live in such an inefficient society? Especially when capitalism claims to be so big on efficiency?
Unfortunately, the answer to this has been known for over ages. Herbert Marcuse predicted in 1956:
“the closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of domination dissolve. Civilisation has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression (because such usage would upset the hierarchy of the status quo), productivity must be turned against the individuals, it becomes itself an instrument of universal control.”
Marcuse, Eros and Civilization
Which, in a nutshell means: Capitalism wants to keep people busy. People must keep working to live and living to work, otherwise society will start – gulp – thinking for itself.
Those of you long enough in the tooth to remember the 70s might remember that Marcuse’s predictions about productivity had started to become a reality. Human labour capacity was outstripping demand and a “leisure society” was inevitable. There was talk of a three day working week and the question was posed: what are we going to do with all our free time? Freed from the shackles of employment, humanity would reach a new era of unprecedented creativity. People could live in tipis in Wales while robots and computers did all the human work. It was going to be like Woodstock every day. But with robots. Of course, all western governments realised this was terrible news for them. How can a Labour party survive with no workers? And how can right-wingers and Liberals survive with no consumers? Luckily for them, they had a solution: Bureaucracy.
Keep people busy at all costs. Introduce audits and targets and league tables and managers at all levels in the nationalised industries. Make them feel indispensable. Devise outreach schemes and health and safety drives and equal opportunity commissions; make sure that these new jobs are promoting equality and diversity, then any left-leaning person will be unable to question them. Make the public sector one huge, teetering bureaucracy where everybody feels they are helping society. Even though all society really needs is a few nurses, teachers and possibly policemen. If this bureaucracy idea is implemented, we can ensure that all people will be kept:
a. Too busy to change the status quo
b. Dependent on the state
Which is what happened. Ask any teacher, nurse, doctor, policeman, lecturer or social worker about their job and they will all, without exception, tell you that is blighted by inordinate amounts of pointless paperwork. The drop-out rate of new teachers is approaching 50%. A large proportion of them cite overwork as the cause. They are even talking of scrapping the long summer holidays, so it must be bad. Tenured university lecturers in the UK have to spend over half their working week on paperwork instead of doing new research or teaching students. Nurses and doctors spend as much time reporting on what they have just done as doing it.
The Protestant work ethic is so embedded in Anglo-American society that everyone from the unemployed demanding the “right to work” to the super-rich who do internships instead of just whatever the fuck they like all day are all in it together. The drudgery of wage slavery is the only way to feel fulfilled in our society. The long-term unemployed become suicidal. We are urged to detest those on Benefits Street because they are refusing to play along with the game.
The fact of the matter is that our society only really needs a two or three day working week. The other two and a half days create the surplus value which feeds capitalism by creating the consumer society. If people had those extra two and a half days, they might start their own businesses and compete with large scale capitalism by owning the means of production. ‘Owning the means of production’… of course, all this Marxist language sounds hideously old-fashioned to us now. It may be outdated, boring, passé, but let’s face it: It’s bang on the money, right?
Someone on teh internet once said that ‘Dubstep sounds like robots having sex’. There was a time when that would have been a great thing. We could have worn a tinfoil space outfit from Cyberdog and been all over that robot sex vibe. How times have changed. Nowadays, the idea of ‘quality’ in Dance music has shifted to the warm, classic-sounding stuff: Deep House, New York Disco, Ska, Rock n Roll, Golden Era Hip Hop, anything with analog synths, anything with 909s… All that EDM and Brostep rubbish sounds, well, rubbish. What happened?
Up until a couple of years ago, Dance music only ever looked forward. The rate of progression from Rap to House to Rave to Hardcore to Jungle to DnB took place over the course of just 10 short years (roughly speaking, 1986-1996). Top DJs were expected to play all the latest releases and a track would be jettisoned from your record bag after 18 months, regardless of how good it was. White labels, dubplates and pirate radio all contributed in their own way to the vertiginous turnover of sonic palates, pushing music faster, harder, further. Dance music was the sound of the future and it left most Rock music light years behind in terms of innovation and originality. I remember DJing in the early 2000s and listening to old House and Hardcore records with their ‘primitive’ 909 beats and thinking how dated and badly produced they sounded. Those same records are now the ones we eulogize about with misty-eyed nostalgia. The futuristic robot music of Skrillex or Knife Party just sounds like some kind of aural discharge. The future is over.
The reason we hate EDM is that we are now living in the end times. We are coming to the end of Western civilization. Although the current economic recession appears to be lifting – through such ugly and desperate measures as fracking and selling off the NHS – we are surely witnessing the last death throws of the Anglo-saxon empire. As Russia comes knocking at Europe’s door once again and Latin Americans catch tantalizing glimpses of life beyond America’s stranglehold, it’s fair to say we are entering a new age. It is no surprise, then, that we are also caught up in a collective cultural nostalgia trip.
The warm, cosy world of the 20th Century is a far safer place for us to abide than a 21st Century where China holds the cards and hoverboards are conspicuous only by their absence. It is also no surprise, that the only music ‘we’ judge to be worthy is the good old classic-sounding stuff. The new breed of American Dubstep with its hyper-wobble distorted basslines or glitzy EDM with its catchy choruses and hands-in-the-air Euphoria are deemed to be beyond the pale.
