Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Plastic People

Here's a thing. It's a brand-new, same-old thing you can chew thoroughly, grind between your powerful jaws, and put in your pipe for smoke rings. It's something about who we are and where the world is. I call it Synthetic Cosmopolitanism.

Have you ever noticed that, although the world is getting smaller, Globalism is coming, and electrons whizz around showing us on TV and computer screens how other people live, there's always something really fake and plastic about the way 'the Other' is represented to us?

For example, in Indian restaurants in Britain we drink Cobra beer and eat Chicken Tikka Massala, unaware that both were invented in the UK with the express intention of representing something exotic and Indian?

My suggestion is that, rather than getting righteously angry about this inauthenticity, we should enjoy it. It's not a bad thing. The 'wrongness' of the way one nation's customs are represented in another just adds to the variety of styles in the world.

National style was always an arbitrary construct anyway. National anthems were written by some guy who might as well have worked in an advertising agency. National costume is just someone's arbitrary idea about how fabrics and colours can speak about the history of one people in one place. Most of this stuff was dreamed up in the 19th Century, which was the century of nationalism in Europe.

National and racial identity is nothing more or less than brand. The more cosmopolitan the world gets, the more fluid and plastic our identities become. If roots are brand image, we can reconstrue them like an advertising man relaunching a product -- like Marty Feldman in the film 'Every Home Should Have One', whose job is to make Scottish porridge sexy. As consumers, we can buy into the pseudo-cosmopolitanism of national or ethnic brands the same way we do when we buy Fry's Turkish Delight (full of Eastern Promise).

Use Your Illusion

We're all so alienated from our real roots that we can choose to identify with the imagery of any nation on earth as easily as the one we nominally come from. A middle class New York jew like Beastie Boy Mike D is free to be a rapper or a Buddhist just as I'm free to be a jew. He doesn't need to have been born in the Hood or studied from boyhood in a monastery to do those things. His is a joyfully inauthentic adoption of styles which appeal to him because of their Otherness. I call this pleasure in incorrect or imagined introjections of other people's styles Fake Folk or Synthetic Cosmopolitanism. We should celebrate it, not denigrate it.

It's against authenticity, of course, but don't throw that concept, or the people who cling to it, out of your 'french' window. We need them, because our illusion uses their illusion.

In order to be free to buy into someone's national traditional imagery, we need two types of people to co-exist peacefully in the world. Call them the Pure versus the Impure, call them the Guardians Of Heritage versus the Dilettantes, call them the Stay-At-Homes versus the Runaways. Call them the Country Mouse and his cousin the Town Mouse. Call them Conservative Convergers versus Liberal Divergers.

Liberal divergers in one place end up relying on the stereotypes produced by conservative convergers in another. If I choose to buy into Japanese culture, I need conservatives in Japan to dedicate their lives to the preservation of some sort of recognisable Japaneseness, if only so that I can misread it, confuse it with something else, incorporate it into my western ideas in silly ways, get it all wrong. Chinese whispers is not just a way of turning good information into bad, it's also a method of generating new sentences. Think of it as brainstorming.

High Concept Dining

I'm a Scot dining out with my Japanese girlfriend. We're in a hip new hotel on St Martin's Lane. We cross a lobby full of Philippe Starck dwarves and giant chess pieces and enter Asia De Cuba, the restaurant. A waiter dressed like a model in Wallpaper magazine (slate grey tie against slate grey shirt) asks us if we've dined here before. No. 'Okay, let me explain the concept to you. Asia De Cuba is a Total Fusion restaurant. We mix Caribbean cuisine with oriental street cooking.'

Many restaurants in London have high-profile 'concepts'. Some may find this pretentious, but I find it rather honest. The menu is pretty upfront about the liberties the designers and chefs have taken with national cuisine. Even if there is a suggestion that the two national cuisines fused are, in themselves, pure and authentic, the final pitch is that there is something more exciting, more appetitising: arbitrariness, inauthenticity, impurity, bastardisation, miscegenation, creativity and innovation.

Plastic People

I'm at one of my favourite London places, the Oriental Shopping Centre at Colindale, sitting in the food court drinking very sweet Chinese tea and eating sago in coconut milk. I've just bought the new Studio Voice from the Japanese bookstore next door. Although this is an entirely oriental shopping centre, they play western music. They've just played a faux-hispanic hit ('Chico Latino') followed by some MOR ballad with an Irish pipe solo in the middle of it. A man from the Museum of London is photographing me and my Japanese girlfriend for an exhibition later this year about London shopping centres. We will be a proud symbol of the pleasures of miscegenation. We will be Synthetic Cosmopolitans.

Have I become like Huysmans' hero Des Esseintes in 'Against Nature', addicted to a synthetic cosmopolitanism to the extent that I prefer an oriental shopping centre to London? Do I perhaps prefer this cosmpolitan simulacrum to the real thing, the orient itself? Is the departure lounge of an airport better than the arrival lounge of your destination, and are both better than the cities to which they are linked by high-speed trains?

