Letter from Simon Kelner: Has success become a bad thing?


Why we should pay attention to what someone who's lived in California for 20 years thinks about Britain is slightly beyond me, but John Cleese's remark that London no longer "feels English" has attracted a good deal of comment, most of it predictable.

The leader of Ukip - yes, they're still going - said that Cleese was only articulating what a lot of people felt, while Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone argued that the capital's cosmopolitan profile was a major part of its attraction.

Perhaps all that alimony has gone to Cleese's head, because I don't really know what he's on about. London hasn't really felt "English" for a very long time. Like most important capital cities, it has been a melting pot of cultures, races and ethnicities and, because of its history and traditions (and, from time to time, the weakness of its currency), it has been a huge draw for tourists. You could stand all morning outside Buckingham Palace and not hear anyone speak English: is that a matter for resentment or pride?

Cleese wasn't talking about the racial tensions and the social and ethnic challenges of some of the inner-city areas of London where, yes, it is not difficult to feel the dominance of other cultures. No, he was railing against the number of foreign voices on the King's Road. King's Road! Chelsea! It's not exactly Coldharbour Lane, is it? And if it wasn't for foreigners spending their money, heaven knows how much worse it would be for high street retailers. "London is no longer an English city," said the comedian who last did something funny three decades ago. "That's how we got the Olympics."

Exactly, you silly old fool. London's reputation as a functioning city which traditionally opens its arms to foreigners was, I'm sure, a key factor in being awarded the 2012 Games. Or is he saying that's a bad thing? Perhaps he's upset because he can walk through London, down the King's Road even, and no one will come up to him any more and say how funny they thought the dead parrot sketch was. (I remember it, and I didn't think it was that funny at the time.)

Anyway, he was going to come back to live in Britain, but our onerous tax system (you know: taxes, those awkward things we all have to pay) have decided him against it. Instead, he is considering buying a house in either Switzerland or Monaco, countries where he won't be bothered by anything as troublesome as cultural diversity, or indeed income tax. Nevertheless, his views on Britain will always be welcome.