The Irritations of Modern Life: 28. modernisers by laura thompson

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"MODERN" IS the mantra of today. It is modern to be modern, as our Prime Minister might say. To be the opposite of modern is to be fusty, dusty and musty. Heaven forbid! cried Modern Britain, running as far as its JP Tods will carry it towards the millennium, and leaving behind all those reactionaries who preferred Channel 4 News before it got its exciting new look.

Shake-ups of that kind, of course, are all the rage in the modern world. Everything must be rejigged, redone, remade, if it is not to be cast into the outer darkness. Hundreds of thousands of pounds must be spent on giving a new look to BT, or BA, lest people refuse to make telephone calls or fly with a company that doesn't change its logo often enough. The schedule of Radio 4 must be overhauled, to show that it is a station prepared to move with the times and not hidebound by dreadful, demode ideas such as broadcasting The Archers at 1.40pm. Two o'clock is so much more modern somehow.

The modernising mania is unstoppable, irresistible. It wants to demolish the twin towers at Wembley, in order to satisfy some feebly iconoclastic desire to "break with tradition", and it similarly obliges the Queen to sign a football.

But everything, in fact, is meat to the moderniser: his reach knows no bounds and no logic. Why, for example, is the elegant design of the London taxi cab being replaced with something that looks like a crouched black plastic toad? Why are nice old pubs renamed The Frog and Firkin? Why has Selfridges undergone a vastly expensive refit that leaves it looking like a suburban Harvey Nichols? To attract new custom, it would say, and maybe it will succeed, since so many of us want to be modern. But it simply feels as though all of Selfridges' solid old-world charm has been stripped away, leaving nothing but the scrubbed homogeneity of the modern world.

This is not an attack on newness. Making something new is positive. Modernising something old can, all too easily, be destructive and idiotic. Of course, things must be modernised to make them more convenient, accessible, cleaner or tidier. But it must be done with care: not just for the sake of it, from fear of being left behind. A few years ago, there was a fashion - now, thankfully, discredited - for "restoring" paintings by removing all their nasty antique dirt. Away with the dirt went depth, contrast, mystery, magic. It is the perfect metaphor for the modernising mania.

Sometimes it seems as though a kind of fear lurks within the desire to be modern: fear of the secret strength of the old, the survivors from a less disposable age. Why else the mad urge to replace wood with plastic, works of art with their computerised representations, quirks and anomalies with shiny happy correctness? The creed of modernity does, perhaps, seem irresistible at the dawn of a new millennium. But what, in fact, does it mean? After all, even the year 999 probably felt modern at the time.