Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Open Doors

It's strange to think that, had my partner and I chosen to get married, we would be anticipating something like our 30th wedding anniversary. On the other hand, if the stats on people who do get married are any guide, we would most likely have been divorced 20 years ago. No wait, that doesn't make sense. Or maybe it does -- we'll never know.

Reader, I didn't marry her. Yet, anyway.
(photo © 1974 Fiona Thompson)

Not being married was the hip, political thing (not) to do, back then. To my more hard-line comrades I may have seemed a bit of a dope-fuelled prankster, but beneath the clowning and excess I took very seriously the radical ideas that were in circulation, and rejection of patriarchal marriage was one of them. As it turns out, we took that one more seriously than they did, as nearly every one of our erstwhile comrades has married in the intervening years (including at least one radical separatist lesbian to, um, a man), usually on the decidedly un-radical grounds of property, tax and inheritance.

Of course, not marrying and living together -- if only on a "try before you buy" basis -- has since almost become the norm, in the UK at least. It sometimes seems as if I have spent my life, like a cartoon character, in a headlong charge through what have turned out to be open doors. It's not so much that I have been ahead of the curve, as that the curve has driven me forward like flotsam on an unstoppable wave of change.

Life as a contrarian can be frustrating, not to say puzzling. When I turned up for work in 1978, I was quite literally the only man in the building not wearing a tie; even the porters and maintenance men wore ties. I sort of expected someone senior to have a "quiet word" with me. I had my script ready. But, no. And within a few years, only the oldest, staidest men (the sort who probably wore a tie with their pyjamas) were still wearing one. Again, I was simply the symptom, not the cause -- flotsam rattling through an open door ahead of that mighty tsunami of change.

However, change can be unpredictable and uneven. It is one of the annoyances of age to hear what a travesty the world has made of your youthful song, and in particular to be forced to listen to it. I recently had to swallow hard when, on asking for a bag at a shop checkout, I was rebuked, "What, don't you want to save the planet, then?" I don't think the police would have understood my motive for suffocating that insolent, slack-jawed pup with her own carrier bag ("They say he said something about saving the planet before her parents were born, Sarge").

I suppose we all like to think of ourselves as free agents, choosing our singular path through life, but the true extent of our conformity -- even if to a very small "niche" category -- is the secret power of actuaries and marketing men. A true Sherlock Holmes of lifestyle can see the mud on your footwear and deduce your record collection, brand loyalties, and income bracket. In the end, even the most irrational choices are, like the weather, subject to a complex inner logic of chaotic causes and effects. "Hindsight", I think it's called.

Of course, we shouldn't confuse playing the consumerist lifestyle game with political opposition and reform. Choosing to be different rarely amounts to more than going for the vegetarian option on the menu, or doing without a starter. Conformity disguised as empty choices is the hallmark of our times, typified by some packets of crisps I saw recently with the flavourings "Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar" and "Red Leicester Cheese and Caramelised Onion". Wow, you'd have to be pretty darned sophisticated to choose those impulse-purchase snack products!

No, you can tell the doors that matter because they're the ones which remain closed, locked and bolted. As we used to say, if voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal. But we should ponder, as we dither over that bewildering variety of crisps, that not so long ago voting in the UK was illegal for all women and 40% of men. Things do change, and generally change for the better, and it's people pushing at doors that changes them. I guess your politics are pretty much defined by which doors you think should be opened, and which kept firmly shut. And that, no doubt, very much depends on which side of any particular door you happen to be standing, and who or what you imagine to be on the other side.

Talking of doors and oppositional politics, back in the late 1970s -- the "punk and reggae" years -- I saw a good thing. There used to be a sign above the carriage doors on the London Underground: "OBSTRUCTING THE DOORS CAN CAUSE DELAY AND BE DANGEROUS". In a carriage I was riding in someone had taken white masking tape, and changed the sign to read: "OBSTRUCT THE DOORS, CAUSE DELAY, BE DANGEROUS". Ah, we opened our own doors in those far off days.


