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1 May 2000

Fast forward is now the only speed

Our obsession with the next thing means we risk missing out on today

By Andrew Martin

Every couple of months, I fillet the great bale of newspapers that I’ve accumulated, and stuff articles of interest in an A4 folder. (It’s all very low tech I’m afraid.) Then I read them. I took the last batch with me on a working trip to Paris, and read most of the pieces in a bar in the Sixth arrondissement.

The first was written for this magazine by James Buchan, who found himself dismayed at the inelegance of that modern gimmick: gloves for footballers. I then read an item by Allison Pearson, questioning the logic of running sycophantic articles about young dot-com millionaires – the point being that everyone under the age of about 15 thinks “Yes, I could do that”, while anyone else just feels sick. I moved on to an interview with Kazuo Ishiguro, in which he said that he was glad he was not a young person writing novels in England today, because young people writing novels in England today are frequently required to write about other young people. I read an interview with a comedian, one of the League of Gentlemen, who said that the new Toms and Jerrys – where Tom and Jerry talked – were not as good as the old ones produced by Fred Quimby. The next piece that I read was, coincidentally, defending Paris against the idea that it has been put in the shade by London. “Unlike London,” said the writer, “Paris is not full of the detritus of youth culture.”

It certainly isn’t. As I looked out of the window in the bar, people in hats, betraying the stolidity of Maigret, were walking towards restaurants.

The complaint was strikingly constant: too much future, not enough past, and the Ishiguro interview had struck a particular chord. Whether young people of today want to write about old people or not, I don’t know. I’m not young myself, you see: I’m 37. But when I was young, I was interviewed for the job of features editor of Time Out. “What do you ask a 20-year-old pop singer?” the editor asked me. “I don’t know,” I said. “Nor do we,” he said, and he gave me the job, perhaps relieved at meeting a like-minded soul.

To me, old people are more interesting than young ones; they’ve had more time in which to do interesting things. But journalism does not agree. Magazines that used to feature on their covers a diversity of subjects – trees, houses, people of all ages and sexes – now feature one thing exclusively: attractive young women. I like looking at them, but I don’t need to read 2,000 words about how superb they are in every respect. These articles are commissioned by editors who are second-guessing the requirements of people younger than themselves because . . . well, I don’t know why. Maybe because that’s what everyone else is doing. It must be depressing.The older these cultural arbiters get, the more elusively youthful their audience must seem.

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I am 37, as I have already mentioned, but given the youth orientation and futuristic bent of everything around me, I actually feel about 137. To illustrate, let me finish off the Paris anecdote. I came home, still working my way through the sheaf of articles – reading Tom Lubbock, the art critic of the Independent, writing that certain artists had been neglected because they were in their forties as opposed to twenties or thirties – and finished off my journey by riding into London on the Heathrow Express.

Almost every article in its little onboard magazine seemed to be about e-commerce. Then came the climax, in the form of a piece talking about what life will be like in London in the year 2020.

I came home and checked my e-mails. I had received one with the subject “Too dad”, and for a moment I thought it was an appraisal by an editor of one of my articles. The piece was simply “too dad”, too fatherly, too past-it and 37-ish. It turned out to be a misspelt e-mail from my young son, profligate with his Os.

Some might detect paranoia here. My father, who is younger than me in spirit, reads pieces about 12-year-old millionaires with equanimity. At the same time, I worry that Jenson Button can’t name one of the Beatles, and that historians are living on the breadline.

Never has our finger been so firmly pressed on fast forward. Every event is 99 per cent anticipation. The total eclipse of the sun, Millennium Eve, and the latest Oasis album – each already perilously thin content-wise – could not possibly justify the weight of expectation. And this obsession with the next thing has prevailed for a long time now. Margaret Thatcher did not like historians (on one occasion, when she was introduced to one and he told her what he did for a living, she said: “What a luxury!”); Blair goes one better: he evidently does not like history.

I know it’s not good to be like me – nostalgic and backward-looking – but good things can come of it. Charles Dickens hated and feared the coming of the railways, but no one wrote better on that subject. Anthony Burgess, just that bit too old to have been young in the Sixties, disliked youth culture, but a novel of his, A Clockwork Orange, spawned one of its great icons.

Naturally, I am not comparing myself to Dickens or Burgess, but only to any misty-eyed fogey you care to mention. I’m sorry it has come to this, but society is to blame.