About this time of year I have a hopeless dream: I dream The Football has finally finished and that whichever cup competition has presently run its course has established, once and for all, which football club is the best in England (Europe, the world). And there will be no need for anyone to bother with it ever again. It is a hopeless dream, because it appears that The Football, like the poor, is always with us.
Football has to carry on, because stuff has to keep happening. In the same way, the Archers has been going for longer than I have been alive (that’s saying something) and the pool of misery that is Albert Square has brought us ghastly Christmases since the 1980s. People want a story, and once it’s started, they don’t want it to stop: it mustn’t stop.
That sense of driven engagement with events, the need for something to happen, is beautifully captured in the ending of The Truman Show: as the hero struggles to escape from his artificial world, television viewers all over the world are transfixed by his journey. Yet, within two seconds of Truman’s final scene, every screen is turned to another channel: the viewers’ engagement having being entirely conditional on something happening.
Nobody (except one woman, and possibly Christof) cared enough about Truman to think about what happened to him: they were on for their next shapeless fix of story. They had had their high and were now looking for the next one, like a two-year-old howling for a second doughnut.
By now, some of you will be muttering in your chilly garrets, ‘Why is he telling us about The Football? He’s supposed to be writing about art and that?’
But of course I am. That is one of the wonders of art, that we can talk about more than one thing at the same time: as the hand of plot pats the reader on the head the hand of subtext is rubbing circles on their tummy.
There is more to art than just event. We have to go beyond even E M Forster’s queen dying of grief to escape happening and the unending sequences of connected things. Eastenders may be useful for nudging public attitudes to AIDS, and will (does?) provide a deep well for thirsty academic sociologists and media-ists. More importantly, it makes sure there is stuff happening on screen. Stuff which has highs and lows, and the occasional flash of humour (ha).
It falls into Collingwood’s category of amusement art, which, as I recall, he defines as work which leaves us unchanged: whatever emotions it generates, it also discharges before the end. (I caught the last hour of Independence Day on the telly last week, and was astonished once again at the bigness of the explosions and the bland formality of the structure: of course the alcoholic was going to buy his redemption by dying as he blew up the alien spaceship.)
And there’s the danger, at least for people who work in a story-driven medium: have we made something happen only because we know something has to happen, or is there a better, deeper reason for it?