Editor-At-Large: We pack all our troubles into cake, corn and nostalgia


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The Independent Online

Dave Cameron's big speech last week was designed to "evoke the British bulldog spirit" – a heady cocktail of Winston Churchill mashed up with Henry V. Sounded more like a dog's dinner to me. As we slide deeper into the brown stuff, the governor of the Bank of England is desperately printing money to stave off disaster, and admits that the current recession could turn out to be worse than the Depression of the 1930s. Cameron portrays Britain as the underdog, punching above our weight, fighting ferociously to get out of trouble. He praises Lady Thatcher and John Major, saying, "We're proud of our past and what those people did for our country." One newspaper said the PM reminded them of Harold Macmillan – Supermac – with his pledge that "better days" lay ahead.

Plundering from and eulogising the past isn't confined to our political leaders. When the going gets tough, there's nothing Brits find more soothing than a long wallow in a deep bath of nostalgia. I'm writing this enjoying the new digitally enhanced CD of Donovan's Greatest Hits, purchased only last week. There's something so lovely and unchallenging about hearing the original Sunshine Superman warbling away about maids in castles and knights on horseback, a million miles away from vulgar Rihanna and her gyrating spangled backside.

Turn on the telly and you won't see fly-on-the-wall documentaries about kids languishing on the scrap heap. What we want to watch is faux history such as Downton Abbey, a series so anodyne it has managed to downgrade the First World War to an off-camera inconvenience. Last week, we actually saw an officer who had lost his hand, but God forbid the stump shed any blood – you'd see more gore in a waiting room in Casualty. Shell shock is confined to spilling the soup over dinner guests, while the pompous lord of the manor waffles on about England being "in a dream" – yes, a dream millions of us have signed up for.

The BBC's Strictly is another retro hit. The dances, the costumes, the hairstyles are just 1950s chic remodelled for a show presented by an elderly man with a glamorous woman assistant firmly relegated to a secondary hostess role. Blink and you could be watching Sunday Night at the London Palladium , half a century ago.

The hottest "new" show of the autumn has been The Great British Bake Off, filmed in a marquee with bunting, evoking charming village fetes of yesteryear. True, a few men competed, but the three doughty finalists in their pristine pinnies could have stepped straight out of the pages of Woman's Own circa 1955. The cakes – stodgy pyramids of sponge stuffed with cream – are the culinary equivalent of two fingers to nouvelle cuisine and Jamie's 30-Minute Meals. These creations take hours of rolling, beating, mixing, shaping and pummelling – hours most modern working women will not have at their disposal. We tune in because we are reminded of our mums baking a Victoria sponge every Saturday and the wonderful smells that came from the kitchen. This show was retro food porn for a viewing public too tired to have real sex.

What about the real issues facing modern Britain – poverty, unemployment, dementia? Back in 1936, during the original Depression, 200 unemployed men from Jarrow walked to London in a protest about a chronic lack of jobs, bringing a petition signed by 12,000 people. The Prime Minister refused to meet them, and all the Jarrow Marchers received was £1 each to buy a train ticket home. It took a war to create jobs, not a march.

Today, 974,000 young people have no work – a shocking statistic, a national disgrace. Cameron says that tearing up planning regulations will kick-start a massive building programme and provide thousands of jobs, ignoring the fact that developers are already sitting on a massive land bank. He doesn't have a detailed master plan to guarantee jobs, relying instead on hollow rhetoric such as "We've been told we were finished before ... but we have the spirit". Does he think that "trying harder" will land you a non-existent job? That's as crass as Norman Tebbit's much-derided "on your bike" mantra.

Meanwhile, a modern Jarrow march is under way as jobless youngsters walk to London, supported by the trade unions. In the North-east, youth unemployment is running at 20 per cent – but sadly, this small group of protesters will have even less impact than their counterparts did in 1936.

As for invoking historical references, Cameron could find that a generation of new voters has no idea who he is talking about. Last week, Katharine Birbalsingh, the teacher who lost her job in a comprehensive after highlighting shortcomings in state education, made a major speech. She claimed that teaching kids historical facts is considered old-fashioned and has nearly died out in most state schools. In her experience, kids don't know that Paris is the capital of France and most think that Churchill is the dog in the insurance ad on the telly.

If true, then Mr Cameron is not only wasting his breath, he might as well be spouting in Esperanto.

The pheasants are revolting

The only pheasants I'm interested in are beautifully cooked, sitting on my plate. A line of gaudy but stupid male birds sit on my garden wall in Yorkshire cackling as they pathetically try to repel rivals, blissfully ignorant of the culling spree that will pick them off any day now, when blokes in smelly tweeds pay a fortune for a day's shooting.

For weeks, pheasants have been pigging out under my bird table, scratching away until the ground is bare. A brilliant new comic novel made me laugh out loud last week: Bird Brain, by Guy Kennaway, describes the fate of Banger, a member of the landed gentry murdered for his estate. Banger comes back to earth as a pheasant, and as the shooting season approaches he is set on revenge. Kennaway's pheasants are spookily realistic and hilariously funny.

It's the No 9 bus to eternity

What a smart idea – 78-year-old James Campbell, of Alnmouth in Northumberland, saved up for a beautiful memorial bench to be placed by his regular bus stop for others to enjoy after he died. Plagued by arthritis, Mr Campbell decided to go ahead and have the bench made now, so he can enjoy it too. He has even had an inscription made: "James Campbell – in the departure lounge. Sally Miller [his partner] – flight delayed indefinitely".

Memorial seats generally face a beautiful view, and I agree with Mr Campbell: what a shame when the person who enjoyed walking isn't around to take the weight off their feet and enjoy the scenery.