Tracing the origins of London's newest and most annoyingly infantile youth tribe.
A cutester going nuts in front of some handily apt graffiti in East London. Photo by Thomas Hjelm
FromSloane Rangerstoyuppies,normcore headstohealth goths, the British media love a story about a new subculture. If any more than five or six people are doing something in a certain way anywhere near each other, and someone doing a journalism internship gets wind of it, you can bet your house on a glut of "Who Are They?", "How to Get the Look" and "How Rihanna's Embraced London's Craziest New Youth Cult" pieces coming your way.
The latest in a long line of just-about-real tribes was last week identified by theEvening Standard's Richard Godwin as "the cutester". The definition of the cutester is simple enough; a young, London-dwelling "creative" sort who, instead of pursuing a destructive lifestyle of drugs and dive bars, exists in a universe of "street food festivals, speakeasies, ping-pong cafes, new branches of the Breakfast Club and the cutester rite of passage: Secret Cinema." The cutester wears jumpers with cartoon characters on them. The cutester has emoji tattoos and a "well-kempt beard". You probably know a few cutesters. If you don't, the cutester is, simply put, a harmless, infantile bellend.
While it's easy to groan at the coinage of these web-friendly media stereotypes, it's also sadly indisputable that these people exist. In fact, I'm pretty sure they exist by the thousand, and you will definitely see them at any of the places mentioned above. I don't think they're as easy to spot and define as the article would have you believe, partly due to lack of a real, defining "look" (apart from the dire beanie 'n' beard steez, but even footballers are on board with that these days) – but they are, definitely, tragically, unequivocally A Thing.
In his article, Godwin goes on to note how the cutester is making a departure from the more addled, scruffy and risk-prone existences of London's previous generation of "hipsters", suggesting that there's a new breed of safer, more careful and childish young person filling up the usual eastern and southern enclaves of the capital. "The hipster is more concerned with attitude and authenticity. The cutester is friendly and open and aware that fun usually comes at the expense of cool," the article reads. "The cutester is part of the generation that takes fewer drugs, drinks less booze and has less sex than its parents – but does dress up more often," says Godwin.
The change is interesting and very much real, I think. But for me, the question isn't, What is a cutester? – that has, more or less, already been answered. The question for me is: Where the fuck did the cutester come from? How did one of the world's most oppressive and unforgiving cities give birth to something so infantile and inane?
The whole concept of the cutester is an odd thing to consider for someone whose tolerance of Boris' urban car boot sale depends on the existence of the Barbican rather than Broadway Market, the Westway rather than Whole Foods, Corsica Studios rather than Champagne & Fromage. While I do find the whole thing a bit depressing – to me, London should basically always be the way it was in the video for "It's A London Thing" by Scott Garcia – I don't think it's necessarily true that the cutesters themselves are terrible people. I just think they're customers of a London that is selling itself in a different, and perhaps erroneous, way.
It would be easy to pin the cutester on the usual suspects – to lay into BuzzFeed, the Cereal Cafe, Secret Cinema, "free hugs" and Boris Johnson's breakfast burritos for siring this epidemic of the infantile. But London wasn't always like this. I personally had a very different image of the city growing up. To me, it was a city of knife amnesties, Irish fighting pubs, cruising saunas, City boy hooligans, Crystal Palace players with Streets of Rage haircuts, debutantes with blocked noses andclubs like Caesars in Streatham. The closest thing there was to a mayor was probably Terry Adams, and a "secret cinema" was a place you went to have a wank in public without getting your head kicked in, not dress up like a character from Back to the Future in public without getting your head kicked in.
But somewhere along the line, that changed, and undoubtedly it took a concerted effort for that to happen. It's hard to place the blame anywhere in particular; if there was any grand social project drawn up it's one that has never been made public, there was no great speech made in the GLC, it just kind of started to happen and never really stopped, in that ceaseless way that money has where it needs to keep creating more room for itself.
However, if I were forced to pinpoint the origins of the great shift that has led to the cutesters becoming as defining an image of London as Peel Dem Crew once were, I wouldn't choose the moment where Boris was elected, or when the first Krispy Kreme landed in Harrods, but the point when London decided to re-market itself as the knot of villages it ceased to be with the advent of trains in the 19th century. When London devolved into some weird former version of itself but with fewer dead infant chimney sweeps and more adverts; a hybrid of Bluewater, Disney World and a quaint town in Suffolk that never actually existed. When London became a poorly travelled American's impression of itself.
Before that, the dream of London had been of a utopian, utilitarian megalopolis. It was a dream that the city and its guiding hands believed in enough to try and fail to realise over and over again. But for metropolises to become megalopolises they need to grow and that means selling the myth of a place to more people. If all of those who wish to live in a city precisely because it is a city are already there, then it's time to expand the net and attract those who are perhaps less willing to tolerate the challenges and rites of urban life. To rethink and rebrand. To repackage London as one massive exploded province, to tout the green spaces of Hackney rather than its true and eternal aroma of burnt kebab meat and cooling petrol fumes. London's guiding hands drive a housing market to booming point. Estate agents have more privately rented bedrooms to fill. Cutester, meet deskspace. The country came to the city and nothing was ever the same again – we were suddenly awash with workwear, technology renamed itself "tech" and decided it would rather look like Hello Kitty than The Matrix , pubs on the Seven Sisters road started charging £7 for a Scotch egg.
