A little while ago my friend was moaning on about how difficult it was to stop smoking and how lucky I was that I had never started. ‘Anyway, even if I do manage to stop, I’ll just find something to replace it. I have an addictive personality!’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘that’s probably why I never started, because I don’t have an addictive personality.’
She gave a contemptuous snort. ‘Hardly,’ she said. ‘You didn’t start smoking because you just aren’t cool enough.’
Well after I had flushed her fags down the loo in retaliation at this cutting remark, I did start to think that she may have a point.
When do most people start smoking? In their teens and twenties. And why? Because their friends do. Because it makes the cool kids look even cooler, and it makes the kids who are DESPERATE to be cool, look just a BIT cooler. When you’re hanging out in the park showing off your rad threads, the casually cradled fag* is the perfect accessory. In fact the only mystery is why don’t more people do it.
Well yeah, when you put it like that, my failure to pick the habit up makes perfect sense. I have never been cool. I would barely have been able to recognise the school cool crowd in a police line up. I had no cool friends then; I still don’t. (Sorry guys, but you know it’s true.) They didn’t smoke, so I didn’t smoke. It would not really have occurred to us. The places we hung out – the library, the labs, each other’s houses – well, a dangling Gauloise would have looked somewhat amiss. The nearest I got to addictive habits in the 80s was fighting over the controller for the Atari.
The idea of being ‘cool’ is a very persistent one, and a word that’s survived, undated and unrumpled, from the 1950s to today. It’s a retro word, but the quality it describes is still desirably vintage. Compare with the other ‘en vogue’ word of my generation – trendy. Describe an outfit worn by a 2011 teenager as ‘trendy’ and they would probably, in their hyperbolic teenage way, LITERALLY DIE of horror. In fact I might just try it tomorrow, as an experiment.
Of course the cultural norm about being cool is that it is a highly desirable quality. We ALL want to be cool, don’t we? That the world is made up of a hierarchy – the cool set are at the top, looking studiously casual and indifferent and flicking ther fag ash on the rest of us, who are staring up at them admiringly. Wishing we could look like them, or be them.
Yeah, sorry cool guys. Sorry to break this to you, but it’s just not true.
I can’t claim to speak for every one of the great woolly-jumpered masses of the uncool. Some of the uncool might well be frantically nicking Lambert and Butlers from their mum’s handbag and trying to inhale without vomiting. Well, we all need an ambition in life and if yours is to blow the perfect smoke ring, best of luck.
But most of us, the massive rump of the uncool, well we aren’t really aren’t losing sleep about our lack of cool. We don’t really look admiringly and enviously and longingly at the cool, because we don’t really look at them at all. We are looking at our own stuff. Stuff that uncool people like. We’re practising the piano, or maybe even some sort of terminally uncool brass instrument. We’re reading books in which orcs get slaughtered by heroes with massive swords, and trying not to dwell too much on the obvious symbolism. We’re fiddling around with interesting software, or reading about quantum field theory, or the history of the Co-operative Movement, or watching Dr Who, or mastering a really tricky crochet stitch.
This week I went through a sticky legal problem with a teenager who is thinking about applying to study law. It took about 45 minutes to work through all the little nuggetty details. At the end of it she leaned back in her chair and gave a delighted laugh. ‘That was FUN!’ she said, but then a cloud passed over her brow and she leaned forward again. ‘Is that SAD?’
No, legal-nerd-in-waiting. It’s not sad. It’s not sad to be passionate about something. To enjoy something. To get excited and interested. Of course, being *too* interested in something is the absolute epitome of uncool. Cool is about studied indifference – and there is, in my opinion, absolutely nothing more dull in this world than indifference. And no one more interesting that someone who is passionate about something.
Which brings me onto Mr Steve Jobs. Mr Jobs was the geek that inherited the earth, not by being good-looking or slick but by working very hard, being very smart and – most of all, in the words of perhaps his most famous speech – not being afraid to stay hungry and foolish. So RIP Mr Jobs, thanks for all my lovely Mac stuff. No I mean, really: thanks. You were a great role model for the uncool.
Because if you stop worrying about looking all cool and indifferent, and wear your passion and hunger on your sleeve, and don’t care about looking foolish – you can even change the world.
And that’s what I call cool.
* the only time I was tempted to start smoking was when I was in the US, so I could legitimately ask if I could bum a fag.