THE STORIES OF THE FUTURE

GERRY HASSAN

Glasgow 2020 set out with a belief in the power and importance of story – of story as a way to develop mass imagination, to contribute towards the reimagining of Glasgow and the articulation of a non-institutional view of the city, and to further the understanding and practice of futures literacy.

There are numerous ways of developing creative discussion and dialogue. Many of these are used in scenario planning, forecasting and strategic corporate decision-making. Such techniques include the idea of the ‘strategic conversation’ which in the words of Peter Schwartz is based on ‘continuous organisational learning about key decisions and priorities.’ Then there is the idea of ‘civic conversations’, which has been recently put forward by Anthony Grayling, and which has been utilised in places to advance a professional and institutional process about better public policy and delivery. These approaches both have their places, particularly in institutional settings.

Glasgow 2020 focused on stories and the stories people tell. Rather than focus on policy or practice it developed an approach which was:

•    Free-flowing
•    Organic
•    Unpredictable
•    Open and adaptable in the questions and issues it raised
•    Connected the different parts of peoples’ lives

The project developed its support for story and story creation in a number of ways:

•    Glasgow 2020 events encouraged participants to create characters who lived in the city in the future, to sketch out elements of their life, and then shape these into embryonic storylines;

•    From this, storymakers took away the resulting materials and used them as a starting point to make a story of the city in the future;

•    Several short story competitions were run: one with Glasgow University Creative Writing course and the other city-wide in association with the ‘Evening Times’.

A variety of distinct themes emerged from the stories. All the references below where the short stories are identified come from pieces republished in the book. The overall themes come from the range of stories of the whole project:

•    How men and women get on:
This is one of the most pronounced themes running through a range of the stories. This is addressed in a number of ways. Firstly, there is a general exploration of the way men and women interact, differences between the sexes of motivation, communication and power. Secondly, one key area is the issue of male aggression and violence and the cumulative effect this has not only on men, but women, with the question asked what happens to some women when they have the opportunity to turn the tables?

Two stories which showed some of the above were ‘Revenge is Bitter’ by J. C. MacCrae and ‘Growing Wild’ by Jeanette Stafford. In the first, super-mutated women who are much more powerful than men become killers and mutilaters of men; eventually some of the men decide to fightback. In ‘Growing Wild’, Marion becomes a female hunter who decides to poison and kill Andy, after her brother, who was in Andy’s gang, got heavily into drugs.

•    Consumerism and the appeal of materialism:

The way Western societies give emphasis to wealth, success, materialism and conspicuous consumption was another major theme. Such issues as the character and consequences of who are judged ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in society, how people are perceived by others, and the negative consequences of being labelled as one of ‘the excluded’ are all dealt with.

An example of this can be seen in ‘That Change is Nothing’ by Ewan Gault, in which the central character, Jack, falls asleep on the Glasgow Underground for fifteen years, and awakens in the city of 2020. Apart from the metaphor of the Underground as a physical time machine, Gault’s story explores Jack’s disorientation walking around the city of the future. The city centre has become a shopping mecca with selective access to certain places; the story clearly takes the depowering, excluding nature of contemporary consumerism to a powerful conclusion. Another story, ‘She wore blue velveteen’ by Marie-Anne Mancio, looks at ‘The Retail Generation’ of 2020 in a world of super-casinos, retail, fashion, and young people spending too much.

•    Environmental apocalypse:
The city of the future has to make sense of the dramatically altered state of the planet. Factors that the human race has to come to terms with include rising sea-levels, unpredictable weather, new epidemics and diseases, changing transport and energy usage, and parts of our lands and cities now permanently underwater.

In one, the city is mostly flooded with only islands left above water and the main mode of transport gondolas and gyrocopters, while in others, there is in a hyper-flu epidemic which is wiping out parts of the population (‘Growing Wild’), and, the planet’s changing weather patterns are hitting Glasgow first in the shape of tropical storms (‘Revenge is Bitter’).

•    Stories of individual hope against the system:
A recurring narrative was the interplay between authority increasingly seen as authoritarian and the nature of personal responsibility and personal will. One version of the future saw a punitive, punishing state take action against those it deemed had to be made an example of with the balance between the state and the individual having gone completely out of kilter. In this Orwellian saga, the story of hope and optimism lay with the individual who stood up and articulated their conscience.

