A thin veneer

Sitting in the sunshine on London’s South Bank yesterday watching people milling around busily being tourists, earnestly discussing work, or flashing by in running gear grabbing exercise in their lunch break, I found myself contemplating Armageddon. What would happen if automation decimates the middle class, western democracies collapse, and our planet’s natural resources run out? It could get pretty ugly.

But then Londoners get bombed on a fairly regular basis and haven’t descended into atavistic chaos yet. In the midst of devastation and suffering they look after each other. Afterwards they revert pretty quickly to their tolerant, multicultural best. Life goes on.

I then thought about my daughter’s school. The sixth form have been allowed not to wear school uniform so long as they wear “office appropriate attire”. Until now this has meant cheap suits for the boys and a world of confusion and pain for the girls. This year the school decided to clarify that for girls this meant a jacket and skirt, of prescribed length of course, “cut from the same bolt of cloth”. “What the hell is a bolt of cloth?” could be heard muttered over many a Buckinghamshire breakfast table when that letter was opened!

Is looking like a corporate drone going to teach the kids to become creative, independent contributors to society? Is looking smart going to prevent a generation from running amok or reverting to tooth and nail when Armageddon comes? Is this a rearguard action by maintainers of order in the face of rising existential panic? Or is it a load of institutional bollocks?

What if the thin veneer of civilisation is an unnecessary fiction? What if it is actually an artificial constraint on our better natures, a means of maintaining power and status through fear and perceived dependency? What if underneath it we are actually less afraid, less divided, less cruel and more kind than we have been conditioned to think we are?