Welcome to England

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The Independent Culture
PICTURE the scene, if you will. You won't? Well tough. I'll describe it anyway. The scene - sit up at the back there - is a country road on a typical English August night: six lanes of heavy traffic and the rain gouting down like catastrophe or second thoughts. The traffic is all driven by madmen, gits, the snout-and-leisurewear set; in the backs of the cars, children retch and swirl; wives scold, purse their lips and dream of guns and hysterectomies. Despite the rain, the air is clogged and mephitic, a chewy, rancid soup of petrol fumes and brassica-fart. Hustled out of Dover into an insanity of cones and hoardings, shunted away from the feral refugee-stabbings, dodgy coppers and local newspapermen wired to the moon, the lurching boil of traffic has raged its way on to the motorway and is now confronted by a lovely sign: No Services For 68 Miles.

Welcome to England! Ha ha ha! Fuck you! I wonder what it is about us, but only briefly, because the answer is obvious. I have just come off the P&O Ferry The Provence - a worse insult to that pretty, sexy region than anything Peter Mayle could ever write. On the boat, there is a ... food outlet, called "Oliver & Jones". The graphic design hints at a grim, "traditional", John Major- style Englishness. But the food ... the "food" is like something I thought you didn't get any more, except perhaps in Wales. It's the sort of food you imagine Stanley Holloway shovelling down his throat in Passport to Pimlico, the sort of food you can only describe in terms of quantity. "Ta, Ma, that's filled me up." Bullet peas, indescribable potatoes with eyes, and a piece of "lamb" that even a Komodo Dragon would have brought up again: fibrous, leathery, an odd slick film upon it, of spleen effluent or gullet slime, a smell like a trucker's buttocks. It was an insight into what dogs have to put up with in their social lives. In these days of stabilisers and an even keel, P&O are missing a trick; they could market it as the Cross-Channel Experience: Stand with your head in a basin, throwing up all the way to Calais, just like Great- Grandpa did.

Oliver and Jones, I bet, do not exist. The whole thing feels like a stunt by marketing men, the sort you imagine slipping out of meetings to toss off in the executive toilets to a copy of Asian Babes or the Style section of the Sunday Times. I wonder if they are proud of what they do. I wonder if they go home each evening and say, "Shifted another 192 tonnes of lorry drivers' arse on the Dover-Calais run, Sweetie Pie!"

But of course there's not much wondering to do, not really. The sweaty- crack lamb, the cones, the no-services-for-68-miles, the reeking hellhole of Ginster's Slurry Pie, bus-green polo shirt, burger and vijyo-game when you get there ... all these are quintessentially England, and they all spring from the same root, the founding cause of that vague, inchoate sense of horror and dismay you get when you come back from abroad, any abroad, to New Britain.

And it's not New British at all. It's very Old British. It's nothing other than our old friend Snobbery. Because what we have that no other country I've ever found has, is a deep contempt for the "consumer". Elsewhere, the fact that you may not be a corporate prick in a company car does not automatically exclude you from some form of respect. It's assumed that you have taste, discernment, a set of standards you like to stick to, a right to be treated as an adult.

But here ... here, we talk of being "European", and open tooth-aching travesties like Cafe Rouge, but the truth is that there's business on one side, and us on the other, and if you want to see what business thinks of us, just look around you. Look at the News of the World. Turn on the television. Visit any provincial town, with its rubbishy chain stores and rubbishy fast food, its up-yours-chum street signs and watch-your-step CCTV cameras. Look at the clothes they think we deserve, the infantile adverts, the babyish neon signs, the tickings-off even though we've done nothing wrong.

It's purest contempt, purest snobbery. They think we're ugly, tasteless, moronic, greedy, easily manipulated, satisfied with rubbish, suckers for marketing and "concept" lies ... in short, they think we're arseholes, and common, stupid arseholes at that. There's no difference between the modern corporate marketing department and the beakiest of narrow-gutted feudal lords. And if little Mister Blair brought anything back from his Con'inen'al holiday, I hope it was the realisation that contempt for your customers is bad enough in a shopkeeper; in an entire country, it's a slow but ineluctable death.