Young british talent: so what are we still good at?
Our shop assistants may be sniffy, our popstars over-hyped and our scientists all disappearing down the brain drain, but there's still room for national pride. Young british talent: ... and what can't we do for toffee?
Sunday 26 May 1996
Talk of national success invites accusations of vanity and Blimpishness. Few now speak of "Great" Britain, and to assume common interests in a landscape of minorities and independent-minded regions is considered shallow. Theodore Zeldin, a historian and fellow of Oxford University who wrote a book about the French - his most recent work is An Intimate History of Humanity (Minerva) - says that such undertakings are necessarily "woolly", further clouded by the fact that many activities are now international. "Does having Cantona mean that we play football well as a country? Of course not," says Zeldin. "And take science - every laboratory has 10 different nationalities working in it, so it's old-fashioned to say 'we are good at science'. It is becoming harder to say that our bores are the best in the world - though of course they might well be." But national characteristics will continue to exercise us, and traditional virtues crop up insistently: Zeldin, for instance, thinks humour remains a national strength.
It is undisputed that we are good at nostalgia. "We are world leaders in the heritage business, and the monarchy is supreme in the field," says Zeldin. "On television, we are still strongest in historical drama." That this may have an unhealthy side has not escaped our critics. "Few things are more bewildering [to foreigners] than the extent to which the public debate is preoccupied with yesterday's world," wrote Ralf Dahrendorf in On Britain. Despite this, we stay informed with newspapers which compare favourably in number and quality to those of other countries.
Britain may import many fee-paying college students, but our universities, laments Zeldin, "are on their way to decay. They are still good by comparison with European universities, but we can't match American ones."
And, despite our leading the restoration of the Olympics, no blinkers can hide the fact that we are no longer world sporting leaders. "Our sport used to be par excellence, but now we can't even win at cricket. The nature of sport has changed, and the English amateur ideal is out of place in the world of professionals."
Stateliness and freedom of political debate have long been located at the heart of British civilisation, but is it still so noble? "We used to be more proud of our democracy, and we might ask if it still works well," says Zeldin. "On the whole, however, one can still say what one wants."
Culturally, we have peaks of high confidence in a penurious, neglected landscape. For instance, we are still renowned for our theatre and "world- class" playwriting, says Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Bush Theatre: "Whatever theatre you go to in the world, at least half the plays on the bill will be by British authors."
Alas, our film heyday is over. Though we still do good costume drama, we are not world players, but then who is, apart from America? Within the UK industry many feel we need to make more commercial films in order to support our more ambitious endeavours.
We train them, they employ them
In visual arts and design, we have discovered a new pride since Nicholas Pevsner, expatriate commentator on British architecture, wrote in 1955 in The Englishness of English Art: "None of the other nations of Europe has so abject an inferiority complex about its own aesthetic capabilities as England." And yet it remains a common complaint from those in fine art, design and architecture that Britain is unhealthily obsessed with the past. We are also poor developers of design talent, with a considerable graduate brain drain to the more progressive factories of Europe and the US. We train them, they employ them.
In contemporary art, Britain seems to be placed as never before, its young artists providing much interest for novelty-seeking curators. "It's tempting not to believe the hype," says the critic Andrew Wilson, "but when you go to New York and find it dead, you realise something extraordinary is happening here."
But perhaps our most confident and profitable cultural export is music. Since the mid-Sixties, our pop music industry has gone global. While this may be less to do with innate ability than the fact that English - courtesy of America - is the lingua franca of rock'n'roll, even the Government puffs up its cheeks. "British groups are particularly well-known for diversity of style and set new trends," enthuses Britain at a Glance, the HMSO booklet. We are furthermore fond of claiming eminence in all matters "youth culture": pop videos, nightclubs and other modish clutter.
Even in the field of classical music, where it is often assumed well- funded Americans and Germans have the edge, we show certain strengths. "We're good at opera and early music," says Mark Pappenheim, the Independent's arts editor. "Our orchestras are good at sight-reading music, as they don't have the money for much studio rehearsal time."
Beyond the curly perm
There are other odd areas in which we display an unexpected swagger. "British hairdressers are at the cutting edge of fashion," quips Catherine Handcock, editor of Hairdresser's Journal. "Some of the experimental work in salons is light years ahead of anything going on in the States." Not bad for the nation which invented the curly male perm.
And few argue against our authority in the garden. "The British have an advantage because we have a very equitable climate for growing a whole variety of plants," says Jim Marshall, gardens adviser for the National Trust. "We are very keen on gardens and take great pride in craftsmanship." Notable, too, is how we have been importing ideas and plants for centuries, and reinterpreting them into something that is somehow home-grown.
The British have always been known as keen traders. William Blackstone, an 18th-century MP and judge, memorably tagged us "a polite and commercial people", and Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers - meaning that we were petit-bourgeois bores. Now we have embraced the supermarket, and of the 10 largest food retailers in Western Europe, four are British. But Theodore Zeldin sees us less as a nation of shopkeepers, more a "nation of silent till-assistants".
Britain is, according to Britain at a Glance, the world's fifth largest trading nation. "A lot goes on without people realising it," says Philip Mellor, senior analyst at Dun & Bradstreet. "The entrepreneurial spirit is strong, and we are prepared to go overseas to build markets."
appliance of science
The British are still considered good at inventions. "One-fifth of all post-war inventions originated in the UK," said Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, to a recent Walpole Committee meeting. But Roland Whaite of the Patents Office adds that while the British are good at innovation, they are poor at development. "Investment capital wants quick returns and there are big gaps in research and development," he says. "I'm not sure whether there is cause for national pride." While Lang's speech brayed that we are the "envy of the world," it also struck a note of regret. "We are too reticent, too inclined to self-deprecation."
