As I left Tigger’s place of work on Monday, having gone down for lunch, I brought the receptionists tea and coffee as I usually do. J had been on holiday and had thus not seen my latest innovation. As I put down the coffee, she grabbed my hand and exclaimed “What’s this?!” Then she added “You’ve gone all EMO, like my son!”
This remark focused my attention on an idea that had been floating about in the back of my mind for some time, namely that these days, it’s very difficult to be “different”.
What had sparked her surprise was my black nail varnish. I put this on originally “for a change” and because it seemed fun. Not many men wear nail varnish, at least not openly. I will admit to doing it partly for effect, to see how others would react (and I have had a few interesting reactions), but not at all with any idea that this would identify me with a particular group, EMO or otherwise. I would like it to be thought that black nail varnish was simply a quirk or style of my own, an individual thing. It seems that this expectation was overly optimistic.
England used to be known for its eccentrics. These were persons whose appearance, behaviour or beliefs were sufficiently unusual to attract attention without being uncouth enough to cause them to be committed to a mental institution. Being an eccentric required either a good deal of courage or imperviousness to mockery or social censure. Apart from that, it was very easy to be an eccentric as all you needed was a slight peculiarity in your dress or manner. In a world in which normality was the key to social success, eccentricity stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Alas, no longer. Starting in about the 1960s with the hippies, “flower power” and too many other influences to name, eccentricity became trendy if not the norm. Those hitherto regarded as “normal” were now labelled “squares” and a host of other pejorative names. 40-odd years on, it’s hard to know who the “squares” are. For all I know, they could be people who go about with baseball caps turned back to front, a fashion, it seems to me, well past its sell-by date.
Would-be eccentrics find themselves in the invidious position that whatever they do to be different, someone – or, worse, some “sub-culture” – has already done it. The aspiring eccentric thus finds himself labelled and dismissed.
In some ways this is good as it means we have so much more choice in clothes, make-up and lifestyles, in short in ways to express ourselves. On the other hand, it is much more difficult to practise, say teenage rebellion, if no one notices that you are rebelling. Perhaps this is why so many young people these days behave in such an obnoxious manner: wearing funny clothes is no longer enough to get them noticed. The irony is that by copying one another, they become faceless members of groups – goths, chavs, hoodies – losing the very individuality that they were presumbably seeking to cultivate.