Is it me, or are we all getting a bit too hyped up about nothing?

David Aaronovitch
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MY DAD never told me what it was like to witness the last total eclipse. It must have happened when he was nine or 10, but it clearly left little impression upon him. Or perhaps the tough business of simply growing up in the East End of the Twenties left little time for literal star-gazing; contrary to nature, he just wasn't that interested. Art, yes. He'd drive half a continent to look at a picture, or stay up all night to take in a Palladian villa. But he wouldn't cross the road for a supernova or - for that matter - a never-to-be-forgotten tumble with a shy family of mountain gorillas. Name one gorilla who has ever written a good opera.

All human beings are not fascinated by the same things. Obviously. The men who were swept up in the infamous Operation Spanner and who enjoyed - among other things - having their genitals nailed to a plank, have little in common with me, sexually. But imagine for a moment an encounter with one of these imaginative sado-masochists, in which he expresses astonishment, that you cope with a sex life in which no sharp implement gets hammered through even the teeniest soft body part. Further suppose that he then turns around and blames the government for your peculiar lack of interest.

The odds are that he would be working in the Cornish tourist industry. Right now the tourist-exploiting classes - from St Ives to Exmouth - may well be shaking their heads in astonishment that many modern Britons failed to see the fun in driving down into the sea-girded bottleneck of Devon and Cornwall, in order to witness at first hand (weather permitting) a half hour of untimely gloom. Thus, on Monday, when things were looking particularly bleak for the eclipse industry, a Paul Lowe of the Total Eclipse Festival near Plymouth, nailed the culprits. "They have managed to put off both the regular visitors and the eclipse-goers," he said of those Jeremiahs who had earlier been warning of blindness and gridlock. "The Government needs to make a clear unequivocal statement that roads are not blocked and there is still plenty of room."

Or perhaps God should have become involved. A thundering, heavenly (and thus unequivocal) statement from the Almighty that there wouldn't be that much rain, and that what cloud might appear would tend to be that silly, wispy stuff, would have helped too.

But I suppose you can't expect a region full of empty campsites and unsold special specs, T-shirts, luminous wands and a million other cheapo geegaws, to be entirely rational.

Besides, Mr Lowe had been encouraged in his belief that all of us would want to decamp for the West Country this summer. There has been page after phone-in, prediction after bulletin, warning after exhortation, that this was where we were all headed to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event. That was the old story. Then, all of a sudden, we didn't seem all to be doing it. In fact we all seemed not to be doing it. That was the new story. In the end, though I write this before the event, it will probably transpire that quite a few of us did, and even more of us didn't. Many who gave it a miss, I bet, did so precisely because they were told that everyone else would be, should be going. They may have intuited (or remembered) that where there's hype, there's rip-off. As soon as an event becomes the subject of that relentless, obliterating publicity which conquers diversity and replaces it with the endless repetition of key words and phrases, you can feel the magical tug at your wallet.

Take The Phantom Menace. This was a film that we all had to go and see. The BBC devoted a whole arts programme on BBC1 to advertising this movie. On ITV the kids cartoons are still punctuated by ads, four out of five of which are linked to this one celluloid experience. Commercial and non- commercial operations fell over themselves in the rush to get a piece of the action, to share the same greasy bath water.

But why? As a movie this was a perfectly average piece of special effects whizz-bangery, with none of the comedy and characterisation of the original. But Star Wars had been spectacularly successful, so the notion was that, given massive hype, we would all trot along to this one too. Hell, even characters in The Archers (who have missed out on every single major cultural moment of the last half century), managed to get along to the Borchester multiplex for this one.

What's funny is that movies have never really worked this way. No-one in Hollywood can tell you what the next cult film will be. By and large what most of them do is try and make copies of recently successful films, employing the same stars (Will Smith, Leo etc.), and hoping that the trend will run a little longer. Already Austin Powers and There's Something About Mary mean that we will be living with American semen jokes for the next year or so.

This left-field rule does not just apply to the cinema. Nearly two years ago Princes Diana was killed, and the popular reaction completely surprised the metropolitan world.

In the aftermath of the flower carpet and the funeral, one lot said it had all been hype, that people had been culturally strong-armed by TV and the papers into grieving.

Meanwhile, others sought to colonise the emotion, involving themselves in campaigning about memorials and Diana dolls and suchlike, and expecting public opinion to follow. But it didn't. Althorp is less and less visited by British people, who felt sad when Diana died, and then moved on. They simply didn't feel like taking up the roles allotted to them by the hypermerchants, either as hysterics or perpetual mourners.

In the clubs, executive suites, PR agencies, marketing offices, we of the metropolitan elite sit, straining trying to guess what is going on in those suburban living-rooms (living-rooms that, by and large, we abandoned when we went to college, and dedicated ourselves to never revisiting). Why did Labour not win the Euro-elections? Ah, because they are whispering "keep the pound" to each other, or else, "whatever happened to good old Tony Benn?", in Sandbourne Close or Leinster Drive.

If we're really stumped we can set up focus groups which will tell us what people already like, but have never been able to predict what people will like. But Lord, when you're in Central London, and they're all in Reading, it's all you've got to go on. That and the marketing budget.

This is all by way of saying that I am utterly fed up with being bullied into thinking that bad films are important, or that I should be determined to see the eclipse just like everyone else, or that there is only one football team in England.

And to explain why, the next time I see a sweet-looking, crop-haired London lad wearing a Manchester United replica shirt, I am going to approach, smile nicely and say, "Man. United, eh? What an unoriginal little sod you are."