Last week in London, I walked past a gold Ferrari, parked casually in a Knightsbridge side street. Or, rather, last week I walked past a Ferrari 458 Spider (no, I didn't know that without looking it up) which had been covered in four grand's worth of brassy vinyl, this causing it to very much resemble the dodgy faux-gold taps I inherited when I bought my last flat. I mean, it was a statement. And a statement that belongs to a world champion kickboxer with shoulders the width of a healthy young wardrobe (and a charming smile) so I wouldn't argue with it. But even so…
While saying I have more money than you to the small assembly of gentlemen gathered around it (each of them grimacing in the manner of someone experiencing spontaneous penile reduction), the car did also seem to announce but I may be running out of ideas about how best to fritter it away.
I walked on along a thoroughfare haunted by supercars reduced to growling expensively and showing off their headlights in lieu of actually driving at their possible 200mph. And I found my head filling with the single word aspirational.
When I was a kid aspirations were ladders that indicated and accessed better things. The things tended to be abstract, such as compassion, bravery, knowledge, curiosity and faith in a variety of finer worlds. I was given exemplary books about people who invented anaesthetics or cures for diseases or handy devices such as the telephone. I was taught about people who risked torture or death for concepts such as justice. (There was no suggestion that being a torturer or executioner would be effective or acceptable.)
I was shown that education and encouragement could defeat all kinds of deprivation and unleash all kinds of potential. I learned I was lucky because I had both encouragement and education. I learned about Saint Francis of Assisi, who was nice to animals, and Saint Damien, who was nice to lepers, even though I didn't attend a Catholic school, and about Marie Curie and Helen Keller, even though my school preferred women to get married and have babies.
In short, I was shown how amazing human beings could be, given half a chance. Even when the class was played a film of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saying that communism was dreadful and that, now he was in the west, he could be definitive about the different but equal dreadfulness of capitalism, there was a sense that amazing people would come up with something better.
Then something happened to aspirations. At around the time when TV shows about healthcare and effective policing replaced actual healthcare and effective policing, aspirations began to be replaced with aspirational stuff. Aspirational magazines, displaying aspirational things and TV shows about aspirational lifestyles appeared. As proper journalism became impossibly expensive and the recycling of PR handouts and pandering to advertisers became an easy option, what had been a marginal feature in our media landscape became a central mountain of cheap coverage about aspirational stuff.
Today, we are immersed in information about aspirational objects: aspirational shoes, aspirational hats, hair, tummies, faces and relationships, all embodying perfections that are both required and unattainable. Even cautionary tales of failed marriages and unhappy skin tone are rendered distant by glamour, as are the extensive depictions of royals breathing in and out, or wearing clothes with staggeringly impressive proficiency.
The more we attempt to embrace the unattainable, the more it recedes and the further we move from the aspirations psychologists generally find make us happy – all that compassion and creation we needn't bother with any more. The unattainable doesn't often make us happy – it's unattainable. And therefore frustrating.
Meanwhile, many golden ladders have been withdrawn, sometimes by people who once climbed them. Libraries, safe schools, prison education schemes, a functional justice system, jobs with reasonable hours and rates of pay – they're gone or going. For some, reading is aspirational. For many, working and earning a living by doing so is aspirational. A privatised NHS has driven up the price of healthcare while crippling public provision and liberating private schemes from any pressure to perform. So being healthy is becoming aspirational.
If you're already ill, or poor and on benefits, ideologues at the DWP will, at vast public expense, be intent upon stopping the benefits that allow you to live and contribute to a civilised society. This, when stress-free living is already aspirational for the chronically ill and poor.
Predatory loan companies offer the unrepayable in order to bring the unsavable within sight of essentials that are now aspirational. Which, in turn, makes anything other than being in debt aspirational. And if even bloodletting loans aren't available, giving our money away to gambling businesses is presented as aspirational.
Needless to say, a great deal of this is the equivalent of banging your head against a wall every day. Which means you don't have the time in which to discover the equivalent of penicillin, inspire your kids or exceed your own and other's expectations. And the bravery required to get through your day goes unremarked. Your sufferings are as undignified and damaging as any – in some cases a kind of torture – but they're invisible. And so are all the people who are not aspirational.
Last week in London, I walked past that gold Ferrari. I wasn't surprised by this because London is an aspirational city, fast becoming a socially cleansed, semi-toxic wasteland of billionaire frittering, all balanced on a bubble of misery and pyrrhic debt. So last week on another London street I was stopped by a woman asking for money. She wanted to give me either a pair of unaspirational shoes or an unaspirational hat in return for my money, because she didn't want to beg. She said she was nursing a baby and showed me her breast, the milk, as proof – because we now inhabit a world where poverty must apologise and reassure.
Many people in many streets now ask for money and on that occasion in London, as on others, I preferred to provide the assistance my governments used to. Feel free to assume that was foolish of me – call it my equivalent of high-end frittering. I don't personally see how exposing your breast and milk to a stranger is a great career choice, even if it's a con. I tend to see it as an indication that both dignity and hope have become aspirational.
And after this small, unsurprising city event ? I told people about this encounter and they were sympathetic. To me. What a shame such a thing should have happened to me. It is no longer, apparently, aspirational to either help or understand each other. So we don't.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010