John Walsh: Welcome to the new age of envy

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The Independent Online

Thou shalt not, says the 10th Commandment, covet thy neighbour's house, ox, ass, BMW 5 series voiture, conservatory, Powerbook, loft extension, Jaeger-LeCoutre timepiece, original Tracey Emin neon scribble, or anything else that is his. So we don't covet exactly. We just wish we had some of our neighbour's lovely possessions.

We wish we could afford to be an "early adopter" like him, and not be stuck with a knackered MP3 player, and a worse-than-ancient Chrysler Cruiser. We wish we could, to coin a cliché, keep up with the bastard next door. Well here's hot news. Things have changed. According to two New York academics, writing in the Journal of Consumer Research, we no longer covet our posh neighbour's lifestyle; we're now driven to buy stuff out of embarrassment that we might have missed the boat.

It works like this. If you haven't got an iPhone, and the guy selling carrots in your local grocer suddenly talks on one, you're more likely to buy an iPhone than if you see Steve Jobs waving one around at your local Apple store. It's that vertiginous feeling in the stomach that, OhMiGod, am I so digitally backward that I failed to purchase something that's now affordable by my social inferior? I must go and get one instantly.

I know a lady of 82 whose children clubbed together to buy her an iPad for Christmas; as I watch her fingers twinkle over the on-screen photo gallery, address book and pages of Asian Hunks magazine, there's that stomach flip again that says, Oh Lordy, am I the only one in the world who's yet to get with the programme?

It's not just about feeling left out, say the researchers. It's about self-image. If the minicab driver in Peckham has a better sat nav than you – one that tells you what to do in the voice of Jeremy Clarkson – you'll theoretically feel a stab of class anxiety. You feel your own passengers must think you're hopelessly drab and provincial. If someone much older than you zooms past you in the street in Puma trainers, you feel, Jeez, is everyone in West London more fit than I? Shall I dash off (wheezing horribly, no doubt) to a trendy sports shop and buy some? Does my ego need a massage or what?

I can't buy this nonsense. British people don't stand rooted to the pavement with embarrassment because someone less fortunate than they has a newer Blackberry than they have. Or newer trainers. Or a better sat nav. We know our fellow men better than that. We know how they strive. We know how enterprising they are. We feel we are all part of a wide bourgeois constituency that transcends class boundaries. We just look at them and think, "In which riot did you nick that then?"

Here's a challenge you really don't want to mess up

For the past three years in Kismayo, southern Somalia, there's been a contest, sponsored by local radio, in which children are asked to recite from the Koran. The ones who do it really well receive prizes, handed out by a sheikh.

This year the winner got £450 and an AK-47 assault rifle; second prize picked up £320 and an AK-47 rifle; third prize was £250 and two measly hand grenades. (He or she must have felt hard done by – last year's prizes included anti-tank mines.)

Welcome to faith-schooling, Islamist style. The radio station is Andalus Radio, run by the al-Shabaab terrorist militia, extreme Islamists who recruit children under 15 to fight the Mogadishu government. It's unclear whether their passion is to make children word-perfect in the Holy Book; or just to get them used to handling guns while still in their teens.

I can't help wondering what the children make of the organisers. These are people who routinely punish any transgression with double amputation and/or stoning to death. What would they do to you if you cocked up your recital? Exactly. They'd rip out your tongue with pliers. How much do you still want to enter the competition?

Why Roger Dean is alatter-day John Martin

I can't wait to visit the exhibition of John Martin's paintings, which opened yesterday at the Tate under the title "Apocalypse". Lots of people chuck the word "apocalyptic" around when they mean "mildly disturbing" but Martin dealt with it quite literally: he specialised in painting the end of the world. Give him a Biblical catastrophe or cosmic event of such head-spinning dimensions that the human mind should struggle to grasp it – the Day of Judgement, say – and he'd paint the scene as a vast spectacle in deranged oranges, purples and blues.

His massive canvases conjured up oceanic turbulence and mountainous fires. His human figures are puny, quaking, creeping, scared-to-death little insects when seen against the merciless, volcanic incineration of sky and sea. He makes JMW Turner look like Vermeer.

Recent press coverage showed his great work The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum being restored after it was damaged by the Thames flood of 1928, which inundated the Tate's basement. Why was the painting in the basement? Because in the 1920s, a century after it wowed Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, it was considered worthless. What once had seemed sublime and wondrous had, by 1900, lost its power to thrill. It was considered, to speak frankly, kitsch bollocks.

I've been casting around for a modern equivalent: I think it must be Roger Dean, the doyen of rock-album cover designers in the 1970s, the man behind the cover of Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans and Gentle Giant's Octopus. We geeky rockers admired his fantasy planets, giant dragonflies, krakens and swirly dreamscapes in the 1970s. Now they seem as dead and gone as ... well, as the "progressive rock" on the records his sleeves contained. Will Dean's fans have to wait until 2070 for a Martin-esque retrospective?