Our duty to be beautiful and value the mind

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The Independent Online

However uncertain the benefits of multiculturalism, however careless of the centre we become in our infatuation with the margins, this much is incontestable – we are now a far more beautiful country than we were. Beautiful of countenance, I mean, and all right, yes – though we try to steer away from such subjects in this column – beautiful of body.

However uncertain the benefits of multiculturalism, however careless of the centre we become in our infatuation with the margins, this much is incontestable – we are now a far more beautiful country than we were. Beautiful of countenance, I mean, and all right, yes – though we try to steer away from such subjects in this column – beautiful of body.

Maybe I am just the right age to appreciate this. A generation older and I'd have served in wars and be wondering now just what it was I had been warring for. A generation younger and I might not be able to notice any difference. But growing up in 50s Britain, poised between war and peace, between poverty and prosperity, with a sense of being on the brink of some big adventure, carried with it a curious assumption of sameness that simultaneously calmed and disappointed us. Nice to be out of danger and with one's own, but did we all have to look so awful?

We were undernourished, that was part of the problem. Food was scarce, and of what there was we were incapable of making an educated selection. Have an orange, someone told us. Have an orange, if you could find one, and a slice of that wax which went by the name of cheese. Many of us, hating the sensation of juice running down our wrists, just ate the wax. As a consequence we grew up rickety, with narrow shoulders and attenuated limbs. And pale. On a snowy morning in Manchester you could barely distinguish the population from the weather, so white and light and flaky were we. Small, ill-fed, ill-formed, ill-favoured, with lustreless faces and eyes that swallowed light, we blinked upon the world and assumed people everywhere were just as we were.

Looking back, I marvel that we managed to fall in love with one another, so little externally was there to love. But that just goes to show what an indomitable species we are. We'll love and mate with anything if it moves, not that we moved that much either. Wall bars on Wednesday afternoons, that was it. Up the bars, down the bars, a couple of somersaults, once around the gym, then into the showers, an entire class at a time, 30 shivering skeletons the colour of chalk, lice in our hair, boils on our bottoms, our hands concealing in shame – though we might as well not have bothered for all the difference that it made – our shrivelled members.

And now look at us! A Samoan princess with ballerina's feet and weightlifter's forearms beams upon me, flooding me with her radiance as she checks my food out at the supermarket till. A Nigerian Kashmiri with Samurai eyelids wraps my Christmas presents. There is more energy in a single one of his moon-white teeth than keeps my whole body alive. Sounds come from his finger-tips as he ties a bow in the ribbons. A hissing which can only be his red corpuscles breathing out with the sheer joy of victory.

Do I want this? Do I go shopping in order to be dazzled by the ravishing multifariousness of the new young?

In fact, it's been a slow process. No one talked about multiculturalism when the first Italians opened up a coffee bar on Oxford Road in the centre of Manchester circa 1958, but it changed our lives whatever it was called. How beauteous mankind suddenly was, how many goodly creatures were there, with lungs big enough to sing "Volare" and sufficient strength in their arms to pull the handles of a cappuccino machine, so much vigour in their blood that the hairs sprang like wire from their chests, spilling out from the collars of their shirts, a superabundance of physical vitality and colour – olive and emerald they were, chrome and ochre – in envy of which we sent off to Charles Atlas for chest expanders and plastered our faces with He-Tan.

Too late for us, alas. We built up biceps, then fell over, having grown top heavy; and though we wished to appear like those the sun had kissed from birth, we succeeded only in looking as though we'd spent the morning dipped in vats of chocolate. But at least absurdity made comedians of us. We found ourselves ridiculous, a lost generation of the weak and pallid, and as a result – having nothing else to value in ourselves – we grew intelligent. Perhaps the last generation of intelligent beings the world will see.

That a person can be exquisite on the eye and have a mind (as we in Cambridge used to call whatever wasn't body) I do not doubt. The hard part is being beautiful and valuing your mind, especially when you inhabit a world that prefers beauty any day. You only have one life; bingo – the economics of the thing take you to your mirror. We would doubtless have done the same but for our cross-eyes and the boils on our behinds.

So three cheers for them. Better to live among dazzlers than not. But is that the beginning and the end of our duty to the beautiful – to bathe gracefully, if we can bear to, in their refulgence and then go home and throw up? Aren't we also obliged, for their sakes, to notice that they are zombies, that those who devote themselves exclusively to the presentation of their persons are the living dead?

My Nigerian Kashmiri with the Samurai eyelids finishes the bow on my parcel and hands it to me smiling. There is nothing to choose between the Christmas gift and him. I feel I am at liberty to take either of them home.

A day or two later I find myself sitting behind him on a bus. He is discussing his future with a Maori Venezuelan, the back of whose neck is sculpted like a vase and ticking, ever pore quivering and humming in consciousness of its own beauty. She is explaining that she hopes to be a television presenter. "Me too," he says. "I fancy something like Blue Peter."

"Me too," she says.

Shouldn't we be helping these people?

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