is it just me?

 Last week – or three obsessions ago; it’s not just ‘a Wales’ or ‘a Luxembourg’ that function as units of measurement, you know – Dolly announced she was saving up for  personalised trainers from Nike. In my innocence, I assumed this meant something moulded to the shape of your feet. Which might be useful, if, for instance, she were a junior Olympic athlete, rather than somebody who breaks into a run only when Claire’s Accessories comes into view. ‘No, idiot!’ she corrected me. ‘They have my name on them.’

My Mum put my name on my shoes at her age, but it was discreetly scribbled inside, against the highly unlikely event that some other child would be desperate enough to ‘borrow’ my cheap sandals from Lilley and Skinner, instead of the Clarks Daisies all the in-crowd got to wear.

But the shoes Dolly lusts after have the name on the outside, in nasty machine embroidery. Yet her name is not exactly hard to remember And it’s not like the shoes in question are things of beauty. You can almost see the wretched Vietnamese, crouched over the computer-driven sewing machine. But that name, in public, on her feet, advertises her existence to the world.

Meanwhile her brother’s new recreation is uploading videos onto You Tube . Videos of himself, occasionally enlivened by a pack shot of ‘Battlefield: Bad Company 2’. Then he watches them, enraptured, over and over. It’s charming, how pleased he is. ‘I’ve had fifty views!’ he cries. People know about him, who didn’t before.

All over the world, we’re personalising pencils, mugs, cars and bathrobes, self-publishing vanity novels, researching our ancestry and making albums, slide shows and Facebook sites about ourselves. All in the desperate hope of being noticed.

Somehow, ‘us’ has vanished into ‘me’. And anybody who puts herself second, or last, is no longer a heroine or an example to others, but a ‘loser’    

When the Welfare State was introduced, sixty years ago, it was a triumph not just for democracy but also for fiscal prudence. It’s not possible for everybody to have their own bus, or swimming pool, or library, but if we share them, it’s cheaper, and we all benefit. And the more people who share an amenity, the bigger the circle embraced by the service, the more civilised we become (at least, I think that’s what Hegel said to me, somewhere in the stacks of the University Library).

So the floral clock and the number 31 bus are not just drab amenities, but tributes to a shared generosity of spirit built up, very slowly and carefully, over hundreds of years.

Then Mrs Thatcher came along. Of course, it wasn’t just her. Communities can get too big as well as too small, people feel lost and invisible, and then you get what’s technically known as ‘anomie’ but shows up as dirty nappies dropped in the street, and old ladies rotting dead for three weeks before anybody notices. Thatcher just made it officially okay to stop worrying about the old ladies, and worry just about ME. Small tweak, really.

Thatcher went – eventually – but her legacy is with us still. In 2004 Productscan Online found fifty-six new products with the word ‘Me’ in their names. In 1999, there were just fourteen. The names included Avon’s ‘Color Me Frosted’ nail polish (an odd concept, when you pay attention) Paris Hilton’s ‘Just Me’ scent (go Paris!) ‘Watch Me’ flashlights and, of course, ‘Envy Me’ body lotion from  – surprise – Gucci.

‘Envy Me’     might have been a good name for the Prius, in fact. As we now know, this car not only takes you further than you ever dreamed, but is far less environmentally friendly than the humble  Polo BlueMotion. But that’s not the point. The point, as attested by more than half the people who bought it, is that ‘it makes a statement about Me 

Only a century or so ago, it was generally agreed that the very best thing you could do with your life was to put it at the service of other people. My granny who was born about then, took pride in doing just that. But then, she was a housewife. Didn’t have much choice, poor thing.

So a generation later, my mother took a long, eighteen-year look at this domestic slavery, and ran as fast as she could the other way She didn’t exactly refuse to do housework, but she did it in the shortest possible time, and in a manner that made it perfectly clear that this was not where either her talents or enthusiasm lay.

Later still, when I was a teenager, I read The Female Eunuch and, freed by her example from the prospect of gender role slavery, happily awaited an adult life in which all my friends and I – male and female alike – would live in communes, and share everything. The group would be greater than the individuals. We wouldn’t need to fight for anything, because we’d already be looking out for each other.

Surprise! Other girls my age turned out to be reading (and writing) other books that seemed to say something a bit different – that if we didn’t grab everything for ourselves and ‘work on ourselves’ before anyone else, we were betraying a higher debt, not just to our own talents but those of all our oppressed sisters, everywhere in the world. Altruism by example – an interesting concept. If I look after me, they can look after themselves. And if it doesn’t work out for them, then obviously they just didn’t Believe In Themselves enough. Simple as.

So my own daughter isn’t alone among her peers in thinking that ‘me’ is not just a right, but a duty. Jean Twenge an American psychologist, recently looked at data on American teenagers over sixty years. In the 1950s 12% agreed ‘I am an important person’. By the late  1980s, it was 80%. In 1967 45% of students thought becoming rich was ‘an important life goal’. In 2004 it was 74%.

(On the subject of becoming rich, it’s also interesting to note the economic consequences of Me ness. If all the non doms who live here but don’t pay tax did pay, that would add up to £12bn a year. All the tax avoided by corporations would add up to another £15bn. Between them, they could clear the national deficit in seven years. No more cuts in public services. No more libraries closing early, and carers told to wait just a bit longer for that pay rise up to a living wage. It might be nice, mightn’t it?)

Do you detect a hint of sanctimony creeping in here? More like hypocrisy, perhaps. Here I am, blogging away, ostensibly to entertain and cheer a weary world, but actually – isn’t it great every time somebody tells me it made them laugh or think? I’m just as bad as the other one hundred and thirty three million bloggers counted so far, clocking up nearly a million posts a day 

And don’t get me started on Twitter (actually, do – it’s over a billion tweets already – count ’em here ).

So I’d better stop right now, before I disappear up my own URL, and go and pick up litter in the park. My granny would have understood that.








Natasha Walter ‘living dolls, the return of sexism’