Friko said...

hey, why haven't I ever thought to come and check behind that ridiculous blog title?

This rant speaks to me, like things rarely do in blogland.
I shall come and look up what else you do. Expect a new follower.

Ah bless! (no, I don't say that, your verification does. If that isn't a good omen!)

Friko said...

Bother, you don't have a followers' button. Now, how am I going to find you? You'll have to go into my bookmarks.

I expect that means that you don't follow anyone either.

Mike C. said...

Yes, Friko, this is a following-free zone, but you're welcome to drop by any time.

Oddly, my stats tell me I do have some followers, though how they ever got in here I have no idea.


Martin H. said...

"A true Sherlock Holmes of lifestyle can see the mud on your footwear and deduce your record collection, brand loyalties, and income bracket." And now we have loyalty cards to do the job, Mike...apparently.

Mike C. said...


I'm afraid my standard response to the question, "And do you have a Nectar / Clubcard / Reward / etc. card, sir?" is, "Do I look like an idiot?"

Oddly, no-one has yet followed up with "Yes, sir, that's why I asked!". That person will receive the tenner I keep specially for the purpose.


Adam Long said...

In the supermarket last night, the chekout woman pulled out a fresh bag and shook it open. "Oh, I don't need a bag" said I, thinking of the planet, at which she tossed it in the bin. You can't win!

Mike C. said...


You can't win with plastic bags -- they turn up everywhere. I think I've already shared the knowledge that plastic bags caught in trees are known as "witches' knickers" in Ireland, but it won't hurt to mention it again.

You've got to wonder what archaeologists (indeed, geologists) of future epochs will make of them. A life form? A ceremonial deposit? A universal currency?


Dave Leeke said...

In 2012 my wife and I will be celebrating 30 years of married life. I can't forget the look of shock and surprise on my late mother's face when I told her I was going to marry. It was surpassed by the look of deeper shock and surprise two years later when I informed her of the fact that we were going to have a child.

It would seem to me that the expectation was that I would never marry, have kids, get a decent job and, oh dear what WAS going to become of me? Somehow it was assumed by my family that the things you write about in this blog were my future. Let us not forget that - as you allude to - these things were "against the norm".

Now, with 29 years of marriage, three grown up children (26, 21 & 18), the first of our working class family to go to University (at age 38) and a "respectable career" - teaching WAS once considered so - I am the outsider. My parents, both long gone, were finally able to feel proud and that I had connected with their World view.

Somehow, though, as your post points out, Mike, I seem to have stood outside all along.

We all move through life in our own way. I guess the important thing is to just simply survive in a way that makes us comfortable. I, like you, have lost some great fellow travellers along the way but somehow we keep moving on and, thankfully, manage to keep in contact with long-lost friends. The internet at least provides that.

I also still refuse to wear a tie - as ever, although I happily wear a suit. This is much to the chagrin of my management. I also revel in the fact that my tastes (in just about everything) tend to be considered either eccentric or esoteric (if only most people knew what it meant).

Believe it or not, Mike, I am considered a bit intellectual amongst my colleagues - merely because I understand long words, can read more than a page at a time and can make jokes very quickly. They have no idea - if they met a real intellectual they would probably assume that Earth was being invaded.

Ah well, a good thought-provoking post, Mike.

Mike C. said...

I will resist the temptation to make unkind humorous speculation about the reasons for your mother's shock and surprise, Dave. You were a little wild, once upon a time, though.

I had the opposite experience -- my parents' long disappointment at us not getting married, balanced by delight at the unexpected surprise of two very late extra grandchildren.

The "family" disapproved, of course, but then I had never really felt approved of, anyway. I was one of those kids who were secretly sure they were adopted or a changeling...

Hmm, I'm not sure what I am considered amongst my colleagues, but "intellectual" is probably not it. Best not to ask...


Kent Wiley said...


That's a good one! Reminds me of the much less potent sign with several painted over letters from the '80's along a roadway: