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When the Traffic Lights Stopped by Martin Friel


Chapter 1


I remember what it was like before he arrived. I, like most, drifted through a life that I believed was free and full of choice but with hindsight, was no freer than a battery hen. Even they must believe they have some choice – should they peck the wire cage again, should they try to shuffle the left or the right foot this time, should they cry out or remain silent? These are choices, limited but choices nonetheless.

That was the life that I, we led before Seth. It was so full of nothing. We made ourselves so busy doing nothing but at the time it felt very important, rewarding even. Looking back now, I see that it was entirely vacuous and from my current vantage point, what we used to do with our lives seems so utterly pointless. But at the time, it appeared good, worthwhile.

We spent the majority of our time consuming. It was all we did really. Consumption was the core of everything we did and very few of us, if we are honest now, could say that we did anything that wasn’t some form of consumption and one of the main things we feasted on was time. We acted as though we had nothing but time and devoured it aimlessly, mainly through TV.

Our TV schedule was composed almost entirely of ‘reality’ TV and we were deluged with it. Every channel, all 100-odd of them, crammed with people just like you and I doing ordinary things just like you and I. There was the rich, spoiled set from West London showing us how they drank Champagne and attempted to hang out with royalty but to balance that out, we got the pretendy-rich from the north east who did the same but on a budget.

We watched the tribulations of the nation’s aristocrats and the endearing foibles that result from generations of inbreeding. We watched the same format but from the perspective of the housing estates and the marvelled at the honesty delivered by generations of poverty. We watched people sleeping in hotels, we watched them go shopping, we even watched them watch TV. The whole point was that no matter who you were, what part of society you identified with, you could see yourself and others like you and ‘relate’. They were just like us – their lives were just like ours.

Only they weren’t ‘real’ and nor, it would transpire, were our own. What we were told was real life in these shows was in fact staged and crafted to appear real. These lives were facsimiles of real life, what the producers estimated we took to be real life. Judging with hindsight is simplistic but it’s so clear now that our own lives were as staged and controlled as those we saw on TV. We just didn’t see it, we were too distracted.

When it wasn’t reality programmes, TV was showing us all the things that we could buy and have and own and possess, all the things that would make our lives better, more complete. And how we responded. We were deeply patriotic in our consumption. Hundreds of thousands of us, millions, scuttling about the streets eying and buying, aimlessly, pointlessly, purchasing things desperate for the day we could throw them away so we could buy all over again. We were hungry and this was the sustenance we believed we needed because we were told it was – every day we were told to buy stuff, stuff that would show we loved our families more than our neighbour, stuff to express how successful we were, stuff that would shape our identities. We would buy, buy, buy and then sit back and let the consumption define us.

It told us that we were wealthy, dynamic, deserving and bound for greater things. We could look at our accumulations and know that we were excelling, had greater taste and had greater access to the good things in life. Sofas from department stores, clothes from designers we had never heard of, food from artisan bakeries, holidays to increasingly far flung places and back again – Thailand became the new Benidrom to such an extent that people started going to Benidrom again. It was a hipster thing. We were all living the good life. How did we know it was the good life? Because all the things we bought and where we bought them told us so. That was what comforted many of us – having stuff meant having meaning and we were happy to live that lie. Better that than mentally unravelling at the bus stop on a cold, wet Wednesday morning waiting for more work.

When we weren’t consuming we were doing just that, working. We prided ourselves on our understanding that work was a means to an end and that we were an improvement on our forefathers who had identified themselves by their employment. Those wet Wednesday mornings were made bearable because our destination was not what identified us. It was what the job could buy that mattered. We had advanced since the days of our ancestors – work was not a point of pride. It was simply a means to get money to allow us to craft our true identity, give us the means to cut and paste ourselves into those commercial images of holiday, motoring, socialising and well being. We worked, whatever it was we did, to attain those social ideals that we felt entitled to and knew could be ours. Everyone could join in – you just needed the money.

If you didn’t earn enough, you could always borrow. That was never a problem as the accumulation of debt was your patriotic duty. If you weren’t borrowing and buying you were putting the economy and jobs at risk. It was our collective responsibility to ensure that all those trinkets and summer promises were bought and in return our own hunger was satisfied with that plaster of identity that we so readily applied. The banks encouraged it too – the more we borrowed, the more they could skim away. They were the great untouchables, the ones who held the keys to our identity, the health of the economy and the stability of our government. It’s not that they were the bad guys – everyone was complicit in it. It’s just that some, the bankers in the main, came out of it better than most.

