ISMISM New concepts for the Nineties

No. 6: Escapism
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The Independent Online
Former definition: Tendency to seek distraction or relief from reality, esp given by literature, etc - Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Applied to: meek and sensitive souls for whom the world was too gross, too loud or too threatening.

Escape destinations: Dreamland. Romantic fiction. Closed religious order. Cheap movie house.

Watershed: The faking of his own demise by John Stonehouse MP in 1974 - especially the detail of leaving his clothes behind on the beach. Escape suddenly seen as existential act, rather than retreat into dreamy haze. Replicated by Reggie Perrin in award-winning television comedy.

Modern replicants: Stephen Fry (escaped hostile UK reviews by flight to Belgium); Peter Kerry (escaped dull north London family rows by flight to Malaysia); Richey James, lead guitarist of Manic Street Preachers (escaped pressure of rock-star life by disappearing completely); Bob Geldof and Paula Yates (followed media speculation about adulterous liaisons by abruptly leaving the country); Nick Leeson (maverick trader, escaped rage of banking world by flying to beach resort in Borneo, but came back).

Hang on. These aren't "meek and sensitive souls for whom ..." Quite. Word now applied to extremely worldly, gross, loud, etc people who respond to pressure by rapid physical absenting of selves from scene.

Is there a more subtly intellectual side to this concept? Indeed yes. The escape from responsibility is a popular and increasingly stylised variant.

How long has it been around? Oh, since the ancient Romans excused their acquisition of the known world as the subduing of barbarians. But it first had a name 100 years ago. "Bunburying" was Oscar Wilde's formulation for a character's bogus requirement to be elsewhere (visiting a fictional sick friend) when family responsibility or emotional confrontation threatened. Today, mostly characterised by the escape clause ("document specifying conditions under which contracting party is free from an obligation") and the invoking of policy ("course or general plan of action adopted by government etc. Arch: craftiness").

Modern examples: the Baring family indemnify themselves against personal liability for $750m of their clients' money. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, indemnifies himself against loss of job after enormous flaws found in prison security system, by explaining they were "not a matter of policy". John Major evades responsibility for having an opinion about the single European currency by saying his refusal to define his view was "an act of national policy".

Thus escapism - the tendency of rich or public figures to greet the prospect of criticism or bankruptcy by running from their consciences into an alien location, where plausible but mendacious excuses freely grow.

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