Living in the past, my friend? Of course we are

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE an American friend called Howard. Not the least of his attractions as a friend is his name. Howard.

It's a voluptuous experience using your own name to someone else, employing it in the second rather than the first person. Not I Howard but you Howard. Et tu Howard. It is vaguely like making love to yourself, but without any of the usual complications. After an evening saying Howard to Howard, I am neither blind nor more than usually hairy of hand.

All this is incidental to my subject, which has more to do with Howard's being American than with Howard being Howard. Being an American, Howard is frequently given to complain that this country lives in the past. Because he is called Howard I don't tell him that in that case he ought to go back to his own. I don't care to see any Howard suffering a rudeness. But I do explain to him that he has put his finger on the reason everyone wants to live here - because the past is not just another country but a better country.

"This is a medium size-country of middling significance," Howard says. "So what are you doing here?" I ask him. Which still isn't the same as saying go back to New York, New York then.

"I'm only here," Howard says, "because of my Zen Buddhism." I have him now. "In other words you've made a spiritual choice."

"Well, no one would live here for material reasons." Oh yes, I have him now alright. "Precisely!" I say.

I can't claim that I know for certain why everyone wants to be here at the moment, why you can't get a taxi after 10pm in either Manchester or London, why Parisian intellectuals would rather drink coffee in Soho than on the Left Bank, why you hear Russian being spoken on the streets of Sherborne, or why everyone watching Lolita at your local Virgin cinema is Spanish, but I'm sure it doesn't have anything to do with the minister for sub-culture, Chris Smith.

Cool Britannia isn't it at all. Except in the sense that "cool" is a pretty old-fangled concept as hip concepts go, and old-fangledness - Howard's "living in the past" - is the key to it.

I'm not talking about heritage and nostalgia now, those other blotchy pages in Mr Smith's portfolio. No. Forget pageantry and Buckingham Palace and the tragedy of poor bewildered Di. That's just scratching at the surface. The old fangledness that brings people flocking to Britain in their millions has more to do with what we look like, what we sound like, the language we employ.

What we look like, if we are to be honest about ourselves, is a tribe of troglodytes. Even standing outside Emporio Armani with our mobile phones, we look as though we've just come up from the mud. Have you seen the Rolling Stones recently? They resemble human bogwort. I mean that as a compliment. For doesn't that look correspond to what we do best in art - caricature and the grotesque?

Shakespeare may be our greatest writer but he is so various he cannot truly be said to quintessentialise us. Even with his Latinisms, Ben Jonson is somehow more English. As is Dickens. They more fully plumb the savage comedy which is innate to us, to our intelligence, to the lineaments of our faces, and to our language. The violence of our satire, our hurricane sense of the ridiculous, make it impossible for us ever wholly to embrace anything, least of all the new. Because we love the grotesque - because we are the grotesque - we are not gullible.

Our more lyrical European brothers seem to grasp instinctively that they are better off here. Not necessarily better off as to personal finances but better off as to tense. Americans grasp the same. The fact that Howard chooses to use the word "spiritual" to denominate his English existence is the proof that he's dissatisfied with the materialism of tomorrow.

The reason the young of the planet are congregating here is that the young are more attracted to the magnetic pull of ancient mud than anyone.

Living in the past, Howard? Of course we're living in the past. Look about you. Kids with rings through their noses. Kids in shackles and fetters. Kids snorting alkaloids extracted from the coca plant. Kids gathering in dark, unventilated places and jigging up and down to a monotonous and unsubtle beat. I've heard it said that it looks like the end of the world out there. To me it looks like the beginning. The way we were.