A councillor for Plaid Cymru has complained that Wales had become "a dumping ground for England's social misfits, outcasts and dropouts". Sounds like a great place to me. Our classless and levelled country seems to have less and less room for individuality of any sort. Global protesters and asylum-seekers are marginalised because they are different in an age of conformity. Yet ever since Romanticism blossomed, Western culture has thrived on the individual's vibrancy. Now, global consumerism finds dissent uncomfortable, and the Genoa protesters a terrifying, unwashed prospect. I refer to see them as direct heirs of Shelley and his anti-industrial tirades, using placards instead of poetry to make their point.
I admit that I wasn't on the barricades myself. When the Genoa protests were happening, I was in in the tropical unreality of St Lucia, staying with a man who has taken individuality to an aristocratic extreme, Colin Tennant, the third Baron Glenconner. He now lives in the shadow of St Lucia's Piton mountains, greeting visitors to his restaurant clad in flowing white Indian kurta, battered straw hat and all-terrain sandals.
Glenconner is charm itself, an intelligent and sensitive man who complains that there is no wit or colour left in the modern world: "I used to be very witty in my youth," he told me, as if that were another world altogether. And maybe it was.
The word "privilege" means private law, and, at their best, the aristocracy, like the working class, have transcended middle-class constraints. My first book was a biography of Glenconner's uncle Stephen, a man so individual that, having withdrawn into decorative reclusion at his Wiltshire home, he decided to recreate his beloved south of France there, importing 22 lorry loads of silver sand, an oasis of Chinese windmill palms and darting tropical lizards. Now, with facades from Indian monasteries, Buddhist statues and intricate Asian carvings, his nephew is carrying on the family tradition of recreating the world around him to please his fancy.
Leaving Glenconner on his island Eden for another island, Cape Cod, I arrived in Provincetown, one place in America where individuality is celebrated. On this curling tail of sand, America's bohemians gathered in the early 1900s, led by Eugene O'Neill, who staged his first dramas there. Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko sought its liberated atmosphere and remarkable light.
Now it's a resort for eastern seaboard gays and lesbians, who rub shoulders with day-trippers who come to gawp at the drag queens; a place which extols in capital letters the American right to be – or become – what you want to be. The reality was less uplifting. Steroid-bound Muscle Marys with pierced bellybuttons, and lesbians in button-down shirts and cargo shorts seem to desire a sameness – a desperate need for group identity. It seemed a terrible waste of being young, free and gay at the weekend.
Indeed, the most subversive place is a downtown basement bar which the film director John Waters insisted we must go to – a straight drinking den that looked as if it had been transported from his blue-collar hometown of Baltimore. Waters has been coming to Provincetown for more than 30 years on the grounds that "it's always been a bit nutty here". We need that occasional sense of a flight into a parallel world, the blissful exhilaration of reinventing ourselves – just for a while.
Back in England, travelling through the urban sprawl, I wondered again at the modern levelling of society. Have we really become couch potatoes whose children can't go out at night, dressing from town malls, eating fast food and worrying about our body image, fearing the other, the strange, the different? Then I spent the weekend in Devon, where my sister was getting married.
The wedding party took over a hotel and the staff didn't blink an eyelid as an assortment of businessmen, anarchists and academics clad in Hawaiian shirts whirled about to the band's ultra-lounge versions of Carl Orff, Abba and Joy Division. A rampant bunch of misfits, outcasts and drop-outs if ever I saw one. That Plaid Cymru chap's got a point: English individualism isn't dead. It just needs a good party to let it out.Reuse content