The really nasty thing about national stereotypes is when they go against you. The Germans love it when we call them efficient and I bet the French don't mind foreigners generalising about their superior cuisine either. But who wants to be characterised as a nation of cricket-playing, bowler- hatted lords? I'll take the BTA's new "we're slags and proud of it" image, as propagated by the Spice Girls, any day.
Obviously, the BTA should have issued this brochure years ago. From now on when night-clubbers in cool places like Barcelona hear us coming, their thoughts will immediately turn to Catherine Zeta Jones's cleavage and Liam Gallagher's NHS specs, as billed in the brochure. We will be the sexy ones. Britain will be known as a land of relaxed, wild, outward- going people who love to express themselves in food, art, fashion and dance, while repressed Latins down south will be queueing at expensive delicatessen counters for Branston Pickle and Marmite, and talking enviously about what spontaneous and happy-go-lucky people we are.
Wishful thinking? Well, I haven't seen anyone putting on a bowler hat of their own free will for a very long time. And who really eats bacon and eggs for breakfast, or watches cricket? It never even seems to rain anymore. There is little to argue about. Change the brochure and bang! Curry has become our national dish. I wonder what the residents of Delhi and Karachi think about this. Perhaps they suspect a plot on our part to claim curry as a great British invention.
Anyway, if it is so straightforward to change one's national identity, I suppose the surprising thing is that other countries aren't reinventing their tourist brochures to fit (and mould) current reality in the same way.
In fact, the possibilities for national tourism brochures have hardly begun to be explored. Korean brochures, for example, never boast about all those exciting street riots in Seoul, and US brochures don't talk about the really interesting things such as their daytime TV chat-shows.
Another thing. If we can just filch someone else's national dish and claim it as our own, we should expect other people to start doing the same. Take Germany for example, whose national dish will nowadays incontestably be the doner kebab. In fact, why doesn't somebody take over our old characteristics lock, stock and barrel and start selling their country as a land of castles, roast beef and monarchy?
These qualities may be old-hat but they haven't served us badly over the years, and might suit a small out-of-the-way country such as Australia. Even if the claims weren't true, they could always become self-fulfilling. If the Australians started calling themselves an ancient, monarchical society, they would probably start behaving as though they were ancient and monarchical.
Except that foreigners might not believe it. And that's a problem. I heartily approve of the concept that people in flash continental nightclubs will find me internationally hip and cool simply by virtue of my being British, but I'm not convinced that the BTA will really manage to sell this idea to world tourists before the Spice Girls graduate to the House of Lords. Surely the latent, stuffy hypocrite in me will start exposing itself first.
Let's get British world-traveller Richard Branson in on the act. He knows a thing or two about not being stuffy. Admittedly he's a bit fogeyish for UK - The Guide (he lives in a castle), but his passion to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon strikes me as a damn fine example of "Cool Britannia".
If Branson manages to get right round the world when he tries again later this year, I am going to grow a goatee and head straight down to the nearest Barcelona night-club.Reuse content