Note of the caption: the landmark of the Castro district, San Francisco, US.
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British art loves to outdo real life with its fantasies of misery. Isn't it time we were given a new vision of paradise, too?
Monday January 2, 2006
I'm walking down an impossibly long street. Block after block. With each block, the neighbourhood gets grimmer. Finally, the only people here look to me to be junkies or homeless men and women with severe mental health problems. Many of these people have open wounds, rotting limbs, collapsing teeth. The atmosphere is desperate and threatening. I decide I have to get out and search around for a cab. After a very long wait, I finally manage to hail one. "The Castro, please," I say. We set off but almost straight away a homeless man steps in front of the cab. The driver slams on the brakes, screams at the man and throws a scalding cup of coffee over him. The man screams in pain and runs away. The Castro, it turns out, is just round the corner.
This is not San Francisco. At least, it's not my San Francisco. Because I read Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels as they appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, and they created a fantastic portrait of the city for me. I'd imagined - or the novels had allowed me to imagine - San Francisco as a bigger, sunnier, hipper version of Brighton. A place where every day was a celebration of the diversity of human sexuality; where silly, wacky stuff happened and the only threat to happiness came from the people who were too narrow-minded to join in the fun.
For gay men moving to London in the late 1980s - myself included - Maupin's sequence of novels acted as a kind of Aeneid, a founding mythology of a city where anything was possible and everything was accepted. London in the 1980s was gradually seeing the emergence of a huge gay culture, and the San Francisco of Tales of the City pointed the way to how our city might be.
So, to see the real San Francisco, to see the vast towers of corporate wealth and the armies of desperate people stranded without homes or healthcare, was to experience the loud cracking of an illusion in my head. The Castro - a few streets of gay bars - was a tiny village next door to the ugliness of an urban reality. How could I have been so stupid as to have believed Maupin's fairytale of a city? To buy into a fantasy of a liberal paradise? My first instinct was to seek out Mr Maupin, grab him by the hand, point out the real city to him and say: "You big fat liar, you."
But then I thought again. Wouldn't that put me on a par with those pinched souls who argue that Jane Austen would have been a better novelist if she had included references to the Napoleonic wars in Pride and Prejudice, if Mr Darcy and Lizzie had visited the rural poor, as no doubt they would have if the novels had been written by a "better" writer like George Eliot?
I'm not sure, in the cold light of a new century, that the Tales of the City are very good books. I am, however, sure this has nothing to do with the amount of urban grit Maupin puts in them. Because I believe we need writers and artists who can fully, richly imagine a kind of earthly paradise on our behalf, a place of appetites and pleasures, a playground for adult imaginations. Not the nostalgic yearning for a lost past, which British art and popular culture do all the time. Or a picture of a utopian future, which the occasional socialist writer like Shaw or Priestley attempted. But an actual, in your hand, right now sort of paradise.
When I say paradise I don't mean the Christian, snake-and-apple kind of place. Not the CS Lewis Narnia thing. I mean something more like those medieval paintings of the Land of Cockayne, a place where struggle and pain have been banished and all human needs are satisfied immediately and totally. There's plenty of bad genre stuff that does this kind of paradise. Sunday night television drama - "People's Friend" TV - where warm yokels bumble around Yorkshire or the Glens. Or pornography, which in its own sweet way cuts straight to the chase with a fantasy of immediately gratified human needs. But where's the good stuff?
Of course, what we Brits really love is an image of life far removed from paradise. A life where everything is not just a bit shit (I didn't ask for that bloody book) but where everything is utterly miserable. How many of us really live lives that are quite as grotty, mean and whingy as the inhabitants of Albert Square? Is there anywhere less like paradise than Walford? And yet, this is what pulls families away from the gaming consoles on Christmas day. EastEnders is as much of a fantasy - a fantasy of misery - as Tales of the City are a fantasy of a gay old time. Grim realism on television may once have shocked the nation, but it now just dulls us into an apathetic acceptance that our lives are terrible.
Maybe we're too long past the age of human innocence. Maybe it's impossible for today's storytellers - our novelists and dramatists - to take us to an Eden: a complex Eden, where we can really discover rich truths about ourselves. A place as multi-faceted as Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, or described in such full, gorged detail as the Dingley Dell of Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. As storytellers today, we're drawn to what's wrong with the world. But what if it were possible to create complex, significant work that explored the possibility of a kind of paradise? If only. If only.
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