Man About Town

Naughty noughties

History repeats itself in more ways than one

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.


How we lived then

For the past year, I’ve been writing a book about women and fame in the noughties. It’s a compellingly strange decade to look back on. At the time, I was highly prone to paroting the utopianism of tech libertarians — the internet would make everything better, and everything it made worse would be better really, because online existence was the unavoidable future.

One of the lines I remember being routinely trotted out was that the internet was no more to be feared than the printing press — which, in retrospect, does seem a remarkably sanguine take given the fact that the printing press ushered in about two centuries of religious turmoil, war in Europe, witch trials and heretic burnings. Still, I guess information wants to be free and all that. 

In comparison, a decade or so of rampant sex tapes, revenge porn and public shaming seems like mild stuff. And already a lot of the hectic cruelty that characterised the noughties has receded into incomprehensibility. The hardest part isn’t reconstructing the way people thought in that time: it’s remembering that I was part of it all, hungrily reading the gossip blogs that now look so monstrous to me. 

• • •

Organisations concerned with bodily rights have grown more concerned with chiding the public for thinking sex is binary

One thing that seems to come back easily, though, is noughties style. Stealthily, I’ve absorbed the blonder, bronzer look of the women I’ve been writing about. With every hair appointment, my highlights have got lighter. Self-tan has reappeared on my bathroom shelf. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before I’m booking myself in for a “tramp stamp”, the tattoo at the base of the spine that was the trademark of the decade. (Nobody tell Theodore Dalrymple, who has made his opinion on ink abundantly clear in these pages.)

I’ve even rebought the perfume I wore when I was 18 — although smelling it made me wonder how much my senses have sharpened since the smoking ban. A noughties night out used to involve passively sucking down the equivalent of 20 B&H, so even if the rest of me has aged appallingly since then, at least I have the nose of a milk-fed infant again. 

I draw the line, though, at hipster waistlines, despite fashion influencers insisting that they’re on the way back. I spent my twenties contending with trousers cut so low my knicker elastic was a subject of ongoing public interest. To some things, we must say never again.

Birth of indignation

‘‘Never again” seems to be a sentiment forgotten by American feminists who are — as I write — confronting the probable collapse of Roe vs Wade, the precedent that has been the rickety underpinning of abortion rights in the States since 1973. Over the last ten years, the major organisations concerned with bodily rights (the ACLU and Planned Parenthood) have grown more concerned with chiding the public for thinking sex is binary than they have with protecting the integrity of the group once known as women.

You could claim that the shift from talking about “women” to the new, inclusive vocabulary of “birthing people” is simply a neutral shift in the language. But the problem is obvious: when femaleness can only be described in terms of function, you’ve accepted the argument that to buck that function is to buck nature. Birthing people birth: what else could they do? American feminists have sneeringly referred to the UK as “terf island” for our thriving sex-based rights movement. Still, at least we can say who gets pregnant.

• • •

My husband arrived home proudly from the charity shop with a new purchase: a book of local walks, published sometime in the 1980s. Following them is a mix of outdoor pursuit and archaeological treasure hunt. Would this housing estate have existed when the book was written? Is this renovated farm the “old ruin” mentioned as a landmark, or a new build that will tempt us off track?

My country-raised laissez-faire attitude to trespass (just say sorry if we get busted in the wrong place and ask for the nearest way out) and his more cautious city-boy approach to private property (especially if that private property might include shotguns) has created some tense moments when we’ve lost the path. All things considered, though, in a world where Google Maps has made getting lost mostly impossible, the chance to stand confounded in the middle of a field (“There probably used to be a stile about here?”) is a pleasure.

Shake it all about

The doomsaying about Netflix’s subscriber figures felt overdone. A near-saturated market, plus an incoming crunch on disposable income? Of course a bit of fall-off is to be expected. Still, since taking out an Apple TV trial, I’ve found more and more that I want to watch there, and am particularly obsessed with Severance — part high-concept sci-fi, part conspiracy thriller, where the twist is that the protagonists can’t know what they’re doing half the time.

That’s because in the world of the show, they’ve undergone a procedure called “severance” where their work selves (their “innies”) are wholly detached from their home selves (“outies”). It becomes a detective story from both sides, with the two sets of sundered psyches trying to work out what each is doing. Most of all, I’m rooting for the innies and outies to get together. If they’re ever reunited, it’ll be a self-love story for the ages. 

• • •

Anna — Amy Odell’s biography of Vogue editor Anna Wintour — is a treasury of fashion excess, with Wintour far from the worst offender. Gloria Moncur of Bazaar apparently once responded to a sub-par item of footwear by slinging it at the offending staffer and saying: “Are you trying to make me sick bringing me these terrible-looking shoes?”

Even more shocking is the amount of money washing around publishing in the noughties. Condé Nast once paid double the asking price for a URL, simply so the vendor wouldn’t think they were owed a favour — an approach that I am sorry to say none of my editors have ever taken to setting my fees.

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