The Grand National (it's a lottery)

Malcolm Bradbury finds himself wondering about the mysterious powers of that vogueish prefix `National' - and why the British find it so peculiarly un settling
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The British have never had much reputation for creating effective national cultural institutions and monuments. Those who travel regularly abroad are familiar with the great cultural buildings and institutions that decorate and dignify any serious capital city. There is the National Library, a storehouse of native literature and learning. There's the National Gallery. There's the National Theatre, ideally dressed with figures of the great national playwrights, as in Oslo, Stockholm, Budapest. The re's the statue to the national poet, a romantic figure who probably died reciting verses in battle during the liberationist struggle of 1848.

Nor does the monumentalisation of a national culture - much of it a product of the great era of nationalism and the nation state, the mid-19th century - stop there. There's generally a National Academy, a gathering of the learned of the arts and scienceswho meet to advance the cause of research, the prestige of culture and intellect, and probably keep a beady eye on the state of the national language too. There's usually a great encyclopedia of knowledge, which may not be different from anyone else's knowledge, but is presented under the national imprint. And there's generally a finely edited, scholarly library of the national classics - the supreme example being the French Pleiade.

A nation doesn't necessarily have to be obsessed with tradition to create these institutions. American examples abound (America being, of course, far more obsessed with traditions and monuments than its radical scholars like to pretend).

Urged on by Edmund Wilson, they founded their own version of the Pleiade, the "Library of America", started in 1979 with money from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Over 70 black-bound, first-rate editions of works by the major American writers have now appeared, on acid-free paper, and some two million copies have been sold. This wonderful library is now distributed in Britain, by Bill Buford at Granta Books. But the "Library of America" isn't just a nat i onal treasure. It's an important, very American, counterweight to the age of Deconstruction.

The story in Britain has been notoriously different. Yes, we have a National Library, intended as a rebirth of the British Museum Library, founded, thanks to a lottery, in 1753. The new grand project, planned in 1971, stands, still unfinished, on a mars h alling yard on Euston Road: a monument not to our tradition of learning and scholarship, or a Mitterrand-like sense of civic grandeur, but to fudge and political confusion. Committee after committee has condemned the earlier committees that failed to com mit the cash to complete it on time or on the intended scale. The date of (incomplete) completion is now expected to coincide with the official announcement that the age of book-stored information is over. The chairman of the British Library Board, Sir A nthony Kenny, has recently gone on the defensive to explain why the new British Library is needed, and will become a great national institution. No doubt it will - but only on the back of many ill-taken decisions.

And yes, we do have a national theatre. It too has a long and confused history. David Garrick proposed the idea in the 18th century, but it took a century more to establish the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, and a further century to develop the project for a national theatre in the capital. Though a foundation stone was laid in 1951, in the wrong place, it was not until 1976 that, largely thanks to Sir Laurence Olivier's energy, the present concrete bastion opened.

By then its aims had changed, the intention of offering a classic national repertoire giving way to joint projects with commercial companies. Peter Hall's energetic but controversial rule yielded to the well-organised, lower key approach of Richard Eyre,who has done so much to make the theatre into a reasonably secure monument. But with his impending departure, the debate about the theatre's function will doubtless re-open.

So what of other British national ventures? We did once have an Encyclopaedia Britannica, founded in 1768, though in Edinburgh. But westward the course of empire makes its way; with the famous 11th edition of 1910-11, the venture became an Anglo-Americanfusion. By the 1940s it had travelled the Atlantic, and was taken on by the University of Chicago, where it remains.

There has never been an authoritative Library of English Classics. Ventures like the Everyman Library, Oxford World's Classics and Penguin Classics have taken on aspects of the project, but the idea of a unified library of English or British literature, based on consistently edited modern editions and of monumental aspect, has never been realised.

Many explanations have been given for the difficulty the British have in establishing their own cultural institutions. One is that the British have a different and much more ancient sense of nationhood, going back into the mists of time. So they felt little need to indulge the fervours of 19th-century nationalism, especially since at the time they were an expanding imperial, and supposedly cosmopolitan, power (there was jingoism, of course). Another is that they have a quite different, les s idealised concept of culture - in other words, no concept of it at all. Another is that they possess a native distrust of all state institutions, and are resistant to an imposed cultural orthodoxy, which might become the weapon of a totalitarian state s eeking to control artistic expression - but this would suggest a devotion to artistic freedom they have not always shown.

In fact, it's probably truer to say that, because of the complexity of the national union, and the strength of regional identities, the British never really evolved a full British, or English, character at all. Linda Colley has lately argued that it was only in the late 18th century that Britons began to think of themselves as Britons. Others have observed that the notion of "Englishness" is largely a 19th century invention which never stabilised, and declined with the fading of empire. Today one of thegreatest delights of the academic traveller is to hear some unfortunate colleague give a foreign audience the statutory lecture on "Englishness". It can be guaranteed to start with an apology ("Of course my mother was Irish"), and dissolve into a sequence of jokey embarrassments. Being English is not kosher. The English faculty at Oxford is now mostly Irish, or pretends to be. Sadly, the idea of Englishness today apparently takes the form of a guilty secret, or a con f ession of shame.

Now two things are happening at once. One is a resumed movement toward the "national". We have our Department of Heritage, we have our National Curriculum, several of our ``national" institutions, like the National Library, are just coming toward the point of fruition. Meantime, many of the elements that weave the sense of national feeling are coming unravelled. Regional (and generational) feeling is growing. As a result of the federalising dreams invested in Euro-Europe, the whole question of nationhood is unravelling. Even among many "conservatives", the institutions of our national culture - from the monarchy to the hereditary peerage - are thought annoying historical impediments to our supposed remarkable progress in the future.

In truth, many key symbols of nationhood are under threat. The national currency, the pound in your pocket, may not be there much longer, nor the free-standing parliament that determines national destiny. Meantime, thanks to the internationalisation of goods and communications, cultures leak into one another. Thanks to multiculturalism, we start to see our society as a melting-pot - or pluralistic post-modern enterprise - without distinctive traditions or clear cultural stabilisers. Thanks to a surplus of post-colonial guilt, we are losing pride in our democratic history, and growing shifty about our past.

Closing the century, we seem both to be extending national institutions and dismantling them at speed. In fact, any effective culture needs both to be institutional and critical, classical and original. It needs a past and a future. Britain now seems caught uncomfortably between the two, embarrassed about its political and historical identity, deeply insecure about its economic and social prospects. All honour then to those who invented the one national institution that really does seem to express the current mood. And that's the National Lottery, of course.