The world of 253--in 1995

Geoff Ryman, Great Portland Street, 1995

In 1995, not one 253 character sits staring at a mobile phone.

Someone is looking at her personal organiser--a filofax. Remember those? Characters listen to music on Walkmans playing cassettes, not Spotify.

Many more people are reading books and newspapers,though 253 downplays those for story-telling reasons. Television is also under-represented--people thinking about last night's East Enders would be boring. Philip Schofield was Britain's most popular TV personality and he shows up in someone's dream.

Someone reads xeroxed copies of documents--not email attachments.

Not one character makes their living from the internet or by designing websites. There are no blogs and podcasts--one woman publishes erotic male-to-male romances in mimeographed zines.

Women on their way to an office job mostly wear skirts. Many of them work in clerical, health or front-of-house roles. A few of the female characters are breaking through in the arts or media.

I took the Bakerloo line to work every day and spent a lot of time noting the demographics. I set a minimum of seven minority ethnics per 36 passengers. I suspect that figure now would be far too low. The cast list seems reasonably diverse, but I worry that even for 1998, there are too few emigres from African countries.

Racism looms constant and glowering, sometimes erupting into violence, always exerting a headlong pressure, necessitating strategems to survive or at least keep up the characters' spirits.

This is a heterosexual world. If someone is married it can only be to someone of what was then called the opposite sex. It strikes me that the gay and queer characters are too few in number, unacknowledged perhaps even by themselves.

The war in the former Yugoslavia is still a raw memory. Saddam Hussein is in power. Disasters that loomed large then have now faded in memory--the Dunblane shootings, the Marchioness boat disaster, or Barings Bank.

The jokey ads satirise the hard-sell language of magazine advertising, Time Out personal ads and direct mail leaflets. It's not language that is current any longer. The illustrations are even more retro.

I was sometimes prescient. One character invents a program (what's an app?) that will trace where any driver is and give them instructions. Who needs the Knowledge of taxi drivers. I had spotted that learners of English have difficult with prepositional verbs—how many of those have now disappeared, and how many new ones have appeared?

Nobody mentions the wealth of China, or the rise of India. This is a London which perceives itself as a centre of influence though no longer the power it once was.

People had just lived through the fall of Thatcher and the end of the Soviet Union, but I am struck by how apolitical most of the 253 characters seem. Our current debates over gender, class and race simply are not in the forefront of people's minds, nor is our current divide between progressive and populist.

It's a commonplace now that social media live off conflict and encourage it. This is a world without bubbles and trolls. Politics in 253 is almost a private matter, something that is your own business.

To follow: how the initial response to 253 taught me some unsettling things about the internet.

Journey Planner
Loops: the Circle Line
The underbelly of the internet

This site has been written, encoded and uploaded by Geoff Ryman with graphic elements provided by Roldan Unwin. Send feedback or questions to