Right. But how small exactly? Well, for American consumption, medieval England was a kind of extended Yorkshire Dales, full of rocks, rushing streams, misty forests, bearded men of the forest with piercing blue eyes and, luckily, Americans. It was damp and geographically insignificant but it possessed an imaginative largeness because, as we now know, it was a primitive prototype of the United States. Bring in Kev and Morg, admit the Crusades were a bit of a mistake and, there you go, Sherwood Forest could be South Central LA.
This is the England the Americans want - the true possessor of a certain pre-modern authenticity, the damp but colourful testing ground for multicultural individualism. These days, of course, we are inefficient, endearingly out of tune with the contemporary, maybe even laughable, but we are marinated in times past, still true to our ancient selves.
"Aren't you," I was asked by a CNN reporter recently, "shocked by this?" She had just told me that the London School of Economics was using American tele-marketing techniques to raise money, an idea she plainly found disturbing.
"Er, no," I replied.
On reflection, though, she was sort of right. I should have been shocked. We do have all this old oak and stuff lying about the place, we do have strange habits and, most important of all, we are uneasy with the modern. Perhaps I should have spluttered crustily: "What are we coming to?"
But where she was wrong was to think this British uneasiness with the modern should lead to rejection. Our attitude towards the modern is that of the bulimic towards food. One minute we are gobbling it down, the trashier the better, making ourselves pigsin the process. The next we are recoiling in disgust, sneering at what lies on our plate, pretending to be discriminating yet turning ourselves into philistines and bores.
We were both pigs and bores in 1994 because of two modernisations, both of which, I think, will have more impact than anybody has yet realised. They were the national lottery and the Channel tunnel.
Both these innovations were welcomed in the traditional British manner - with sniggering abuse. The lottery, in spite of the fact that it has been spectacularly successful in ticket sales, was trashed because of the grimly awful television show, and thenbecause of Camelot's fencing with the press over the identity of a jackpot winner. Meanwhile, the tunnel's predictable teething troubles and embarrassingly timed breakdowns drove everyone to conclude that it was a white elephant, would never make any money, was not as nice as the ferries - bow doors permitting - and so on.
This trashing is itself interesting since it springs from one of the most characteristic British responses to the modern - self-loathing. So demoralised have we been by the conviction that somebody, somewhere - well, actually, anybody, anywhere - does itbetter that we assume the best we can hope to achieve is some pale emulation of the Japanese or even, in the case of the lottery, the Spanish. The press is responsible for pursuing and exposing every failure, no matter how trivial, but it does so only because it understands the consumer's appetite for domestic disaster, for the warm familiarity of the message that British is worst.
These two innovations have a further theme in common: they are both internationalisations - more significantly, they are both Europeanisations. The lottery simply brings us into line with most other countries, and the tunnel physically attaches us to Europe. The Euro-sceptics have railed against neither, but in truth they represent far bigger steps towards federalism than the Maastricht treaty. For both offer definable, non-bureaucratic changes to real lives, changes that increase both our proximity andour similarity to the rest of Europe. And it is such changes that endure. Anything else - from Brussels or London - is mere politics.
But there is a crucial difference between the lottery and the tunnel - one that precisely captures our ambiguity and our failure to discriminate when it comes to the modern. For the lottery is trash, the tunnel is not.
The lottery is McDonald's, cruisewear, Planet Hollywood, the Trocadero, pig-class food on an American airline, Australian or American beer, shell suits, counselling courses or that ghastly television advert for Ferrero Rocher. It is tasteless, transnational and culture-free and it has a logo like everything else you hate but can't quite avoid. Worst of all, it employs this blandness for "good" causes - ripping off, in the name of charity, art or a spurious national pride, those suffering from self-infli cted cultural dispossession. The national lottery is a neat summary of whatever makes you feel that bit worse about the age in which you live. And the British, in bulimic binge phase, love it.
This is what my CNN reporter could not really grasp. There is no limit to how low the British will sink when it comes to embracing the worst of the modern. Tele-marketing by educational institutions is nothing. We'll rip apart our towns, fill our countryside with theme parks and our pubs with frozen chips if that is what it takes to be up to date. Nothing holds us back, no glimmer of aesthetic conscience, no reflex of taste, pride or discernment. We shouldn't have had the lottery because it is one more step in the trashification of Britain.
But the Channel tunnel is the Boeing 747-400, Sydney Opera House, Issey Miyake, word processor, Randy Newman, widely available Japanese food, newly resurrected English beer, Hong Kong, Ayrton Senna, the Maclaren F1 or those wonderful television adverts for Allied Dunbar - "There may be trouble ahead ..." The tunnel is an obviously good idea, indeed, a rather beautiful one. Its engineering was solid and successful against far greater odds than has generally been realised, and the styling of its stations
and trains ranges from the good to the superb. Even its cost overruns and its continuing financial crisis give it a gratifyingly heroic air of poetic superfluity - Brunel did not become great by underspending.
Above all it will, I am convinced, change our world more radically than we can yet begin to imagine. Soon hacks and businessmen will be thinking of excuses to have lunch in Paris or Brussels. Soon airlines will be forced to lower their outrageously rigged European fares. Then, slowly, we shall all be drawn south, feeling in our imaginations that we are part of a single land mass. The French will come here, find our food has improved and our universities are smarter, better than theirs. There will b e a net increase in civilisation. The Channel tunnel is, in short, a neat summary of everything that makes you feel that bit better about the age in which you live.
The contrast between the two is the point. The modern is not a unitary concept. It is not something which one can be for or against. It pushes us in two quite distinct directions - towards characterless trash and towards something better, freer, funnier and faster.
The bulimic British find this hard to understand. In neophiliac binge phase they feel the modern is something they must indiscriminately consume; in reactionary disgust phase they feel it is a threat, a poison. But it is neither because it is not one thing. It is many things, good and bad.
One thing, however, the modern always does is offer us more. There are always new things to buy or to use. Technology and wealth will, in the absence of global catastrophe, continue to grow. The trick is to deal with this avalanche by being rich and smart, to know the difference between a 747 and Planet Hollywood, between sushi and hamburger, between class and trash.
Maybe the best thing that could happen in 1995 is that we shall begin to learn this trick. There are good signs, and the tunnel is one of the best. The lottery, alas, will persist. But it will settle down to what it really is: a small thing, an ignorablething. The tunnel, however, will just get bigger. Happy New Year.Reuse content