(Top image: Screenshot via Facebook / Morning Gloryville)
A few nights ago I saw a video; one that I've been replaying ever since. Not just on a screen, but in my mind's eye, over and over again. So much so that when I close my eyes, or go to sleep, or find myself zoning out of focus on the top deck of the bus, I still see it.
I didn't mean for it to take hold like this. It broke into my subconscious and put up a squatter's notice on the door behind which those recurring dreams of crumbling teeth and free-falling passenger jets lie. Whenever I had the chance I found myself watching it, stopping and starting at the same parts, like the mother of a missing child in an ITV drama obsessively going back and forth over CCTV footage. I was looking for clues, looking for answers, looking for rhyme or reason, for any kind of recognisable precedent for all the madness within it.
On the surface it was simple enough: a recently deceased livestream of an event in London. An event run by a group calling themselves "Morning Gloryville", where 800 people garbed in leopard, tiger and zebra skin kaftans, bodysuits and head-dresses were ecstatically throwing themselves around some municipal party space, blowing whistles and oh-wah-oh-wah'ing into the dim, March morning light. The event in question was billed as a celebration of "The Motherland – Africa!"
There was a girl presenting this livestream. She was young, politely-tongued and enthusiastic in the same way Davina used to be during the early Big Brothers. I didn't catch her name, but she had a bindi and some tribal headwear on. She kept saying things like, "We are celebrating Africa today;" "We've got some bendy wendies over here;" "We're shimmying, we're shimmying;" "It's totally insane. It is totally insane."
The livestream was there for some sort of virtual crowd participation that had long since sailed into the Facebook deadzone. Listening to our host persistently asking people at home to send in pictures, videos and thoughts that would never come gave the video a new kind of horror in its hindsight. Her lost words started to sound like distress calls from a doomed space station reaching earth three days later. Or maybe I'd seen it too many times.
It continued on like this for some time – for over an hour, in fact – with the camera following her through the crowd of non-specific "African" costumers, unbroken and uncut, like a deeply problematic meshing of Russian Ark and Challenge Anneka.
Our girl on the ground said this was taking place at 8AM. Alcohol was not on sale, and this was seemingly the selling point of the event. Many of these people would go on to see their children, make lunch, work shifts, finish essays and drive motor vehicles with this as the start to their day. I worried that some of them might be surgeons or police officers or crane operators. In the days after I first saw the video I kept asking myself whether the people I'd met that day could have been at something like this just that morning. I realised how much we can get away with if we do it early enough, the rituals of the PM buried in the AM.
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To tell the truth, this wasn't the first time I'd come across Morning Gloryville. I'd seen it written about, decried for its lameness. I'd been asked to write about it, to decry it for its lameness. But I resisted; it felt cruel, slightly pointless to talk about. I assumed it was a fad, a marketing stunt for a juice brand, only ever to be seen on London Live TV and in ES Magazine, before drifting into the ether of urban experiences, like the breast milk café or black metal karaoke before it.
But here it was, big enough for life now. I had no idea it had grown so much. I had no idea it had become so real.
It somehow managed to be both totally alien and disturbingly pedestrian; the scenario seemed recognisable, but what was taking place did not. It was as if I was peeking through a stargate, perhaps witnessing the only available entertainment in a society that was either facing the dawn, or the fall, of a totalitarian leadership. Or a dress rehearsal for the kind of thing we'll be doing when all the earth's resources fail and we're forced into recreating the days when the sun still shone.
Unsurprisingly, people in the comments box weren't too happy with what they were seeing. The Morning Gloryville crew – a load of white people celebrating "Africa" by dressing up in leopard skin leotards – had laid down a royal flush of racism, imperialism, orientalism and colonialism, and they were getting their jagged just desserts from all angles. The likes of Tanya and Lorraine, who were merely sending "good vibes from SW19", had their voices buried beneath all the digs, cuts, academic body blows and weaponised memes raining down on these morning ravers and their cheetah-print-painted bodies.
But try as I might, I couldn't find too much genuine outrage or horror. The schooling and dissing felt almost merciful. The rip-off ravers had done something bad and they were being punished for it, but nobody's heart was really in the beatings being dished out upon the Morning Gloryvillains. Not least of all from the participants themselves, who couldn't seem to understand what they'd done wrong, like the ageing stars of an end-of-the-pier boob-show called to explain themselves in front of a SOAS seminar.
It was as if what was going on at this event was just too out there, too much. This wasn't just a bit out of order, it was a kamikaze attack on the very concept of wokeness. More like something from a 1970s Italian game show than a sophisticated part of a sophisticated city. Even the people calling it out couldn't quite believe it. It was unbelievable, incomprehensible, so much, too much, both the least and most 2017 thing possible.
But the more and more I watched it, the politics (or lack of) drifted further and further into the ambience, and it was the strangeness – and the sadness – of it that started to ring out.
To really get to grips with what was going on I had to mute the sound of its jarring, galling Major Lazer-at-WOMAD soundtrack. I watched it unfold in silence, and looked on as the faces began to drip and drop, taking on the weight of the world and letting the video reveal itself as what it really was: an enormous, moving, 107-minute-long glitterball Guernica. The fixed smiles, the false gurns, the overwhelming feeling of grasping coming from every person in it.
It was inescapably bleak, and what first disturbed me began to sadden me. I started to hate myself for hating them. Perhaps they were really just enjoying themselves, perhaps I was just being an idiot or a cunt or a spoilsport – but there was something about the way they spoke that reminded me of evangelicals, and if I know anything about evangelicals it's that they're trying to fill some kind of hole.
Looking for support, I showed it to a friend of mine – something of an millennial sage; a man who spends a lot of time on "overheard in supermarket" Facebook groups; a man who goes to Brent Cross for fun. A man who might understand what it was about this video that was bugging me so much.
After some time he replied with only a link and a timecode to a scene in Takashi Miike's Audition, in which two TV execs are watching rushes from a punk show. "It looks like a ceremony for a religious cult," one says. "They're pretty much the same, lonely. Happy people wouldn't go to that kind of concert. The whole of Japan is lonely."
I understood what he was trying to say without him needing to say it: "Happy people wouldn't go to this kind of early morning, alcohol-free, African-themed fitness rave… the whole of London is lonely."
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You see, something like this could only ever happen in a place like London. Not because it's so ridiculous, or even offensive. But because everyone here is just about lonely enough to seek solace in something like this. You cannot look at Morning Gloryville without looking at the society that birthed it. Cities are not built with spaces to host early morning, alcohol-free, African-themed fitness raves; the people do it to themselves.
Despite their best protestations, what was happening here had little to do with Africa or vibes or fitness or raving. That was all just window-dressing for this massive Millennium Dome display of internal dread; a smokescreen for a potential urban Jonestown.
In the city of London the loneliness is palpable and constant enough to sustain an entire industry devoted to curing it. A wealth of "things to do", places to go, somewhere, anywhere, something, anything. A screening of The Goonies on a car showroom roof in West Norwood; a taco cook-out at Brockley Market; a Superbowl party at the house of somebody you went to university with; an intersectional pub quiz; Prince-themed speed-dating; Baby Frisbee; Soulja Boy vs Chris Brown night at The Macbeth; a Taylor Swift vs Lady Gaga night for a lesson in urban purgatory. A load of fucking bollocks you can do, if you so choose.
All these things are offering the same service: something to be at rather than being on your own; something that tells everyone you left back home that you are loving life, loving London, that only a person as crazy as you, in a city as crazy as London, would go to something as crazy as an early morning, alcohol-free, African-themed fitness rave.
I suppose Morning Gloryville just happened to have the nerve to go farther than anything else – a double-down, a tower of Babel, a giant implosion of Boomtown, Boxercise, wellness, Free Hugs, Zumba, Pod salads, toddler-friendly pubs, community-owned pizza restaurants, attachment parenting, that brass band cover of "Sexual Healing" and SoulCycle psychotherapy. In the London of 2017, staying busy and staying happy is our Big Pharma, our Adderall, our opioid of the masses.
But I still wasn't satisfied, as I'm sure you aren't either. The answer of "because they are lonely" is just too simple, and perhaps I knew that all along.
The whole time I was watching the video I was looking at my own life, and I knew all along that I was doing the exact same thing without a feathered headdress. I was on the same rented party boat on the Thames, keeping myself from myself through endless motion and ceremony, and I was also pretty sure this wasn't just a London thing. Look at all that drink-driving and paganism in the countryside and tell me those people aren't lonely, too.
The more I turned it all back on myself, the more I realised what it was that had got to me so much. It was that they were doing everything that I was, but without drinking, before work, and staying totally fucking-functional-if-not-a-bit-racist.
Somehow they had found a way to keep away the post-millennial tension without the scars, the "sorry, who are yous?" and the insufficient funds. I hated them in the same way I hated hippies and Christians: not just because they're hippies and Christians, but because they're living a life that makes me hate myself.
Everything was playing back to the oldest fear of all: the fear of insignificance, the fear that there is nothing else out there, that you do not matter and you are exactly the same as every other cunt out there. This is why we love to cancel and cut down that which offends us: because we better do it to someone else before we do it ourselves.
To modern man there is nothing scarier than the fact you might not actually be that different to that which you hate, that which makes your skin crawl, that which you call racist and lame and wrong, that which goes to early morning, alcohol-free, African-themed fitness raves.
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