The Portsmouth Sinfonia. Photo: Columbia
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Our mob mentality is like a bad orchestra: we saw away at the same tunes and ignore the racket

At the Heart of Darkness is an unthinking trust in institutions. How else do you explain the Portsmouth Sinfonia?

In his story “An Outpost of Progress” – a prototype for the novella Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad writes of his colonialist protagonists that they were “two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organisation of civilised crowds”. This perspective on the crowd is alien to us; we are perfectly prepared to believe that the crowd “dehumanises”; that when we find ourselves in a stampeding herd of crazed people, we ourselves may lose our reason and thereby our very individuality. What we find it harder to accept is that we may be who we are at all solely by virtue of the crowd. Conrad continues: “Few men realise that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.”

So safe are those surroundings – for the average New Statesman reader, at least – that we forget all about the way our being is shaped socially, and start bellyaching about our fellows; as if it is they who constitute “the crowd”, with its weird panics, fads and delusions, while we mysteriously arrogate to ourselves the most exalted freedom of the will. I am always on the lookout for evidence of swarming behaviour in Homo sapiens, and I find it most tellingly in the epiphenomena which result from collective behaviours it is quite impossible for us to change.

Take the BlueMotion Volkswagen Golf. I drive one of these from time to time because the car club I belong to uses them. They’re perfectly sound examples of German engineering, but for some daft reason every time you come to a halt – at a traffic light, say – and disengage the clutch, the engine cuts out. Then when amber glows and you re-engage, the engine snorts back to life. Madness! Yes, yes, I know the thinking that informs such technologies (we’re going to use them to avert global warming); but even a few seconds pondering the matter leads to the conclusion: this can’t possibly work. Humanity burgeoned precisely because of its interaction with technology, but progress – inasmuch as it’s occurred at all – has never been a function of central planning, but rather a piecemeal series of fixes.

Illustration by Jackson Rees.

And that’s what BlueMotion is: a way of making vaguely “environmental” types with large chunks of disposable cash feel better about themselves – because any reduction in CO2 emissions the technology affords will be cancelled out many times over if they take a single plane flight. The melioristic view about global warming, advanced in the Stern report and now given a new lease of life by Naomi Klein (World’s Most Earnest Person), is that we can fix it by being better, kinder, more co-operative and cleverer people. Easy-peasy, eh? Yet if we listen to Conrad, who we are is solely a function of who everyone else is: “The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd . . .”

Note well: “every great and every insignificant thought”. So, even if we all have the thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we all worked together to lessen inequality, curtail consumption, and so at least palliate the fervid atmosphere,” as night follows day this is obviated by the insignificant thought: “Wouldn’t it be great to fly to Faliraki”, or, “I bet a 56-inch ultra-high-definition TV would look great in that corner.” We like to envision society as an orchestra; individual players may fluff the occasional note or phrase but the overall coherence of the band mitigates this, and so the piece being played still sounds harmonious. However, Conrad was perfectly clear about the nature of our crowd mentality: “[It] believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of the police and of  its opinion.”

This isn’t a subtle, supple, self-aware and self-correcting orchestra at all – rather, it reminds me of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an experimental musical group set up by the composer Gavin Bryars in the 1970s. The only requirement for joining the Sinfonia was that you couldn’t play your instrument. The results were great chuntering and yawping versions of popular classics; nevertheless, from the squalls of sound the alert listener would still piece together the traduced melody of Thus Spake Zarathustra, or “The Blue Danube”. The Sinfonia were so successful that their single “Classical Muddly” reached the Top 40 in 1981. How can we account for this lunacy if not by evoking the blind faith in institutions of which Conrad wrote?

We believe so blindly that when a group of people in evening dress sit down in a concert hall and begin to play they will produce music, that we are prepared to ignore the racket; and, by the same token, we believe so blindly in our own ineffable individuality that we neglect to notice how beautifully articulated our stereotypies are: we saw away at the same old tunes – reason, progress, the good, the beautiful and the true – quite convinced that it’s our arm willing the bowing. Yet if we allowed ourselves even an infinitesimal fermata, we would be assailed by the cacophonous crowd of automata surrounding us. This is the “high organisation” that renders our very existence possible – not the music of the spheres, but a caterwauling classical muddly.

Next week: On Location

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 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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The players make their mistakes on the pitch – I make mine on the page

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up.

I was a bit humiliated and ashamed and mortified last week because of letters in this magazine about one of my recent columns. Wait till I see the Correspondence editor: there must be loads of nice letters, yet he or she goes and prints not just one, but two picking me up on my mistakes. By the left.

But mainly, my reaction was to laugh. Typical, huh, I’ve gone through life spelling things wrong, with dates dodgy, facts fictional – will I ever learn?

John Lennon did not use a watch. He maintained that he had people on the staff who would tell the time. I don’t wear a watch, either, but for different reasons. I want to get my wrists brown and I hate carrying anything.

By the same milk token, I don’t worry about my spelling. Like Lennon, I expect others to clear up after me. Surely the subs should have spotted it was a typo, that it is 64 years since 1951, not 54 as I wrote? What do they do all day? The other mistake was about replays in the League Cup: too boring to repeat, you would only yawn.

I usually try to get the spelling right the first time I use a word, then bash on, letting it come out any old way, intending to correct it later. Is it Middlesbrough or Middlesborough? Who cares? I’ll check later. Then I forget.

I was so pleased when Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. I found those ten seasons a nightmare, whenever I realised his surname was lumbering into vieiw (I mean “view”). Why couldn’t I memorise it? Mental laziness. The same reason that I don’t know the phone numbers of any of my children, or the correct spelling of my grandchildren’s names, Amarisse and Siena. I have to ask my wife how many Ss and how many Ns. She knows everything. The birthday of every member of the royal family? Go on, ask her.

I might be lazy on piddling stuff such as spelling but I like to think my old brain is still agile. I have three books on the go which are hellishly complicated. I have the frameworks straight in my head but I don’t want to cram anything else in.

It can be a bit embarrassing when writing about football, though. Since sport was invented, fans have been making lists, trotting out facts, showing off their information. As a boy, I was a whizz on the grounds of all 92 League clubs, knew the nicknames of all the clubs. It’s what you did. Comics like Adventure produced pretty colour charts full of such facts. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it all. It just went in, because I wanted it to go in.

Today, the world of football is even madder on stats than it ever was. I blame computers and clever graduates who get taken on by the back pages with nothing else to do but create stats. And TV, with its obsession with possession, as if it meant anything.

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up. Not just the score but who was playing. When Wayne Rooney or whoever is breaking records, or not, my eyes go glazed, refusing to take in the figures. When I read that Newcastle are again winless in their first seven League games now, I start turning the pages. If I get asked who won the Cup in 1923, my immediate answer is HowthefeckdoIknow. Hold on, I do know that. It was the first Cup final at Wembley, won by Bolton Wanderers. I remember that, having been there. I don’t know the dates of any other Cup final winners. England’s World Cup win? That was 1966 and I really was there.

I love football history (I’ve written three books about it) but it’s the players and the history of the clubs, the boots and strips, development in the laws, that’s what I enjoy knowing. Spellings and dates – hmm, I do always have to think. Did the Football League begin in 1888 or 1885? If I pause for half a second, I can work it out. Professional football came in first, which must have been 1885, so the Football League came later. Thus the answer is 1888. Bingo. Got it.

But more often than not, I guess, or leave it out. So, sorry about those mistakes. And if you’ve spotted any today, do keep it to yourself. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide