Deborah Orr: We yearn for the comfort of tradition, but won't pay the price of restraint

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The Independent Online

There's a line of thought contending that sentimentality is the other side of the coin of cruelty. Gazing in wonder at a survey by the supermarket chain Somerfield, which finds that Britons are all yearning to return to 1950s values, you can only presume this theory holds water. Because there's no sign of any yearning for old-fashioned virtues that might be pertinent.

Instead, it's all about a return to an ideal Britain full of pretty villages with cricket on the green, the bobby on his bike and a rosy-cheeked spinster postmistress. The nostalgia is for an imagined time when everything looked OK on the surface. The values whose loss really has coarsened our culture and atomised our economy don't appear to be missed at all.

The loss of many of our taboos, particularly around sex, has been hotly debated. But the loss of the taboo against gossip is something we've just stopped gossiping about. People have always indulged in gossip, of course, but there was at least an official line which adjudged "tittle-tattle" to be malicious and damaging. Nowadays, those media outlets that most claim to represent the values cherished in this survey are the noisiest intruders into privacy and restraint.

It pains me to once again cite the Madeleine McCann case, but it has come to stand for me as a monument to the grotesque and frightening dangers of gossip. What was at first splashed about the papers as well-meaning concern, but was really an effort to keep people talking about a ghastly event that their opinions or their good wishes could do nothing to change, has now become an orgy of speculation, distasteful beyond measure, shameful beyond description.

It just isn't wise to gather round the water-cooler jawing, however " compassionately", about the tragedies of others, and anyone who believes that some "traditional values" actually were honourable – and I do – should be able to see that gossip isn't fun or entertainment, but corrosive and dehumanising. It is always a slightly hostile act, however much we clothe it in sorrow or regret. At some point the gossip reaches people who are far enough away to enjoy the news vicariously, without caring about the reality of the upset behind it at all, and it's not good to be part of that chain.

Since my grandparents really did live in a pretty village in the Home Counties – Great Warley in Essex – I can actually remember the defining virtue that shaped the lives of people there. That virtue was thrift, in some ways a physical manifestation of thrifty self-censorship of the discussion of the troubles of others. Again, it is the people who claim the most interest in "old-fashioned" values who are the most savagely contemptuous of such a dreary, old-fashioned value.

Hilariously, the Daily Mail, triumphant about the findings of this odd survey, remains the most ardent enemy of the idea that a little thrift might do the world some good. Still in denial about man-made global warming, it has leapt on the opinions of "two respected researchers" who maintain that the theory that greenhouse gases are harming the climate holds little Arctic slush.

Even if it isn't going to make the planet explode in a ball of I-told-you-so fire, there is endless evidence that the churning cycle of production and consumption atrophies our bodies and clutters our minds. We are out of touch with our corporeal beings and the space we inhabit in the world. Thinking about our actions and their consequences, out on the street, down in the landfill, in the health of our children, in the degradation of far-off children whose lives are not thrifty but desperate should not be some awful imposition, to be avoided if at all possible.

It's something we need to look at if we want a world filled with pretty villages, not giant cities of slums. The bane of my teenage life was the yell of my parents that I hadn't put the kitchen light off. Now I see that the kitchen light does indeed need to be turned off when you leave the room, not even because of global warming, but because it's good discipline to have a ritual about what you need in life and what you don't. Though sadly I'm very far out of the habit of actually turning the light out, just as I'm far out of the habit of closing my ears, or my mouth, to gossip.

Oh, for a view with a Hume

The painter Gary Hume can rest assured that, in the eye of this beholder at least, he has succeeded in his aim of reducing the subjects of his paintings to gorgeous, lovely, wantable surface and not much else.

Enthused, along with my friends, by his latest show, we all agreed it was fabulous – full of beautiful works that we wanted to take home and hang on our own grateful walls. We did remark nevertheless that maybe the smoothly sculptural legs would be nicer without the big flower-things on them, especially at the point when the dust started to gather. What would we do then, we wondered, still in proprietorial mode, in the unlikely event that Gary himself decided to press one of these sculptures on us. The only answer, we decided, would be to tear the flower-thing off, as part of a wider gesture of delight, screaming: "And you've wrapped it so beautifully too." Much later, a glance at the critical notices revealed that the paintings and the sculptures depicted cheerleaders, which explained at last why the show was called American Tan. Best always to read the small-print, even at exhibitions. Or maybe especially at exhibitions.

What are virtual friends for, anyway?

I don't in the least want to become part of the Facebook community . But at the same time I can't help feeling it's a bit withholding to ignore all those emails telling you that this person or that person wants you to be their Facebook friend. Except that so many of these requests border on the bizarre.

I'm Facebook friends with a chap I was at university with in 1983 and, even though we've both lived in London for 20 years, have met up with precisely once. I'm Facebook friends with the guy who edited a business magazine I resentfully worked on in 1985, and didn't socialise with except in the pub after work even then. I'm Facebook friends with several people whose names I didn't recognise but who it turned out I'd once chatted to at parties. I'm Facebook friends with a woman who knows who I am because she's actual friends with a man who used to help me with my garden in the last millennium. And I'm Facebook friends with a distinguished composer I'm sure I remember being very bored and bemused by me at a private view five years ago.

What's in it for them? What's in it for me? I just don't understand it. Which I suppose is why it's appropriate that in these lists of friends I must appear as nothing more interesting than a big blue swish of a question mark. If I were them, I'd cull me, just for aesthetic reasons.

Perhaps I'm just too old. Joining Facebook seems as inappropriate as gatecrashing the parties of my teenage stepchildren's chums. But that can't be right, or all my Facebook friends ought to be too old as well. Probably it's just a craze that will go away, like the craze for flogging penile extensions over the internet. Or maybe everyone you've ever met really is your friend. Horrific. Who's got the time? What are virtual friends for anyway? And what is the difference between virtual friends and virtual strangers? Absolutely nothing, it can only be assumed.

* A lot of my friends are much richer than me, which offers the bonus that there's often a sneaky laugh to be had from their filthy rich problems. This week, one such friend sat down at a glamorous restaurant, started reading the menu, then looked suddenly crestfallen. "Damn," he said. " I forgot I had lunch here. I hate it when I have lunch and dinner at the same place!" See? It really is tough at the top.

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