Friday, January 13, 2006


Nation Building Gone Wrong

No, no, no, no, not in the desert, I'm talking about Britain. Specifically, the 'Icons Of England' project.

Sigh. We've been here before. Mind you, then it was foreigners trying to define England, and so their laughable convictions and vague prejudices were at least understandable. Now our own government are in on the act, presumably trying to find something to unite us other than hatred of them. So, we have 'Icons Of England', in which they take nominations for the symbols and objects that define us.


John Major did this a decade ago, and everyone laughed at him. Here's what he said:

"The country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist."

Ghastly claptrap, of course, but is it really much worse than 'Jerusalem', the King James' Bible or a cup of tea?

I said here that I loved the comment someone made that:

'Probably what it means to be British is not to be wondering what it means to be British all the time.'

How insecure have we become? This whole project is one great red herring - the website cost £1 million to create, for fucks' sake - but even if it weren't, it would point to something faintly sick about us as a society. How often do the French, or the Americans, or the Japanese waste their time on such pointless lists? Well, they don't, because they are all looking towards the future - coming up with ideas for tomorrow, not sentimentalising over ones from hundreds of years ago.

Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII has made the list. Just remember though, 'Henry VIII - he was a shit.'

Fortunately, however, people have decided to try to subvert the wretched thing, which is, by the way, a far better indication of Englishness than anything else. The best so far can be found here, where Perry de Havilland sends off a nomination for CCTV cameras, saying:

'It is almost impossible to avoid their gaze for an entire day and sitting like steel crows on their perches above us, truly they are emblematic of modern Britain.'

We should all send one in of CCTV cameras, for truly nothing better demonstrates the watchful contempt of our government towards its citizens.

The 'steel crows' gather, silently, observing, monitoring.

our steel crows turn solemnly to cast an observant eye on you as you pass, but i live in nottingham - crime upon crime!

the mavericks have turned them around so that they sedatedly glide to face the opposite direction whenever you make an appearance, anyway. this makes me laugh, but i'm sure i'll regret it when my purse is stolen and all that the cameras have seen is the brick wall at the back of Mr B's the chippy.
Nonetheless, the memory of the laughter shall sustain you . . .
I am sure that Henry VIII was a huge shit, but was anyone better available at the time? Sometimes the only choice is between the shit and the fart.
I love it when governments gather together "national treasures" to decide for us what's great.
GB - Fair point. Henry VIII's reign is in fact notable for the fact that there wasn't any other option. Mind you, he was both the fart and the shit in terms of quality.

Tony - Do your lot do it as well?
I reckon we invented it, Steve. It's long been a cert here that the government will appoint a quango of national worthies to decide what's good about Oz.
Let me guess: Opera House, Harbour Bridge, trams in Melbourne, the 'baggy green?' How did I do?
I reckon a sort of embarrassed politeness is what is essentially British.

By way of an example: I lived in Paris for a bit, living not far from the Rue St Denis. Rue St Denis is one of Paris's red-light districts, and also has a few decent bars and pubs. One night I was looking around for an English pub that was showing the Bolton vs. Aston Villa Carling Cup semi-final. I'd been told that the match was showing in a pub on the Rue St Denis, so I set off up the street looking for it, to no avail.

All the time, of course, prostitute after prostitute was offering their services to me. And here's how English I am - I actually felt kind of rude saying no. You know, in a sort of 'it's not you, it's all me, it's not that you're a whore that'll probably give me STDs, honest...'

It's the same sort of effusive politeness/embarrassment that makes us apologise when somebody stands on our toes. It's a terrible thing, but I think it's what makes us British.
I had precisely that problem in Madrid last year. Fortunately, a Japanese businessman arrived and whisked her away before I could dig myself in any further.
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