The new-old London Routemaster buses are beautifully complemented by he-who-introduced-them. Image: Getty
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Soon our personalities will be purely ornamental

Everything around us nowadays seems to hearken to the past. Soon, all human psyches will retain as decorative features the individualism and the individual memories that were once functional attributes.

What a lot of skeuomorphs there are around nowadays – once you begin noticing them, they crop up everywhere. A skeuomorph, for those of you not design-savvy, is any derivative object that treats as ornamental elements that were functional in the original. One of my favourite examples is Anaglypta wallpaper, which I didn’t know – until I was told by the director of the National Gallery, no less – owes its raised ridging and epidermal feel to its origin in the tooled hides that adorned the walls of the wealthy in the 16th century. More modern skeuomorphs would include electric-light fitments designed to resemble candles (complete with artificial blobs of wax), and the half-timbered aspect of the Morris Traveller, that Anglo-Saxon hovel of mid- 20th-century automobiles.

It is with the advent of computerised technology that the contemporary obsession with the skeuomorph really gets going, though. I remember the first edition of Adobe Page- Maker, which I used in the late 1980s on my Mac Classic computer (remember them? So little and chunky, with the integrated CPU and VDU unit just like an early . . . television); when you booted it up you were treated to a graphic showing a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. Other stand-out computer skeuomorphs include the envelope pictogram employed in numerous email programs, the stylised buff cardboard folders used on desktops (and those “desktops” themselves) – and even aural skeuomorphs, such as the shutter click my iPhone’s camera makes as it captures yet another blindingly evanescent image, or the odd whooshing noise it emits when it sends an email.

The best way of understanding the skeuomorph is to locate its generation in the transfer from the handmade artefact to the massproduced product. The term was coined in the 1890s and it was at this discontinuous breakpoint that the new industrial designers attempted to confer on their wallpaper and their ceramics surfaces that were redolent of earlier, more craftsman-like eras. In Britain we had an entire aesthetic movement – Arts and Crafts – that carried the skeuomorph into areas as diverse as architecture, typography, urban planning and hairstyles. But the breakpoint between manufacturing and information technologies strikes me as still more profound: it has opened the skeuomorphic Pandora’s box.

With the transfer of most human manipulations to the realm of the virtual, the skeuomorph has acted in the first instance as an important visual cue for people who can only incoherently conceive of what is, perforce, inchoate. Steve Jobs was the master of this, and the Apple brand – which once seemed the acme of modernity – is now in danger of slip-sliding into mere recency, for, as the online generation grows up, the requirement for computer functionality to be anchored to what was once physically manipulated will surely disappear. As for the madness in all this, it’s an individual derangement that I, dear reader, bequeath to you. While we’re perfectly aware that we live in a society replete with forms of discontinuous technology, and that progress is in nowise written on the body politic, nonetheless we cannot forbear from surveying the contemporary scene as a gestalt of nowness: we look upon roads, cars, people, houses and they cannot – we assume quite unconsciously – be other than the sum of the processes that have evolved into them. However, once we begin to pick out skeuomorphs, the smooth fabric of the present rips and tears. This isn’t simply a matter of anachronism, or the old and the new coexisting, but of time turning back on itself in ways that are altogether non-Euclidean.

The new-old London Routemaster buses that have reintroduced the half-spiralling rear stairway and the back platform, only to seal them behind Perspex because of 21st century safety anxieties, are beautifully complemented by he-who-reintroduced-them: the Mayor of London, with his Dundeefruitcake chuckles and his Edwardian clubland japes and his rumpy-pumpy antics, is a sort of human skeuomorph, a fact that explains, at least in part, his success. I believe his may well be the avant-garde of personalities and that in the future – courtesy of the web and social media – all human psyches will retain as decorative features the individualism and the individual memories that were once functional attributes. Pip-pip!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.