Eating people is right

Paul Delany

  • Modern Times by Peter York
    Heinemann, 128 pp, £7.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 434 89260 2
  • Face Value: The Politics of Beauty by Robin Tolmach Lakoff and Raquel Scherr
    Routledge, 312 pp, £12.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9742 5

The Sloane Ranger style, Peter York has told us, reflects ‘a state of mind that’s eternal’. This may be putting it a bit strongly: but the Sloane ancestry goes back at least to the days when knighthood was in flower and one really needed a pony. Like British trade unions, Sloanes have deep roots as a defensively-organised collective, and ‘What Really Matters’ to them may well matter differently, or not matter at all, to everyone else. In Modern Times York promises to tell ‘What’s Really Happening’ to everyone – not just Henry and Caroline. He still assumes that what’s happening is best explained in terms of style, and still concerns himself only with things that can raise a laugh, or at least a chuckle. But York is now looking at all of modern life as a single system of fashion. In a world where ‘Everybody Wants Everything’, who determines exactly what they want? Modern Times ranges from ‘Neurotic Boy Outsiders’ (James Dean, Anthony Perkins et al) to ‘The Fairisle Years’ (Chariots of Fire, Brideshead Revisited), with passing looks at Babytime, Bryan Ferry, Reactionary Chic, and Not Shaving.

The most substantial part of York’s book is ‘Designtime’, an anatomy of the people he calls ‘the square men’, after their favourite motif. They have outstripped their traditional rivals, the architects, because they will tackle anything from a pen to a neighbourhood. The design mentality extends from Art School to Commercial TV, from the Victorian revival to Hi Tech. The careers of its First Family, the Conrans, are for York ‘the perfect expression of a whole class of person that had hardly existed before the Sixties’. At home, the Design Life’ comes from Habitat; outside, you get it at Covent Garden, where ‘there’s nothing, literally nothing ... which hasn’t been thought out by the square men, there’s no corner undesigned.’ Though Covent Garden’s style is archaic/nostalgic, its real ancestry goes back only to 1955, when Disneyland opened south of Los Angeles. This, the first of the ‘theme parks’, had to be built from scratch. But in older cities, the designers realised, you could assemble your parks from existing materials and sell them as ‘urban renewal’: ‘During the Sixties and Seventies, a new kind of theme park was emerging across the world: the gentrified change-of-use quartier, once plebeian or industrial in the real world, made over to the creative leisure life, the world of taste. In these places, a certain life is lived, a certain life laid on; bits of the past, of small plebeian businesses, of trades, of characters are retained to give atmosphere, while the essential class, ownership and occupational base changes out of sight.’ The traditional working class, and their industries, are being removed from the centres of the great cities, and replaced by people who live off style, finance, communication, ‘the soft end of the caring professions’ – anything intangible. For this class, consumption is scarcely distinguishable from work. Things are not just used: they are meticulously chosen, savoured, graded. Goods are sold as experiences, and vice versa. Places like Covent Garden or New York’s SoHo are centres of internal tourism: people go there to consume each other.

Style indicates who belongs where (see the discussion of ‘working the door’ at the fashionable clubs) and, crucially, who belongs on top. In the age of television, politicians are turned into actors. They have got to choose an image, and then ‘project’ it. Michael Foot insisted on looking like what he is – ‘the corduroy, the wool tie, the academic’s white hair’ – and was duly run off the court by ‘the warrior queen ... her hair lacquered into Britannia’s golden helmet’. In modern times, York argues, it’s not what is right, but what looks right. Among the victims of this new iron law he numbers ‘hippie, Freud, the Modern Movement in architecture, and finally, in 1979, the Labour Party’.

Is feminism in the process of joining the list? Face Value is one long cry of outrage against what York so relishes – the fashionable world of style and surface. Lakoff and Scherr’s chapter on ‘The Pathology of Beauty’ deals with breast implants and anorexia, but the title would suit their whole book. Beauty, they complain, ‘is the only means by which women reach power and influence’. It is artificial, superficial and unfair. Romantic love and beauty, says black novelist Toni Morrison, are ‘probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought’.

Taking all this for gospel, Face Value sets out to explore the ‘secret shame’ of feminism: a guilty obsession with looks and make-up. The authors admit that this is their obsession too, though Lakoff ‘considers herself strikingly homely, and does as little as is humanly possible to overcome that’. But why is it wrong to want to be beautiful, or to possess the beauty of others? Lakoff and Scherr cannot decide whether beauty is a product of nature (unfair) or of art (deceitful). But their deepest objection seems to be to the urge for self-creation that women express through clothes, make-up and dieting. This has to be wrong because it is done for the benefit of the oppressor – the male sex.

How to explain, then, the importance of beauty in the gay world? Lakoff and Scherr argue that gay men have feminised themselves, because they value looks more highly than wealth and status. Again, beauty is turned into a stigma, proof that the one possessing it lacks more important kinds of power. For Lakoff and Scherr, ‘face value’ is not really a value at all. They want us to believe that woman has a deeper nature than this, and that their kind of feminism expresses it. When they stop grinding their axe they have original and thoughtful points to make about what it means to have beauty, or to lack it.

York’s strategy is the opposite. Women have always had to put on a show, he admits, but in the modern world this is becoming the universal condition. Britain grasped this truth sooner than others. Having lost an empire, she retained her love for ‘rules and protocol and the lunatic gesture’: but now they were practised just for their own sake – and London became the style capital of the world. The Britons are now like Nietzsche’s Greeks. First they convince themselves that they can ‘manage almost any role ... and all nature ceases and becomes art.’ The end of the line, for the Greeks, was that ‘they really became actors. As such they enchanted and overcame all the world ... the maddest and most interesting ages of history always emerge, when the “actors”, all kinds of actors, become the real masters.’ Whether or not you call the current show the Decline of Britain, the question is how long it will run and who will pay the rent. York has hedged his bets by founding a firm of style consultants (like the hero of Clive James’s Brilliant Creatures). His advice to Britain seems to be to enjoy the action while it lasts, and keep on dressing up: Fairisle sweater or Husky jacket, pith helmet or cloth cap. As every actor knows, the dream is to make a living off your residuals.