Thursday, 10 May 2007

Britain - The Land That Time Forgot

This post follows on from the one earlier today about imperial measurements. The title 'The Land That Time Forgot' is from a 1970s film set at the time of the First World War when a German submarine along with some Americans it has picked up arrives at an undiscovered island where dinosaurs and cavemen are still in existence. A similar story is the book 'Dinotopia' which came out in the 1990s but has a happier outlook. Anyway, I am taking it as the theme for my discussion British people's obsession with the past and inability to really embrace what is going on in the world today.

Many countries are founded on perceptions of the past. France in the post-Second World War era based its legitimacy on stories of the Resistance, in a different way West Germany based its on the sense of Year Zero, that the slate had been wiped clean at the end of the war. Israel derives its legitimacy from reactions to the Holocaust; the current state in China from The Long March and the Revolution plus elements of longer Chinese history stretching back into the periods of the emperors and Confucius. Though the states in these countries have been based on a view of the past and it can be controversial when this view is challenged, none of them live in the past as much as British society. I love history, I have a house full of history books and I read a lot about different historical periods in different parts of the world. However, I do not need that history in order to have a sense of pride in what I do and in what the UK is doing. For many people in the UK however, the situation is different.

Whilst surfing the internet I noticed that a university in Berlin does courses on British Studies and in this they have a talk on soon about Britain and Germany in sport 1966-2006. The England world cup win of 1966. (and note, a lot of what is put forward as 'British' history is actually English history, I heard a man complaining recently about Adam Smith appearing on the new £20 note as Adam Smith was Scottish and this man felt the £20 note was 'English money' though it is legal tender in Scotland [though they also have their own notes] and the pound and pence are the only currency in Wales). The chant that Britons often throw at Germans is 'two world wars, one world cup' as a source of pride. Given that the latest of these victories was now 41 years ago and the earliest was 89 years ago, it hardly says much about pride in modern Britain. I accept that 21% of the population of the UK is over 60 and only 20% are under 16, but the majority of the population of the UK was not alive in 1966, so are the people who constantly hark back to that victory saying nothing of value has been achieved in the UK in their lifetimes?

British television is filled with historical drama. I accept it is the case in other countries too, but my argument is that they do not define themselves by portrayals of life among the wealthy classes as shown in dramatisations of the Jane Austen novels which are so popular in the UK; the Sherlock Holmes series keep on being repeated too. Films still set in the Second World War continue to be made and even those made in the USA often feature British actors, such as 'Band of Brothers', 'Pearl Harbor', etc. Television constantly repeats 'Dad's Army' a comedy series about the Home Guard of the Second World War. It ran from 1968-77, so longer than the war itself. Other series such as 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' set amongst a concert troop in India and Burma in the Second World War ran 1972-85, even longer, then ''Allo, 'Allo' a series about the French resistance in the Second World War which ran 1982-91 and had a follow-on episode in 2007. Now I accept that there might be black humour to be had, but these among many other series produced during those times have remained enduringly popular and many of their catch phrases have entered British language. I accept we are moving away from this, but these things have another life in DVDs and on cable television.

Thus, the culture of many people is shaped by eras in which they did not live themselves. Of course there is always a nostalgia for a Golden Age that never actually existed, in the USA it tends to be the Eisenhower era of the 1950s and in both the UK and USA there is now nostalgia for the 1970s with people forgetting the terrorist activity, the inflation, the wars, the nuclear threat and in the UK the strikes and power cuts. John Major, UK prime minister 1991-7 tapped into this successfully when he referred to a fuzzy kind of 1950s Britain with district nurses cycling home and warm beer in pubs. The sense that if these things were recaptured the plagues of the modern day such as crime and drugs would be dismissed. Of course Britian had those things but they too were in the context of unpleasant things that are now forgotten: continuing rationing (legally the Second World War did not end in the UK until 1955, 10 years after the actual fighting stopped and the last rationing remained until 1956), few items for consumption, Britain being shamed by the world for its imperialistic pretentions, the sliding of competitiveness of British industry, the increasing division of British society and the rise of race riots.

I have no problem with people looking back and in particular, actually learning from history, what my problem is, that does this have to be the only place you can glean some sense of pride in your country. Britain is struggling for an identity and one which is not racist or nationalistic and all it can draw on to give it pride seem to be out-of-date events. This is why the British cling so tightly to medieval hang-ons such as the monarchy, the House of Lords, imperial measures, scraps of empire, though none of these things benefit 99% of the UK population. Being able to rely on these dated things seems to take the pressure off actually seeking to have something to be proud of now. Why can we not strut around saying 'we've got the best health service/education system/transport network/tolerant society/combating of poverty/curing of diseases in the world' now, any one of those I would be more than happy to chant with pride. Let's get out of the past and make the UK a country to be proud of, legitimately, in 2007.

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