Are these the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave, and if so, how did I reach this odd position?


I spent my formative years in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. I was brought up in the New Town, a rather elegant and refined area of terraces built in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. The Georgian terraces are curved in crescents, and overlook locked, leafy and sloping 'pleasure gardens' where I played with my brother and sister. I went for piano and french lessons to other houses in these terraces, and met their principal occupants: elderly ladies who loved dogs and classical music. It seemed like an unchanging world. The old ladies seemed to get older, but never to die. The terraces and gardens were never altered, thanks to stringent conservation regulations (it's an area of designated cultural importance, so residents like my mother have to spend a lot of money retiling the roof and resurfacing the sandstone. It's their solemn responsibility. They're the keepers of Edinburgh's heritage).

As a child I took this beautiful but fusty environment for granted. I had neither positive nor negative feelings about it. But a couple of things began to widen my horizons, to lead me in the direction of Synthetic Cosmopolitanism. It began to become clear that, unlike my school friend John, who still lives in these terraces, paying for their upkeep, practicing law, I would leave Edinburgh.

We had a series of lodgers in our house in Ainslie Place, and one of them was a Chinese student called Ollie Kwan. He had a big record collection of Vogue 45s by Francoise Hardy. It's odd that my love of French pop was kindled by an oriental, but not really that odd. The grass is always greener on the other side. Unless you're English, in which case your feelings towards the French are historically fratricidal. As Freud pointed out, it's the small difference which ends up being the most murderous one. Like the Triads, those Europeans only kill their own, you know.

At Home He Feels Like A Tourist

When we moved to Athens I had my first experience of a truly different way of living. Greece at the time was a fascist dictatorship, but it wasn't just politically different. The sun shone, and the Greeks plucked our pale cheeks and patted our blond heads, finding us as cute and exotic as we found them. (This was before mass international tourism began to dominate the Greek economy.) Then we moved to Montreal, then back to Scotland.

Roots began to seem less and less relevant to me. Each time I came back to Edinburgh I had the strange impression of watching a real place turning into a simulacrum. Edinburgh was becoming The Edinburgh Experience. The buldings were cleaned, PR spin was applied. Tourist events like Hogmanay, the Festival and the Tattoo made Edinburgh self-conscious, so that the town felt like a tourist destination even to her own residents. So, I figured, if I'm going to feel like a tourist here, I might as well feel like a tourist somewhere more interesting. Somewhere I can also get some work done.

He Fills His Head With Culture, He Gives Himself An Ulcer

When I turned 21, I decided to try to get a record deal. Although Edinburgh had a healthy New Wave scene at the time -- where now they have The Beta Band, Boards Of Canada and Travis, the Edinburgh of 1981 had The Fire Engines, The Visitors, Josef K -- it wasn't the kind of place you could really make pop records.

When I formed my band The Happy Family there were so many Scottish musicians trying to get out of Edinburgh that the A1 motorway corridor to London used to be a kind of Scottish band refugee caravan. In service stations along the way you'd bump into Aztec Camera and Orange Juice and think nothing of it.

Davy Henderson of The Fire Engines (now of Nectarine No. 9) came back from one trip to London raving about how different it was from Edinburgh. In London, you'd be sitting on the tube opposite a black guy sitting with his legs wide apart, in a pose of disdain and arrogance. In Scotland we had no black people. (I think Zeke Manyika, who joined Orange Juice as drummer, was the only black man in Scotland at the time.) On an early trip down south I was fascinated to see a primary school playground on the Fulham Road filled with 5 year-olds of every race, all playing happily together. It was an image of a better, more pluralistic world.

The Wood Between The Worlds

Or perhaps it was like the Wood Between The Worlds in C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles: a synthetic and magical place, an index of many possible worlds, a place you could use to launch out towards different planets at different stages in their evolution... or treat as a world in itself, a place strangely placeless and vague, but replete with dizzying possibilities. It's as though, having torn the index out of a book, you came to consider it an excellent short story in its own right.

When I lived in Paris, my favourite arrondissement was the 13th, the Vietnamese town near the south peripherique. To some it may resemble a cluster of ugly highrises near a motorway, but to me it was a delightfully fake piece of Vietnam in a very un-Parisian part of Paris. It was a vital escape from the no-less fake Frenchness of the touristy Place Du Tertre, where I lived with my Bangladeshi wife and a small grey cat.

In London my favourite places are similarly faux-exotic. Chinatown. The gaytown of Soho. The Oriental Shopping Centre at Colindale. Banglatown at Brick Lane. The Museum of London, with its series of time travelling interiors from all eras of this chameleon city: a Roman kitchen, the Tudor palace of Nonesuch, second world war nissen huts. Each a chimera, not the real London, but a testimony to the city's most important feature: its lack of a fixed identity or a permanent soul, and its consequent longing for precisely those things, identity and soul.

If Adorno is right to say that soul is just the longing of those with no soul for redemption, let's hope that Londoners, and the rest of us, never find what we're looking for.

And now I'm off to not-find it in New York. Wish me no-luck!

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