Britain and its wet dreams

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Dreams matter. Freud said that they express the fulfilment of a wish. But outside any clinical or professional psychological analysis, they provide fertile material for cod psychology. Conversations between friends – down the pub, even in the office perhaps – might stray into the explosion of subconscious brain vomit that we experience shortly before waking. What do they mean? What are they telling us? What is ‘the wish’ they are trying to fulfil?

And in the same way that individuals dream, so do societies and cultures, albeit in a more constructed and codified way. Fantasies are lived out through sport, fashion, art, film, politics – in any number of public ways. Success and public acclaim in these different areas brings with it a mythology that often spirals out of control.

Take sport. It is now the norm to build a cult of personality around football stars, that, notwithstanding their talent, is – how shall we say? – perhaps a little exaggerated. Mentioning no names, based on the public portrayal of some footballing heros you might be forgiven for thinking that they were in fact sired by hellenistic deities.

By carving these public personalities in marble, an alien observer can begin to detect the preferences, and thought-patterns of the mind out of which they are conjured. In other words, the myths that a society articulates say something about its apparent wants and needs.

To carry out a quick and thoroughly dirty survey of the myths that currently abound in Britain, you only have to spend half an hour channel hopping. If you conduct this exercise in a prelapsarian state of innocence, you can easily come away feeling somehow unclean and morally impure. The ratio of programmes that are nakedly and hungrily low-brow to the old ethic of public-service broadcasting is – whether good or bad – hardly equal.

To look at our fantasies through the prism of television, modern Britain can look a little like a fairly undiscriminating pensioner addicted to bingo. It likes gossip, tawdry glamour, the promise of artificial excitement and a frisson of sadistic malice.

Dreams and myths are, of course, constructed in other ways. The marketing, advertising and communications industries either try their hardest to cultivate mythology, or rely heavily on it. Here the myth, the ‘narrative’ or ‘strategy’, or perhaps just the aesthetic, is there to wrap up a ‘product’ and make it seem desirable in some form or another. With a little economic motivation all kinds of idealised versions of reality begin to materialise, covering things as diverse as sex, dental care, marmalade and financial management. In this world the ‘ideal’ is another word for a promiscuous mistress wearing the fetishised garb of the richest punter.

In much the same way politicians pay their dream makers royally. Just as an enticing public image can rake in the dough, so the nature of a public image can make or break political power. Judged on recent history, the political ideal is someone clean and elegant, caring but tough, upbeat and confidant, and, rather sadly, the product of a privileged education.

The picture I’m painting is probably a little hackneyed and suffers from expressionistic exaggerations: our ‘wishes’ are for money, voyeuristic celebrity and power. All of which – it could be argued – are fairly insubstantial and diffuse ideals.

Peculiarly – or perhaps not – none of these are especially  human  values. Power exists in large impersonal organisations, money is an instrumental way of measuring value, and celebrity is, by definition, remote from ordinary experience. Is there room then for a more human – or less insidious – set of dreams? Or should we all just become hard-edged cynics, punching through these hideously distorted mirrors in which we can see ourselves?

The last option is only really an option if human beings are capable of seeing things in a level-headed ‘objective’ way. And, let’s face it, they just aren’t, and those that try to impose it have usually only trapped their contemporaries in some sickly and narcissistic web of self-deception. The alternative is a more benevolent oneiric fantasy, or possibly a more  artful  way to dream.

Art, and in a different way, religion have traditionally occupied this role. Dickens told popular sentimental stories that drew attention to social injustice; Jane Austen told romantic tales of polite society that turned on a Christian set of virtues. More recently across the pond, the Hollywood ‘dream factory’ churned out soppy but meticulously contrived ideals in the form of human stories.

Popular books, films, artwork, and music do, of course, all still exist. But for those that are genuinely popular what are they saying? And what are they saying  about us? Take two fairly recent examples, one from cinema, the other from television: the films of Richard Curtis and the television series, Downton Abbey. Both of these are obviously very British, and also very popular. But do they express the aspirations and ideals of ordinary experiences, or the full range of British communities? (This question shouldn’t really require an answer.)

Harry Potter – probably the biggest contribution Britain has made to popular culture in recent years – is clearly built from elements of British society, and the tension it contains. But its ideals can seem something like nostalgic escapism rather than rooted in the present (in fact the ‘present’ – or ‘the Dursleys’ – are, quite rightly, swatted aside as a lesser enemy of the books’ values) .

British art and culture has always found inventive ways to examine the bleaker and harsher side of social realities or even elevated ideals, but mostly this simply talks to intellectual or niche audiences. Which begs the question: does Britain actually have a set of stories that are rooted in the life of its people? If that’s the case, perhaps something more than just an entertaining story or an engaging image is missing ….

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