We have fallen out of love with the future, because we know deep down that we do not own the future any more. Is this something to be pessimistic about? Hell no! Just as in 1453, as Constantinople fell and Christendom lay in tatters, Italy looked inwards and backwards and came up with the Renaissance, it might be that we need a deep and long recession to remind us of what’s important in life. It’s probably time for the West to take a rest. Once the fracked oil has been bled dry and the locusts have moved on to India or China, maybe we will finally be left in peace to build a sustainable future where we don’t have to keep running blindly forwards in the name of progress. If Skrillex is the future, isn’t it better to stand still? I for one would rather stick on a shellac, pour myself a martini with an olive in it, and get back to the sewing. As long as I can keep my iphone.
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I’m probably not the first person to point out that we have invented the most powerful mechanism for human interaction and cooperation ever conceived, yet use it to share pictures of kittens. In the spirit of Buzzfeed, Upworthy et al, I will give this article a ridiculously over-egged headline and a picture of a sloth doing something cute, but if you want to understand my drift, you might have to actually be bothered to read a few hundred words. Sorry about that.
I awoke this morning to a Buzzfeed article about an artist called Lindsay Bottos. To cut a long story short, Lindsay found herself at the brunt of cyberbullying for no other reason than being a relatively attractive woman with a Tumblr. I’m sure that many commentators’ angle on this story will be the failure of feminism: “The male gaze”, that sort of thing. However, there is an underlying tendency behind this whole issue which is, if anything, far more disturbing/interesting in my eyes. When people watched TV, it was called the ‘three-second zapping culture’.
Now we’re in the digital age, it’s this same zapping culture which draws us to Buzzfeed, Tumblr and the rest. If this new century can be characterised by anything, it is the way that visual culture has replaced the written word, and that information is becoming ever more bite-sized. Why watch a 2-hour film when you can watch a one-hour episode of Breaking Bad? Why read an essay about the meaning of art when you can see the idea expressed on canvas? Why read a cookery book when you can watch a youtube video instead? There is no doubt that, for good and for bad, all the information in the universe is slowly being condensed and filtered into manageable chunks. These bitesize pieces are easier to digest and help us to achieve more as human beings. But the flipside of all this is that we are becoming really sucky at thinking for ourselves, of holding complicated ideas in our heads and of seeing things in ways other than black and white.
To take an arbitrary example, let’s look at internet memes. They are funny because they are able to sum up a ‘type of person’ or a ‘familiar situation’ so well. They play into the same human weakness; the need to stereotype, to condense information, to create a shorthand, to distill a thought to its essence. They are also incredibly cruel for the person who’s been memed: They have had their individuality erased and whatever intentions they had in striking that pose have been completely airbrushed from history. They have become nothing more than a hideous caricature, a shorthand for an idea. Sucks to be them. But what is a selfie, but the creation of one’s own meme about oneself? Every selfie is in all circumstances the same meme: I think I’m hot. Just as College Liberal might not even hold liberal views, you might not think you’re hot. But you don’t control your message. The public controls it. They think that all selfies are the “I think I’m hot” meme. Any reaction to your selfie is a reaction to “I think I’m hot” not to you as a person. Don’t take it personally.
In a digital-visual world, there is no room for ambiguity, the marginal, the esoteric. The children of tomorrow will not memorise Shakespeare’s sonnets or Sanskrit grammar. They will not follow trains of argument with logical rigour. They won’t understand the irony of Buzzfeed – the website that specialises in short lists – decrying people who judge artists based on shallow first impressions.
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Sometimes it feels like a day doesn’t go by when my Facebook newsfeed doesn’t contain the words “When are the new Public Enemy/Sex Pistols/Rage Against The Machine going to appear? We need music with a message instead of all this meaningless pop crap…”… I find this sentiment so quaint. It’s almost cute to think that there are some people for whom The Pirate Bay never happened.
If Punk Rock taught us anything, it’s that people love to feel rebellious and will pay good money for ripped jeans, albums about fighting the power, Che Guevara posters and the $375 Urban Outfitters jacket pictured above. Teenagers love to consume the ideology of rebellion. After all, it’s so much easier than actually Fighting the Power. Remember in Withnail and I when the drug dealer complains that they’re selling Hippy wigs in Woolworths? It’s what they used to call recuperation in the olden days of Socialist yore. Or, as the Clash so elequently put it, turning rebellion into money.
What – let’s call him ‘Facebook Guy’ – doesn’t realise is that sitting on your arse listening to Billy Bragg is no more subversive than sitting on your arse listening to Justin Bieber. Whether it be Britney Spears or Bob Seeger, any major label record purchase is essentially an act of fellatio on a huge corporate penis. Facebook Guy thinks he’s rebelling by listening to Public Enemy, but he’s really sucking Vivendi Universal Music Group dick.
At the end of the day, Bob Dylan didn’t end the Vietnam war any more than The Hoff brought down the Berlin wall. The Economic machinations of the Geopolitical power nexus massively dwarf any ideological merit which accrues through someone – even the Lennons and Strummers of this world – writing a pop song.
If, like Facebook Guy, you are waiting for the next Public Enemy, I think I may have found them. It’s YOU. You can share, bootleg, steal, lend, swop, blog, give away, mashup and remix music. Become a producer instead of a consumer… (and you don’t even need to leave your armchair!). But if you can’t be arsed, don’t worry. Some kid from Hackney with Fruity Loops and a Twitter account is doing it right now. Don’t say you weren’t warned.