That Sinking Feeling

It began with a new mattress topper. Two inches of memory foam dedicated to reducing pressure points and enhancing sleep. I should be so lucky. After slithering around all night, sinking and drowning and never quite getting my limbs above the melting surface, I passed out just before the sun came up. My broken dreams during that hour of unconsciousness were somehow connected to the sensation of going under, and by the morning I had revisited many of my childhood terrors.

These were mostly the products of 1960s films, American B movies viewed on a black-and-white TV which I had gaped at whenever the ground swallowed up a baddie. Hapless fools fell into earthquake crevices that closed up around them, into frozen lakes beneath which they hammered and searched for an ice hole exit, into mud and quicksand that sucked them down with slow certainty.

Sixties directors loved a quicksand death. It was a useful trope for comeuppance (few undeserving characters ever died) but it also warned us of nature’s deadpan, amoral force, far more powerful than a single, sentient human: keep fighting it and things will only get worse. By 1974, Mel Brooks could slip a quicksand scene into Blazing Saddles as an established cliché, its poetic jeopardy ripe for ridicule.

Was the recurrent quicksand motif also a commentary on the corrupt political swamp of 1960s America? Nixon, Vietnam, the assassinations of two Kennedys, an X and a King, the outrageously cynical manipulations of the CIA in Cuba, the suffocating racism and sexism which characterised much of the decade and presaged a cultural revolt. These all stank of unilateralism and conservatism. Right wing politicians kept fighting demands for freedom and – guess what - things only got worse.

I thought of this because the morning after my quicksand dreams was the one in which the Downing Street ‘Partygate’ report was published. PM Johnson’s national address to beg forgiveness for his veniality took less than four minutes, two of which covered a promise to shop at Lidl and thus improve his empathy with cleaning and security staff. He advised “in all humility” that his attendance at various leaving drinks was only ever “brief”. For those of us who were categorically denied brief visits to the homes, care homes and funerals of dying and dead relatives and friends, this was heartless.

We are once again in unconscionable territory as our leaders sink lower than ever. By consistently redefining the key qualities of a democratic government – honesty, impartiality, respect – in order to fit their own narrative, Tory politicians present us with a malleable sludge of ethics. The lies and misinformation form a kind of quicksand through which ministers travel on stilts while we, the public, must simply take our chances and swim.

But this is symbolism in old money. Today’s most recurrent dramatic themes feature alternative timelines and multiverses. They involve a quick digital jump between worlds rather than the prolonged analogue act of suffocation. From TV’s Shining Girls to cinema’s Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, modern stories are predicated on the escapist notion that our current linear life is simply one of many. If we can only find the key/password/portal there is a more thrilling parallel existence twinkling in our peripheral vision.

It’s not a new idea but it’s so culturally relevant in 2022 to want to run away, start again and unfail our failures, that we are getting swamped (hah!) by the concept. If, in the end we all prefer to beat the laws of metaphysics and live in a different reality via our screens, who will stay behind to pick up the mess left by financial mismanagement, cronyism and corporate greed, the empty bottles and crisp packets of self-congratulation? Not Boris Johnson et al.