How England fought them on the Spanish beaches

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The Independent Online
One of the pleasures of living in a rented house is the company of other people's books. I've just returned from a holiday in Majorca, where we stayed in an old house set among olive and fig trees and owned by an absent Englishwoman. Hers was a typical story. She and her husband had retired there. The husband had died. His widow, now elderly and perhaps infirm, had re-retired to England and put the house in the hands of a letting agency. The evidence of the owner's life lay all around us. Pieces of Orientalia and Africana - the husband, we were told, had been "in tea" - were stuck to the walls; the pots and pans suggested serious cooking; desiccated roses climbed among the vines. Here in the sun - oh, let's not retire to all that cold and rain - a marriage had ended up.

Last year in Majorca we stayed in a similar house with a similar story - another dead husband, funds running low, the need to raise money by allowing strangers to camp among your private possessions for a fortnight. What both houses had in common were many shelves of books gathering dust, and the same kind of book published around the same time. If you want to know what the English middle class was reading in the 1950s, rent a house in Majorca. Novels by Nevil Shute, Hammond Innes, Boris Pasternak, Irving Wallace, Angus Wilson, Paul Gallico, HE Bates; autobiographies of Peter Scott and Francis Chichester. Many had those little labels once used by booksellers, which said they had been bought in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Calcutta as well as London and Bath.

The picture of Britain that many of these books gave was of a solid, reliable, comfortable place. The war had been won; the Empire, minus India, was still pretty much in place. It was the country I grew up in, and it now looks impossibly distant. In one, now forgotten literary novel, published in 1956 and set in Malaya (but not of course written by a Malayan), I read the following sentence: "She heard too, that sound which was to her far less bearable, of drums beating in the town ... those drums, on and on.".

That sentence would have been impossible to read without smiling even 10 years later; by 1966 Englishwomen no longer cowered in tropical bungalows, and Englishmen did not burst in to say: "Don't be a dammed fool, Hugh, put that pistol down!".

That was when England really began to ironise itself, a process that has culminated in the infamous tabloid coverage of the European football championship. Of course, there was more than irony at work here - the Daily Mirror in particular displayed quite stunning levels of bone-headed puerility - but you could detect at least some ironic intent in the Mirror's pastiche of Chamberlain's speech and its call to arms - Achtung, Surrender.

I read that on the beach. Every British tabloid now publishes editions in Spain so I was also able to read the Daily Mail's invocation, before the game against Spain, of the Spanish Armada's defeat (English Channel, 1588), and after Spain had been defeated yet again (Wembley, 1996), the News of the World's front-page comparison of Sir Francis Drake with the English goalkeeper (each was an able Seaman). The people around me on the beach were mainly British and reading the same stuff and I've no reason to suppose they took it more seriously or less critically than I did. None the less, I suspect most of them were habitual tabloid readers - why otherwise would British publishers pump out their products in Spain - so a question arises. Does reading nonsense damage your mental health? Does neanderthal journalism lead, as some MPs seem to think, to riots in Trafalgar Square?

Cause and effect are hard to establish, but I offer a hopeful thought. England's most popular newspapers (those with the red mastheads) have become quite literally a joke. Outside their commercial and, to a diminishing extent, their political value, they are not taken seriously by the people who produce them or the audience which reads them. News has got as much to do with them as it has with Viz magazine. They are self-parodic, and therefore very difficult to attack without seeming like some old parson who has missed the point. When a good newspaper such as the Independent has to insist that Germany also produced Beethoven, it is dignifying an argument that the other side treats as a comedy in an enclosed tabloid culture where everything is a laugh. Perhaps we need to be told that Germany also produced Beethoven, but if so we have regressed not just to 1939 but to 1914 and become (as we were not then) the thick man of Europe.

If Scotland is to get a parliament and Wales an assembly (a vital difference in terms here, though I'm not sure what or why), then what does Tony Blair have in mind for London, which contains more people than both combined? London has had no democratically elected authority since Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council 10 years ago. As Simon Jenkins wrote in the Evening Standard, "had a German cabinet tried to abolish the government of Berlin, or Washington abolished the mayoralty of New York, the constitutional sky would have fallen". So far Mr Blair has talked only - and vaguely - of the possibility of Londoners' electing a mayor, which isn't much improvement on the present "Minister for London", a Robin Young, who seems to have been elected by John Gummer.

Perhaps Londoners don't care. Contrary to the external view, London is a very under-scrutinised and under-reported place. As far as BBC Television is concerned, what happens here can be squeezed into a bulletin called Newsroom South East. Many post-office raids in Kent and blazes in Essex are featured, but of the citizens of Europe's largest city, almost no news at all. We are the invisible disenfranchised.

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