Charles Nevin: Brits in space... we've got so much to offer

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The Independent Online

Britain, a report has concluded, needs to get out into space more. Since the report was commissioned by the British National Space Centre, this conclusion was perhaps not so surprising. But preconceptions have no place in this space, which prefers a searching exploration of both fact and argument.

So, post-exploration, I can appreciate the argument, which has long held sway, that sending Britons up is too expensive, just as I can appreciate the argument that sending Britons up would fire enthusiasm for science among the young, boost national prestige and produce economic spin-offs (others may mock but, as an undeft frier, I owe much to Teflon).

Even so, if I might adapt the axiom of that committed space invader, President John F Kennedy, shouldn't we also be asking, not what space can do for the British, but what can the British do for space? What would our mighty footprint bring to the planets that, say, Americans, Chinese, Indians, or, indeed the 10 gerbils just sent up by the Russians, wouldn't?

There was a time when a fairly confident, if stereotyped, answer to that could be sketched, based around a sense of traditional order, a sound legal system and a seemingly infinite number of ball games combining to produce exploitation but with manners and rules.

That all seems a bit passe now. Almost as passe as the old definition of heaven and hell: in Heaven, the cooks are French, the policemen are English, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and it's all organised by the Swiss. But in Hell, the cooks are English, the policemen are German, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it's all organised by the Italians. Today, judging by our recent reports, it might be a little unwise to allow the Swiss to organise anything, and the Americans would have invaded anyway.

It would be easy, too, to point out certain aspects of new Britain that we might export universally, especially as that big arms fair in Docklands seemed to go so well last week. Nor would all parts of the cosmos have to worry about being closely monitored. Recent events have also proved that our ability to panic in an orderly manner remains unrivalled.

Come on though, I hear you say, what about our famous sense of humour? And it is true that, in a Reader's Digest survey in 2004, Europeans thought that we had the best sense of humour on the continent, even though we were only marginally sexier than the Belgians, who finished bottom and, as you might have noticed, have pretty much gone to pieces since.

You, of course, will point to the Canadian survey of 2002 which found the Americans, Australians and the Irish funnier than us; I would respond that it found Canadians funnier still. Besides, despite recent worries expressed even here about the state of national glee, where else would welcome Emu back?

There is also an elusive, whimsical quality at which we excel, which infinity and beyond will need if humanity starts really getting around, and which is easier to illustrate than define: this weekend's new world record for the biggest bowl of porridge, for instance, or Marks & Spencer's declaration of a hanger amnesty.

But the clincher for me, all the same, is the culture of sensible regulation and care that this country now so famously represents – albeit with the occasional lapse, often in Surrey – which will ensure a safer galaxy, if we are allowed to go up there.

Maggie's Marvin moment

One aspect of Lady Thatcher's Downing Street visit insufficiently analysed: cats. The Baroness met Sybil, the Chancellor's cat, and confided she has a cat called Marvin. Sybil is named after Mrs Fawlty. I wonder why the Darlings didn't choose a traditional family name, like Wendy, or Nana, especially when the first Sybil was a soothsayer given to predicting even worse things than Northern Rock. But, Marvin. Is this Lady Thatcher's tribute to Lee Marvin, legendary star of Cat Ballou? Or is it Hank B, the Shads' guitarist? Unlikely? While we await more info, let me remind you that George Bush has a brother called Marvin and that Hank B, left, is a Jehovah's Witness? Truly, the world never ceases to surprise.

Apropos Northern Rock and panic, there are some other portents about. Fairly unremarkable when treated singly, but enough to fill the most cheery with gloom and foreboding for the way things are going when considered together – the sorts of thing that invite meaningful glances below one elevated eyebrow and an uneasy silence before someone orders another drink.

Paddington Bear is to advertise Marmite. Led Zeppelin are coming out of retirement. Rupert Bear wears trainers now. An Anglican church in Cardiff is putting on a themed Dr Who evening, looking at Jesus as a Time Lord.

A company in Detroit has signed an agreement to create a line of Star Trek funeral products. Films are being made about Eddie the Eagle and that Yorkshire farmer's wife who started a bra business. The Prince of Wales is talking about doing an Al Gore one. Strictly Come Dancing is coming back. Lord Owen might rejoin the Labour Party. Those Samoans sound pretty confident, too.

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