There was a time at university when I was nicknamed ‘Victorian Father’. Rest assured, it wasn’t because I shared anti-footloosing Reverend Shaw Moore’s love for saying things like: “If our lord wasn’t testing us, how would you account for the proliferation, these days, of this obscene rock and roll music, with its gospel of easy sexuality and relaxed morality?” After all, I had been in a rock band since the age of 16, and we weren’t navel-gazing, dancing-is-the-commodification-of-the-body indie-heads. That would have been way too hyphenated for us.
Perhaps it was because of my use of phrases like “It is a melancholy truth that even great men have poor relations”, or my insistence that I wear a tall silk hat and frock coat to lectures. But my tippling stick and pocket watch aside, I do have an old-worldly belief in gentlemanly conduct, in social etiquette, and in what the French call savoir être. And no, it is not all about using the person’s name instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ (though one should never forget that ‘she’ is the cat’s mother); nor refraining from the pretentious use of quotations (Gaskill does say, does he not, that quotations “are suggestive of pedantic affectation”); or never correcting people in public (except, perhaps when someone uses ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ or ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’); and never using flattery in public (but, of course, as intelligent readers you already know this); or only speaking when spoken to (and then never being prolix); and never asking what people ‘do’ (or even worse, how much they earn).
But because I believe that civility is not simply a question of good manners, but should be part of the consensus of a civil society that allows us to exist as authentic autonomous individuals and preserve the rights therefore of others to live as authentic autonomous individuals, these rules are more in line with other strict codes of conduct I have imposed upon myself over the years and which help, perhaps, construct my social and cultural identity: I don’t drive (I’ve never even had a single lesson); I refuse to drink Coca-Cola or eat McDonald’s; I shop with independent traders; prefer listening to radio than watching television and; won’t fly Ryan Air or other low flight airlines. Of course, these things don’t really set me apart from any other liberal-minded middle class ‘global’ citizen. And let’s face it, these rules are easier to adhere to when you are middle class and not struggling on or around the breadline.
Perhaps something that sits less easily with the middle class label is the belief that a civil society should be coupled with an interventionist state that isn’t just accountable to but also responsible for its citizens. These will never be the concerns of industry, which is only responsible for market reliance and accountable to the shareholder. The problem here is not the global market or indeed having shares in a company, but the belief that those intent on dismantling the welfare state seem to have that industry will ensure our pensions, put our children through school, and foot our hospital bills. And this remains a genuine dilemma for me.
But here’s the real problem: according to The Observer Magazine I’m not a Victorian Father, at all. Wrong century. There is a new British trend which openly and forcibly rejects “social opprobrium” and is defined by Lucy Siegle in her OM article ‘Just Say No’ as the “dieticians’ favourite adage, ‘a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’ given socio-economic resonance.” It turns out then, according to the trend-forecasting Future Foundation, that I am in fact one of these ‘New Puritans’ or ‘neo-Cromwellians’. Well, bless my punishment stool.
But none of these labels rest easy with me and I refute them all. Victorian Father was simply a university joke that stemmed from my love for Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and parodying the upper-class English gent. Neither do I recognise myself as a New Puritan. As a friend pointed out, I may have strict principles concerning myself but am extremely liberal when it comes to others. That I can live with.
Apparently New Puritanism is a small but growing movement in Britain, and Lucy Siegle predicts in her article that “a battle is shaping up between the New Puritans and the old guard libertarians.” Surely, then, if New Puritanism is to be opposed to libertarianism then isn’t it just a fancy way of talking about a new wave of what we could call hippy authoritarians? According to the article these people tend to enjoy organic food, self-sufficiency, cycling, and they believe that a nanny state should make everyone else enjoy these things too. They don’t like alcohol, possessions, meat, and believe that a nanny state should stop everyone else liking these things, too.
As far as I can tell the term itself derives from a song by The Fall of the same name, except that Mark E. Smith ironically vocalises: “The grotesque peasants stalk the land / And deep down inside you know / Everybody wants to like big companies”. The term was then picked up by a group of British writers, including Alex Garland of The Beach> fame. Publishing a collection of short stories entitled All Hail the New Puritan, these British writers echoed the doctrines of the Dogme 95 group of filmmakers and put forward a 10-point manifesto which promotes the need for narrative simplicity, clarity, ethical realism, action, contemporarity, and the absence of the poetic in modern story-telling. This basically means that the story has to be all very real, all very grounded, and all very here and now. And no flashbacks! Hmmm.
As far as I can tell these manifestations of the refusal of late 20th century postmodernity (that is the refusal of the reference-point-free cut-and-paste aesthetic-over-ethic late-Western cultural model) aren’t neo-Cromwellian in outlook at all. They perhaps appear to be more neomodernist as they try to replace the playful with the concrete, the allusive with the explicit, i.e., saying what they mean. For a while, now, postmodernism has toyed with a variety of aesthetic never-endgames, where irony replaces certitude (the Crazy Frog ring tone made it to Number 1 in the British music charts because people thought it would be funny, right?), parody replaces the referent (Licensed to Ill was the best-selling rap record of the ‘80s), fragmentation replaces unity (the proliferation of sub-groups means the ‘80s Goth would be lost today having to choose between either one of the ‘Gothic sub-culture’ styles of music such as Goth Rock, Post-punk, Coldwave, Darkwave, Industrial, or one of the ‘Gothic tradition’ styles such as Power Metal, Death Metal, Symphonic Metal, Black Metal, Doom Metal AND whatever you do don’t confuse Gothic Metal with Goth Metal), and disorder replaces order (what exactly is the status of cannabis according to British law, now?).
