DJ Taylor: Flights of fancy

The grand oratory of Barack Obama's address might seem over the top to British ears, but a little uplifting speech-making would not go amiss here
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The Independent Online

To listen to Barack Obama deliver his inaugural address was to be reminded of the profound cultural differences that still separate the UK from the Land of the Free.

No British politician could ever get away with this, I thought to myself, as one sonorous period succeeded another, the abstract nouns piled up like pine cones on the forest floor and the crowd quivered in silent ecstasy. Except in times of national emergency, British audiences are largely unmoved by uplift and visionary abstractions ("hope", "trust", "peace", "spirit", etc) – about the closest we get to it is the moderately pithy slogan ("The lady's not for turning"), and even that is not very near. It was the same with Elizabeth Alexander's "praise poem", generally thought by commentators on this side of the pond to be rather on the prosy side, which no British poet could have declaimed without grave embarrassment.

Reading both speech and poem on the page I became aware of an echo stirring somewhere in the depths of early-Victorian literature. Thackeray? Mrs Trollope? No, it was the American chapters in Martin Chuzzlewit, the arrival of Mr Jefferson Brick, the war correspondent of the New York Rowdy Journal, and all the stuff about the libation of freedom sometimes having to be quaffed in blood. To set the eternal transatlantic hankering for bombast against the deep reluctance of most UK politicians to stray anywhere beyond the patch of grass in front of their noses isn't to criticise either approach. In an increasingly monoglot world, cultural separations of this kind have a habit of demonstrating deep-seated truths about national identity.

A French visitor to Oxford in the 1980s, bidden to watch the gowned and mortar-boarded college heads gravely processing to the Senate House, remarked that in France such a gathering could not have happened, as the crowd would have thrown things. Going back to the late 1930s, Orwell once suggested that plenty of British army officers would have liked nothing better than to introduce the goose-step: what deterred them was the knowledge that people would laugh. But the inability of home-grown politicians to keep up with Obama-style flights of oratorical fancy probably reflects less favourably on the national psyche. With 1.9 million unemployed and another few hundred billion recently lobbed into the banking black hole, we could do with a bit of uplift.


According to a poll of 1,000 teenagers which surfaced in some of Thursday's newspapers, eight out of 10 respondents believed that young people were "fed up" with school before they reached the age of 16. Forty per cent thought there were "not enough paths to success" open to them. It would be interesting, of course, to know where the pollsters took their sample from (on this evidence, probably not the steps of Winchester College Chapel), still more what "paths to success" were and how you put your feet on them.

All the same, and rather to my surprise, I found myself sympathising with the discontented and success-starved teenagers who had taken part. Apart from a brief period between the ages of 12 and 14, when you had to study uncongenial subjects, I loved being at school and was sorry to leave it. As for offering "paths to success", or indeed anything except opportunities to show off, I'm not sure that it left me with any tangible benefits at all.

Thirty years later, the only formula I can remember from physics is "density = mass over volume" (or is it the other way round?) If the vis-à-vis speaks very slowly, repeats his or her words and makes helpful hand gestures, I can just about conduct a conversation in pidgin French. Latin has reduced itself to a dozen or so tags (brevis esse, obscurus fio, etc) which in practical terms are slightly less useful than a collection of cracker mottoes. My mathematical knowledge is insufficient to help 13 year-old Benjy with his homework. Naturally, all this ignores the question of influence, which in the case of my two history masters, was considerable. But you can see why Osbert Sitwell, filling in the Who's Who box marked "education'', wrote: "At home in the holidays from Eton."


Although the recession continues to bite, at least one part of the entertainment industry thrives as never before. Statistics released this week disclosed that the British cinema industry attracted record audiences in 2008, with Mamma Mia! and Quantum of Solace alone racking up £119m-worth of ticket sales. While most commentators interpreted this as a mark of the nation's relish for escapism as an antidote to economic gloom, it is also proof of the futility of techno-prophecy.

Twenty years ago every media pundit on the planet was bravely declaring the cinema was a sunset industry ripe to be supplanted by computers and what was vaguely known as "home entertainment". The same predictions were made about vast areas of commercial life. "None of you will be here in a decade's time," I remember a marketing partner assuring his staff, with a patrician wave around the department. "You'll all be telecommuting and video-conferencing." As an undergraduate I used to attend seminars got up to address not "The future of the book" but "Has the book a future?"

Somehow none of these bright foreshadowings came true, or, rather, they never came true in quite the way the techno-gurus envisaged. Every Thursday night as a teenager I used to sit, in a state of hazy vacancy, in front of a programme called Tomorrow's World, which went out just before Top of the Pops. Scarcely any of the innovations it cheerfully prophesied – TV headsets, telepathic car steering and so on – seem to have come about. How could the BBC deceive us so?


An email from a ticket agency popped up on the screen the other day announcing that Pete Doherty is booked to play a gig at the University of East Anglia – "Peter Doherty", that is, as he now prefers to be known. The deliberate name-change is a curious part of our cultural life, in which all kinds of different motivations – a striving for dignity, the need to cover up ancient trails, or even the quest for a whole new identity – can uneasily commingle. There was the former Newcastle and Manchester United footballer Andy Cole, for example, who suddenly re-invented himself as "Andrew Cole". And, as an early 1970s Status Quo fan, I was mystified by the transformation of the head-shaking lead guitarist Mike Rossi into "Francis Michael Rossi" and ultimately to "Francis".

Going the whole hog and jettisoning your surname can be yet more problematic. In the early 1960s Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, as he now is, invited Evelyn Waugh to lunch at his club in the hope that he might be persuaded to write for the newly founded Sunday Telegraph. Waugh, who had discovered that Worsthorne's original name was Koch de Gooreynd, asked for him by his ur-identity at the bar, thereafter remarking: "When a gentleman asks another gentleman to lunch at his club, surely he should take the elementary precaution of becoming a member in the first place?" When the port was found to be not up to scratch, Waugh observed sadly that "this is not the kind of port Lady Pamela Berry [the wife of the Telegraph's proprietor] would wish you to offer me". Worsthorne countered that it was not Lady Pamela who was offering it to him. "My dear fellow, I had no idea," Waugh replied, pulling out his wallet and showering his host with £5 notes.


Several newspapers amused themselves no end with the report issued by the newly formed Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills that proved to be so jargon-heavy ("An overarching national improvement strategy will drive up quality and performance underpinned by specific plans for strategically significant areas of activity", etc) that even the department's Permanent Secretary, Ian Whatmore, declared himself baffled. People living beyond the spangled palisades of government departments, local authorities, higher education and PR firms often wonder where jargon comes from.

The answer is that it is an essential adjunct to what might be called the professionalisation of modern life, a fail-safe way of demonstrating expertise and nous that applies to practically every area of the cultural landscape: the management consultant's "synergy" is what "langue et parole" is to a semiotician or "zonal marking" to a Premier League soccer manager.

When I worked in the City, many a dull afternoon could be enlivened by attempts to translate the latest corporate-speak from America. "Synergy", as far as we could work out, was simply an act undertaken for mutual benefit. "Strategic realignment" was a euphemism for "things might go better if we did it this way". The best definition I ever heard of "empowerment" – possibly the great cant phrase of the early 21st century – was "a choice of flavours at the drinks machine".