Congratulations. You survived January 2009, officially the most miserable month since people with qualifications ending with “-ology” began soothsaying about moods in a scientific fashion. It also marked the return of depression as a noun for economic conditions (meaning: “We’re screwed”). Cue extra helpings of melancholy, you might presume.
But if you attend to politicians’ waffle, here are two more words you have heard of late: “innovation” and “robust”. As one who imbibes too much Radio 4, I find them depressing. They’re tokens in a rhetorical game entitled “Brave voters up for a bad new world”. The object of this humbug hoopla is clear: replace expectations of financial security with a vision rich in wholesome moral fibre yet vaguely exciting and more palatable than bankruptcy.
It’s suave nonsense. Innovation is no more relevant, or rewarded, in bust than boom. The humbug doesn’t alter our desperate situation; rather, it directs our gaze to an imaginary tomorrow, when Albion will rise, lean, infused with the spirit of an imaginary yesterday, when everyone was nice, scrimped and saved, brewed their own scrumpy, and went to church.
So why am I not miserable? In fact, I’m chipper. Friends confess similarly buoyant feelings. This makes no sense. Most work in publishing or journalism, and I’m a writer for goodness’ sake; few trades are less safe. What’s more, when I skip over the tumbleweed and enter shops (me look, no buy) assistants are chatty as never before. Well might they be; they’re hardly busy, and keeping a bright front is their business. All the same, when I blew a tenner on a black cab the driver was a veritable cor-blimey charm fiesta. “I was dreading after Christmas,” he said. “And it’s the best January I’ve had. In 20 years.”
Strange, eh? And that’s not all.
Voluntary Service Overseas reports unprecedented applications. Middle-aged, middle-class professionals, not gap-year brats, are queueing to jettison wage slavery and do something worthwhile instead. As if money were no object.
Recently, I too have done hitherto unconscionable things, like re-use teabags and darn socks. I’ve also pitched unsolicited business to strangers, with success; arranged meetings between strangers, with success; and even attended a party of strangers alone.
This event launched the Stone Club, a new networking forum. Many guests were novices, but were soon extending hands not to shake but to thrust business cards into mine. Perhaps she was mad to start up, now of all times, laughed the organiser, Carole Stone, in her speech, “But we need to talk to each other, now more than ever.”
This feeling is spreading. Consultants describe cold-calling clients and not only meeting a warm reception, but being invited in “to rustle up ideas”. I saw a blizzard of business cards last week when my publisher shrugged off January blues with a party. Authors and agents swooped on canapés like holy bread. Some fought over wine bottles – to offer round, you understand; the perfect ice-breaker – as the caterer handed out leaflets offering cheap dinner parties. Why cook, everyone agreed, wasting valuable networking time?
Flibbertigibbet media folk, perhaps. What of Woolies? Car workers?
Yes, maybe VSO applicants, Stone and I are not typical, but in denial. Maybe we’re in the manic phase of depression. Maybe it’s the last kick of that corpse – irrational exuberance – which seduced our banks and ruined us. But something is going on.
If you foam at the mouth that anyone still holds parties, you may enjoy a cynical explanation. Trendwatching.com hails the birth of Generation G. That’s G for generosity, not greed, as corporations compete to be affiliated with do-good, feel-good projects. Far from philanthropic, reckons Trendwatching, this is plumage display, with generosity the latest status symbol.
To my mind, however, people are giving each other the time of day for less vampiric ends. We’re adapting to environmental change, ditching that conservative trait, embarrassment, in favour of a bold new shamelessness.
While there has never been a better excuse for an idea to flop, there has never been a better time to float one. This is incredibly liberating – less the soaring certainty of “Yes we can” than a question of “And why not?” Why not chase that dream? If 2009 is a write-off, there’s no shame in failure. We may as well do what we want. Like take a cab, quit our dull job, or, like inventor Ted Ciamillo, celebrate our 40th birthday by pedalling a home-made submarine across the Atlantic.
Necessity isn’t merely the mother of invention. It focuses minds on why we do things, and whether they’re worth it. And when options diminish, ingenuity stretches them further. Hard times sharpen wits and redefine polite behaviour.
In the latest New Scientist, the primatologist Frans de Waal asked: “Why do humans blush?” Surely it’s because co-operative culture rewards those who respect social boundaries. Yet blushes also indicate flushed excitement, which is desirable when risk-taking will preserve us. Sometimes shedding scruples makes sense.
As Kingsley Amis observed, history is the tale of man, an animal, trying to convince himself he isn’t an animal. Emotions remind us of the truth. And embarrassment is the nephew of an ancient monster, fear. In bad cases we long for the earth to open and welcome us back, like the worms we were before life grew so complicated. However, right now, embarrassment can’t save us. Some of us bubble with new ideas too, since fear is a form of imagination. It’s stimulating.
Whether our ideas are innovative, the market will decide. In the meantime, people with qualifications ending in “-ology” can explain why fear might cheer us, or at least, make us less self-conscious. As interest rates and sterling plummet, British suicide rates are declining. The sharpest drops followed disasters. Dr Emad Salib of Liverpool University attributes this to “greater social cohesion, the Blitz spirit” (good old moral fibre). The most enduring fall came after 9/11, whereas post-7/7, which took place closer to home, the effect was brief. Why? Because 7/7 lacked the lingering spectacle of those towers tumbling, those poor souls leaping off them, replayed and replayed, like obscene graphic wallpaper behind TV headlines.
Taedium vitae palls when you’re reminded that life is a brutish, one-stop shop, so you’d better grab what you can before someone else snatches it from you. Few like to admit that witnessing catastrophe is exhilarating in the same, guilty way as watching tragedy in the theatre. We walk away with renewed appreciation of the fact that we, unlike the victims on stage, are now free to go and eat a curry. Or take a cab home.
So can this depression, sorry, recession, make us happier? Well, we’ll be talking. And if innovations lead nowhere, so what? Some will be fun.
I couldn’t resist a cheeky pamphlet in my local supermarket, “101 Ways to Make Extra Cash in a Recession”. It’s what Del Boy would produce if Rodney found a nice iMac on a Peckham barrow.
My favourite tip? How to choose between “Breastfeeding consultant”, “Porn star”, “Sell your hair”, “Sell your story” (get blond hair extensions and hang out in nightclubs, intones the sage), and the hilarious, “Become a writer”? I thought I’d found a winner in “Set up a get-rich-quick scheme.”
Disappointingly, instead of winning whoppers, it dished up a homily: “Honest graft is the way to make money.” It didn’t advise publishing a book about making wads when the piggy bank’s bust.
Doom, eh? Isn’t what it used to be. Still, as that chirpy tragedian Euripides wrote: “To persevere, trusting in what hopes he has, is courage in a man.” Forget black dogs. Let’s keep buggering on.
As seen in the Independent on Sunday