We might not know exactly what happened, but the change affected the reasons people came here in the first place, and was perhaps inspired by the wants of its latest batch of residents. Previously, people had sought out London for its grit. That was the basis of its myth. London might have been hard and nasty, livened up by the occasional IRA bomb scare, but with that came the South Bank warehouse parties, pirate radio, Millwall bricks, Cypriot cafes and the ICF. All the things we've come to festishise in the era of Virgin Active's playlist, the Chelsea megastore, the Deptford jobcentre, the IMF and that Giraffe on the South Bank.
People who were interested in that kind of thing moved here, those who weren't, didn't. Most who were born here either lived in that world, or the parallel one ofTatler, Tramp, Princess Di's ladies-in-waiting and an incredible detachment from the real world. And while those two lifestyles bear little in common at surface level, they were united by one thing: they were London. They were moody, in your face and defined by fashion, sex, drugs and music.
The cutesters aren't defined by such things. They seem to have little interest in the old London. They're defined less by the pieces they're wearing on their bodies than the ones they share on social media; they're in the pub on Sundays laughing at the straight-through crew, surrounding themselves instead with a replica version of the familial weekend outings of their endlessly idolised childhoods.
The trailer for The Long Good Friday. Nothing much cutester about it
To understand the enormity and speed of that change, you only have to look at how much the things we aspire to have changed. In 1980's Long Good Friday, one of the great London films, Bob Hoskins' yuppie gangster Harold Shand is building a city in the sky. He wants to take the money that will come from filling the old Docklands with modernist flats, Bang & Olufsen stereos and Valentino suits, and he isn't going to be stopped. He might have been a gangster, but he was very much trading off the dream of the time. It might have been elitist, but it was very much about being part of the city, albeit just on a higher floor than the scum. It was an urban, futurist existence people were aspiring to: Ballard's High Rise reimagined by Donald Trump, the court of Versailles on the Isle of Dogs. Whatever it was, it was a long, long way from the cutester.
This image of aspirational urban living stretched right from the earliest, most radical dreams of Brutalism, through the downturn years, to when modern living became the domain of the rich and Thatcher transformed the word "estate" from a term of desire into a term of deprivation, right up until the early 2000s, when the Dome and the Docklands Development were very much part of a thoroughly modern, New Labour-led lifestyle that was surely personified in the video for Daniel Bedingfield's "Gotta Get Thru This", a cultural artefact I'm quite sure will be seen as definitive when we come to study the turn-of-the-Millennium aesthetic.
But I think what happened after this was that the industries that had kept London afloat – the City, the markets, the pubs, the family businesses – became caught up in scandal and failure, and suddenly the jobs to have weren't defined by a choice between banker or Smithfields Porter, but barista or social media developer. And with that, the demographic of London changed. Being a butcher or a banker requires being a certain type. You have to be able to cope with a little blood and gore; you're supposed to be a haggler, a dodger, a diver – a bastard, perhaps.
Whereas working in a coffee shop, or writing tweets for Waitrose, is the domain of another kind of person. Not a bad person, necessarily – and surely no worse than the bankers, at least – but perhaps the kind of person who wouldn't have come to London once upon a time. This is where the shift came from. When slightly twee, sensitive types from the 'shires and the home counties became the market to attract, rather than your Harold Shands.
That's all the cutester is: someone just trying to live a nice life in a nasty city
Cutesters aren't so much interested in gak pubs, pub gak, pirate radio, Savile Row or clip joints. They're a gentler, more parochial sort, and the culture has shifted to adapt to them. They want to recreate the world they come from and, smelling the money, developers and entrepreneurs are willing to crush the old London for that.
This is why all pubs must look like something out of The Wind in the Willows to prosper now, why they serve beer that has to taste nice, even though most us know that beer isn't supposed to taste nice, why they have signs that have to emphasise how lovely and yummy and scrummy everything in there is. Because they want to attract the type of people who have money to spend beyond the weekly £80 set aside for the drug dealer and the off-licenses. They have free time, disposable income and an obsession with finding new places and posting about them on social media.
This is also why cinemas have to present some kind of experience, rather than just a dark room and some stale popcorn. This is why banks have to seem "friendly", why Hackney needs a bunch of farmers trucking in every weekend to rip people off, why Brixton needs a champagne and expensive cheese shop and, yes, why Brick Lane needs a Cereal Cafe.
That's all the cutester is: someone just trying to live a nice life in a nasty city. And you can't begrudge them for that, even though it feels like everything else is being cast aside because they, being the ones with money, are leading the way. When you take the natural harshness away from London, it becomes home to people who probably wouldn't have much fancied the Joiners anyway. Or people who would rather Zadig & Voltaire or whatever the fuck Madame JoJo's is going to become than any dead estate pub.
Cities have to change, and London's ability to do that has kept it interesting where so many have stagnated, but at the end of the day, London is a city, not a village. And trying to replicate a cute, country lifestyle here is only driving it backwards. Yes, you might get mugged less now, but god knows more money's been taken from us by people desperate to please the beanie 'n' beard brigade than an entire army of Stoney'd up roadmen.
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