Indeed. For we are good complainers: if there was a Eurovision Moan Contest, the "whinging poms" would surely win it. "How hard it is to make an Englishman acknowledge he is happy!" wrote Thackeray. Despite being big drinkers, we are not so good at enjoying ourselves. As Maximilien de Sully observed: "The English take their pleasures sadly." The truth is, as Dahrendorf noted, that we are a "worker society", where worth is bound up in trade and profession. Could there be a link to our unfortunate distinction in the field of heart attacks?
Fortunately for sufferers, we are medically strong: "We excel in biomedical science," says Peter Aldous of the New Scientist. In evolutionary biology we have led the way "since Darwin," according to John Maynard-Smith, evolutionary biology professor at Sussex University. We are also excellent star-gazers: "The British are good at cosmology and astronomy," says Tom Wilkie, the Independent on Sunday's science editor.
Britain is proud of its Nobel prizes: 89 in all, more than for any country except the US. But its record in nurturing scientific talent is wanting and many bright researchers are following the Pilgrim Fathers across the Atlantic. "There are 10 times more jobs in America than here," says Maynard- Smith.
It is universally agreed that we do good eccentrics. "England is the paradise of individuality; eccentricity, hearsay, anomalies, hobbies and humours," said American philosopher and critic George Santayana. This non-conformist streak may be a by-product of the religious tolerance that Voltaire admired in the 18th century: "An Englishman goes to heaven by the way which pleases him."
Such individualism may reflect on our unwillingness to serve - odd in the country that created the butler - which finds current expression in our tourist industry. Last year, travel publisher Lonely Planet caused a stir when it suggested in its Britain Travel Survival Kit that British hospitality may be an oxymoron. "We have this attitude that 'we put up with lousy service and hostile B&Bs, why can't you?'" says Jennifer Cox of Lonely Planet. "Not only do we have a low expectation, but we have an ambiguous attitude to tourists, who are seen as making our lives more difficult." She adds that many foreign visitors cannot understand why British plumbing cannot muster a half-reasonable shower.
Dress and undress
In clothes, we enjoy a mixed reputation as the land of master tailors and supreme slobs. But in Milan and Montpelier Latins flounce around in le style Anglais: Barbours, brogues and Burberry macs. "Street" fashion is also reckoned to be a British highlight: the fashionable end of that eccentricity.
Are the British good lovers? A slight complex has it that while we may be good at breeding dogs and horses - "World-class in bloodstock, but no good at promotion," as Pippa Cuckson, assistant editor of Horse and Hound says - we remain a bit fumbly with each other. But sexologist Tuppy Owens reckons we are "top" due to a combination of straightforwardness and humour. "We are not show-offs, which is good: arrogance does not go with good sex." As for special predilections: well, spanking is known as technique Anglais in Europe's brothels, but as corporal punishment recedes it may lose ground. And while homosexuality used to be known on the continent as the English Vice, there is no evidence that we have any more than anywhere else.
Cooking is an area in which we have traditionally excelled in nastiness - remember the old joke about Hell having a British cook? But there has been a renaissance over the past 20 years, which finds full expression in the magpie-ish genre Modern British: "We are looking abroad for influences," says Theodore Zeldin, "creating an empire of the stomach."
Foreign critics enjoy pointing out that the British self-image is bigger than our influence, and perhaps there is a pathos of lost empire which manifests a lasting loftiness. "We are poor in our knowledge of foreign languages, especially since we are a trading nation," says Zeldin. "We think everyone should speak English, and that is resented as a lack of respect." Onwards and upwards, Britons - but remember, foreigners are people too.
Service: The British are not renowned for their standards of service. "Many of the letters we receive are about the sheer indifference to foreign visitors," says Jennifer Cox of the Lonely Planet travel publishers. While our tradition of domestic service used to work because we "knew our place" in a rigidly hierarchical society, it may be that our current problems of service are bound up with class anxiety.
Languages: The British are infamous for their lousy grasp of other languages, which reflects a snooty insularity at odds with our much-vaunted tolerance; and we are also less open intellectually than fellow nations. "We are notorious for not translating many books from other countries," says Theodore Zeldin. "It compounds a lack of respect for other cultures." We are too complacent about the fact that English is the global language in everything from rock'n'roll to air traffic control.
CHILDREN: British hotels, pubs and restaurants still lag behind when it comes to accepting children, who are often treated as if they should be neither seen nor heard. Some advances are being made, but usually on the commercial basis that kids are the punters of tomorrow rather than charming companions in themselves.
Passion: That mumbling mopsy Hugh Grant is taken as a typical Brit in that his characters tend to have one emotional response to most situations: gosh. While we may well have seething inner lives, Brits are not renowned for their capacity for emotional expression - a fact which was observed by the Italian Luigi Barzini, who in his book The Europeans noted our "stoicism" in matters of the heart.
Long-term planning: As many business people bemoan, we remain short- termist. "We are not good at far-reaching investment," says Philip Mellor of economic analysts Dun & Bradstreet. "It may be that we're never looking beyond a political term of office. Neither are we good at asking for help - perhaps that comes with our independent spirit." Similarly, the British are not good at nurturing home-grown talent, leading to "brain drains" in several fields.
Optimism: We can be all too phlegmatic and pessimistic in the UK. "An unfortunate but well-established British tradition [is] that of talking the country down," as Ian Lang put it in his recent Walpole Committee speech. "Rather than celebrate our success we keep silent. UK businesses are seen as unassertive sellers, slow to respond to inquiries, and reluctant to get out into the market." As a result, success is a double-edged sword in the UK, likely to bring public opprobrium rather than approval.
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