The postmodern world has revelled in its own slippery nature and the interplay of allusion. It remains, however, extremely difficult to live one’s life in this fashion when one is forever being decentred. We are by nature relative beings, but relativism remains problematic when the centre, that from which we judge relativity, is continually on the move.
How are we meant to follow a narrative line from A to B when that line isn’t linear? How are we meant to draw a moral conclusion from a story if the benchmarks of morality are always shifting and being redefined? As sentient beings we may be able to conceive the notion of plural, extra-territorial existence, but these notions often remain destabilising in our day-to-day existence. The more we are inexorably drawn into these extra-territorial spaces (such as the ideology of the European Union), the more globalisation tries to be evermore inclusive, then the more we end up investing in the imitations of tradition that give us a sense of security (such as the proliferation of the Irish theme pub, old boot on a dusty shelf and all, in the member states of the EU). These reactions can therefore lead to an ideology of nostalgia. And I do mean nostalgia here not history. I’m quite convinced that today’s so-called neo-Cromwellians do not wish to be associated with the Lord Protector’s treatment of Ireland, such as the massacre at Drogheda in 1649 which saw 3500 Irish people die including those that were burnt alive after having sought refuge in St Peter’s church.
The resultant paradox is, of course, that of glocalisation. The more contemporary society’s desire for globalisation infiltrates our lives the more we develop a need to localise ourselves. Back in the ‘80s, could the BBC really have imagined the success of a programme like Who Do You Think You Are where minor celebrities retrace their family history? Probably not. The ‘90s needed to happen. Or more importantly, the internet needed to enter our daily lives.
In 1969, Marshall McLuhan got it right. With one computer we now have worldwide access to a multitude of individuals and sub-groups whilst all the time feeling attracted to the idea of belonging to easily recognisable or definable groups. But the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wonders if integration and separation can occupy the same space or if the latter will eventually cancel out the former. This perhaps isn’t so much of a problem if all these separate groups can co-exist equally at the centre with no issues of relativism getting in the way. Gay couples being able to have their relational commitments recognised by the state through pacts of civil union is a step in the right direction, but it’s difficult to see pro-hunting lobbyists living in perfect harmony with anti-hunting neighbours.
Beyond our New Puritans, there are other social examples of (re)localisation through the re-appropriation of stable narratives that are perhaps more widespread. Take, for instance, the success of the men’s magazines Zoo and Nuts. They are the first men’s magazines to be published weekly in the UK and their combined sales are in excess of half a million copies every seven days. The content is centred around girls, cars, and football. They are unashamedly non-glossy and trashy smutty without ever quite being pornographic. This allows Nuts magazine to use the slogan ‘Women! Don’t expect any help on a Thursday’ with a cheeky grin claiming postmodern irony. But in this possible instance, how is it possible to draw the line between sexism and an ironic allusive wink to those pre-postmodernist days where women weren’t a part of the dominant discourse. Difficult, isn’t it?
Masculinity may be in crisis because postmodernity denied men the possibility of rooting their sexual identity in stable sands, but we must also be wary of a simple return to the uninformed übersexual that only understands existence in binary terms. In the recent past the media has told us that as postmodern men we should have a globalised sexuality, a sexuality that reaches beyond the old traditional values associated to our genetic make-up, a sexuality that is cosmopolitan, that is not insular. But it would appear that this instability only makes us reach for the more familiar and we start re-enacting those old traditional values: from New Man to New Lad. And this is why it is not surprising to have an article entitled ‘Are Men the New Women’ published in the Irish Sunday Independent on exactly the same day as The Observer ran a piece called ‘Metrosexual man bows to red-blooded übersexuals’. It’s all just very glocal.
Fed up with global consumerism, the idea of New Puritanism does seem to bear witness to the imitation of tradition. It harkens back to a seemingly simpler time when communities were self-sufficient, when they didn’t need cars, didn’t have supermarkets selling out of season fruit flown in from the other side of the world, when our health was kept in check by the availability of local resources (denying us the possibility of binging). But self-sufficiency could also mean insular, and I’m not sure that in this idealised past we were particularly open to the other (or for that matter, healthier).
And the religious connotations of the label New Puritansim, could be construed as worrying and not to be lightly dismissed. Cromwell and his chums weren’t known for their inclusiveness and tolerance of difference, as the Drogheda massacre seems to suggest. The New Puritans might want to affect the policy-makers so as to render our society more civil, but surely they don’t want to see the advent of, say, another English civil war. I’m sure it is just a brand name problem and these associations that I am making between 21st century New Puritanism/neo-Cromwellianism and 17th century Cromwellian Puritanism are just unfortunate linguistic associations. I wonder if these guys have thought about getting someone in to help them with their marketing. You know, to improve their global image.