Wednesday, August 04, 2004

notes on britain

Granted, it’s easy to quote verbatim from more talented and successful writers at the Guardian, and granted, it presents a rather narrow set of cultural references for my continually doing so, but in doing so I’m trying to forge links between the things I read and the things I think. The Guardian today inspires the usual mixture of emotions – from horror at the continuing debacle of Guantanemo to amusement at Simon Hattenstone and Fay Weldon’s articles in G2. And it’s easy to think that these things have nothing in common. But I love reading newspapers because threads begin to emerge.

So I read all this on the train and was left at the end thinking about the comfort and humour of British life and British culture. How everything I read somehow confirmed something about what I already knew about this country (stop me if I start talking about Albion).

Kit-Kats (and there’s nought more British than that) have, Fay Weldon writes, recently changed their slogan from the evergreen ‘Have a break, have a Kit-Kat’ to the considerably less charming ‘Make the most of your Break’. As an ex advertising copwriter she’s critical. She writes….

“Also, … the imperative form of the verb is old-fashioned. "Haven't you realised," I'd call out after them down the corridor, "that the present participle is the in, reassuring thing? How about 'Taking a Breather, Sharing a KitKat' (I offer that to Nestlé Rowntree for free, for old times' sake)? With a picture of a couple down a cave or up a mountain, or coming up from a shag (if you must), or a smiling doctor and a nurse in casualty” …

“You're in the business of spin, these days, lads and ladettes in the creative core of the ad world, not just thinking up ways of selling space for the client. You need to sharpen up your ideas. Doesn't the Home Office - from which unsafe, unjust and intolerant legislation flows non-stop - describe itself as "building a safe, just and tolerant society"? Does not my local county council, while the prisons fill up with humiliated old folk unable to pay the council tax, describe itself as "caring, enjoying, living?" Just take a feel-good word and add "ing" and you're away, these days: the Orwellian semantics of the new world order flow seamlessly through our brains.”

Far more comforting is the world which Peter Duncan (stay with me) inhabits; the ex-Blue Peter presenter has been recruited as Britain’s Chief Scout and, as such, is forever in use of the present participle; constantly climbing, doing, playing, working. He is outrageously youthful and enthusiastic. He is photographed up a tree and has, the picture shows, very small and delicate feet. The article ends

Duncan is in the garden climbing trees for the photographer. I ask him if he thinks of himself as a man or a boy. "Ermmm ... transition. I may become a man this year ... Maybe when I get inaugurated in September, maybe that will be my inauguration into manhood."

"Oh God, he's not in the tree is he?" Annie shouts from the kitchen. "Just be careful will you, Pete. Don't do anything silly."


From such fripperies to Guantanemo is an unlikely leap; but even in the Guardian’s exhaustive and upsetting coverage of the experiences of the Tipton Three there is a sudden moment of the absurd; we’re conditioned to think of Muslims as increasingly ‘other’ – when the three returned to England and exchanged their stories for payment they were roundly criticised and their stories pronounced as discredited, although no-one ever accuses the mother of Sarah Payne of compromising the truth simply because she is being financially rewarded for telling her awful story in print. The three, the intimation clearly runs, aren’t quite ‘one of us’ enough for us to care for their account. And it almost feels true. But the story runs that

“After months of questioning in coercive conditions, Mr Rasul admitted meeting Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, in Afghanistan in 2000. In fact, he was working in a Currys store in the West Midlands.”

And all of a sudden he is the man in Currys who helped me choose my stereo. And the disparity between what we are told and what is true is more apparent than ever. The moral absolutes of a thousand political cliches bend and tear in the wind (and we don't want that!) Meanwhile, with the three back home, we are back in the Britain we know, of Currys, of Kit-Kats and Kingsley Amis - and we can forget about politics, but only for a moment.

We’ve moved on a bit from Wodehouse, too, while we’re talking national stereotypes, but I think he would have approved of Lucy Mangan’s article on the British love of a good battleaxe. A british man may no longer be a brit if he is a muslim, but an aunt is still an aunt. And aunts, lest we forget, are never gentlemen.

“Why this proliferation on screen of battleaxe women? Perhaps because there's something undeniably exhilarating about watching people who deal only in absolutes, and are untouched by the doubts and questions that plague the rest of us. They steam implacably ahead while the rest of us flail about in a sea of moral relativism and get nothing but mental cramp for our trouble.

I grew up surrounded by them. Multitudinous aunts of northern extraction, zaftig dimensions (it wasn't until I hit puberty that I realised that brassieres didn't have to be made by Govan steelworkers) and indomitable will have swept, stately as galleons, through my life. They quelled infantile riots, dispensed orders, enforced discipline and clouted you into the middle of next week if you disagreed with them.”

1 comment:

jonathan said...

god, that post really doesn't make any sense at all. hmm.