An evocative story in this area was ‘Zed Tee’ by Les Wood – set in a Glasgow which has become Scotland’s first Zero Tolerance city – with an over-reaching law enforcement agency, the ‘Zed Team’. Their role is to publicly punish and humiliate those who did not play by the rules; however in this case the courageous and public stand of one person taps into the inner doubts and anxieties of the law officers, who are not nearly as omnipotent as it first seems.

•    Inter-generational stories:

The manner in which the younger and older generations understood each other, was another theme. These touched on the empowering and depowering nature of technology, the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’, and the fear of elders that a techno-savvy youth would make ‘knowledge’ superfluous.

A story touching on some of this was ‘The Prog Rock Café’ by Alan Bissett, where the introduction of new labour laws to encourage firms to hire young and older people leads to rebellion. It covers employer exploitation of workers, the power of music, and the potential of 1970s prog rock and punk of the future to transcend the generational divide!
Another tale looking at such issues was ‘Allowed, Able and Willing’ by John Daly. This explored the potential of technology and asked what is the nature of democracy, who is education for and what is its purpose? In Glasgow in 2020 the education system is now run by young people with teachers reduced to a facilitative role. The story unfolds as young people take a decision on one of the thorniest issues in contemporary Scottish society: whether religion has any role to play in schools.

•    The need for social conversation:

Another theme was the importance of social conversation, dialogue and connection. Particular strands of this included the need to spread understanding and honest discussion, especially in an age where speed, decisiveness and the power of change are widely championed.

Several of the stories show this including ‘Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow’ by Laura Marney: a story situated in the fashionable world of futurist hairdressing where flirting, glamour and people putting off ageing are all centrestage. In part this is a city where emotions, empathy, the importance of love and empathy, and connection, reflect a place where gender is very different, and the whole public landscape, public spaces and conversations are of a deeper quality than contemporary times.

•    The fading dreams of modernism:

The final and one of the most powerful themes was a feeling of a crisis, heading towards end-point for the dreams of the modernist city. This was seen in a number of ways: the disaffection people felt for the clear, deliberate lines and ideals of modern architecture, the decline and disbelief at political projects based on modernism, the scale of inequality and poverty in the city alongside undreamt of wealth, and the return of fear and moral panics, which modernity had always claimed to be able to overcome.

One story which illustrates some of this is ‘The Icarus Tree’ by Suhayl Saadi, which addresses the architect’s search for perfection and the hollow dream of a city shaped by skyscrapers, bridges and rationalism, versus the power of magic, dance and a subterranean world. The two versions of a city posed in the story point in very different directions: one a totally integrated city-state and utopia, the other the city as a tree with roots and branches represented by ‘The Silver Tree’. Saadi asks in light of the demise of socialism and by 2020 of unfettered capitalism – modernism’s principal advocates  – how we can conceive of real harmony in a profoundly unequal society?

A couple of other over-arching themes should also be acknowledged. One was a sense of play, lightfulness and humour: a characteristic across many of the stories. Even in some of the most dark, dour, pessimistic tales, a counter-theme seemed to be running, of the author implicitly stating the importance of irreverence and a sense of fun, even in an environmental Armageddon. ‘Glasgow Pants’ by Anne Donovan uses the making and selling of pants to have an affectionate dig at the world of advertising and marketing slogans and those who believe a city’s fortunes rise or fall in the power of a slogan.

Another was a want to celebrate the city, its successes, the challenges it has faced, and its very belief in itself. In several stories, Glasgow wins various accolades in the future for the direction it has taken and its new found purpose; in other stories, Glasgow becomes according to Chelsea Clinton, then Mayor of New York, the world’s most exciting city. A final theme was the recognition of the power, appeal and allure of the old Glasgow, and the sense that as city authorities pushed the idea of a sleek, shiny future, people wanted to reflect on the positives of ‘the old Glasgow’, even if this was just in their hearts.

The stories we gathered from a range of professional and emerging writers across the city, while being based in the future, tell us many things about attitudes now. They show that people are very aware of living through an immense period of change, and by its character, a transitional age, in which attitudes, values and beliefs are in flux. There was a lot of anxiety, and a sense of loss in many of the stories, but there was just as powerfully, an identification with the city and a story of hope.