There was no respite from the merry go round of consumption and deception. On the train or the bus to work or on your lunch break or on Sunday afternoons, were the newspapers. They wrote as though they were on our side – they exhibited the outrage that we knew we should feel towards those thieving politicians, the paedophiles, the greedy bankers, the ungrateful celebrities that we saw on our TV. But on every second page, in between these calls to moral arms, were the adverts – ‘Those terrible stories you read in our pages,’ they screamed. ‘Forget them. Look here. We have a sale on flat screen TVs, we got half price sofas and how about a bit of insurance to salve those insecurities?’

The papers were part of the problem too, boxing us in, telling us how to feel and behave; what to like and dislike. Similar to the politicians, they purported to be the voice of the people, merely reflecting what we were feeling and the more you saw it, believed it, the more you understood that this was in fact the way you should feel. We had lost the power of thought and self realisation. We believed we had both but it was a mirage, a hoodwink and we, despite what anyone will tell you today, happily accepted this. We walked into it, some with their eyes open and some closed but we all walked arm in arm in this great charade, gleefully, heading for the department stores and the airports. It didn’t matter that it was a lie, not really, not when our belies were filled with all those products, outrage and security. To put it bluntly, we were a nation of toddlers. Knowing simpletons.

It sounds insane that we accepted it but if you are surrounded by it and it is all you know, you get used to it. It becomes normal, even desirable. But then you know how that feels, don’t you?

Overseeing all of this, engineering these grasps for meaning and identity, our need to feed ourselves and what was left of our souls, were the politicians. They had always been there, a paternalistic body that made sure the big things like the economy - delivering our jobs, our consumption and ultimately our identity – functioned. We knew they were living off the cream of the land, identikit droids perpetuating their own class, lying to us at every turn, telling us what they believed we wanted to hear. But we also knew we needed them. They were tasteless, crass and acutely self-serving but we accepted that we needed them.

Who else could run the country, negotiate with foreign powers, shepherd the economy, keep the banks in check, keep our streets safe, clean and functioning? Who else could make sure that society did not crumble and fall into anarchy? As irritating as it was, we knew we needed them but crucially, they also needed us. They needed our votes, our validation in order for them to assume their positions of power for without the people, there could be no politicians. We took solace in that fact. It was all we had really.

And so we lived those lives until Seth showed up. It was Seth who showed us we were living a mass, collective lie, one that only the politicians and the financiers benefited from. He showed us that we did not live in anything like a free state, that we did not need to take our identity cues from what we bought or owned, that the reality we thought we lived in was in fact a construction, a myth and, most terrifying and exhilarating of all, that we did not need the politicians, leaders of any kind. He showed us they were an outdated class no longer serving any purpose but their own and that we could have a more fulfilling and vital existence without them.

It was Seth who finally set us free from this patriarchal existence and convinced us that as a species, we had evolved enough to take care of ourselves and no longer needed to be led anywhere by anyone. We knew individually and collectively what we wanted so why, he argued so persuasively, should we hand that responsibility, the very essence of our existence, over to anyone else?

If Seth hadn’t shown us the way, we would still be drifting through a false, misleading existence, an unsatisfying approximation of what life should be. We owed him everything.

How we progressed from acquisitive cattle to where we are today deserves an explanation and as I stumbled into the centre of it all, this great revolution of systems and minds, I will take on the responsibility of explaining to the future what we did, how we did it and why we did it.

Ours is not a tale of triumph over adversity or the people winning out over the state and nor is it a story of spirituality conquering consumerism. It’s none of those things. It is the story of how the selfish collective came to control itself and a nation. My tale may be ugly at times, may not be to your taste but stick with me as I and the majority of the people know the existence we lead now is real, democracy taken to its natural conclusion. The ‘society’ we live in now is the truest representation of the collective human condition and even when times are dark and the experiment falters, we know we have to maintain, continue down this road for the only other option is to return to the life that you are living today and nothing, absolutely nothing, will convince us to do that.


Chapter two



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