The International Writers Magazine: Comment

Fool Britania
Colin Todhunter

Over the past seven or eight years, I have spent more time in India than I have in Britain. There are times when in India that I get homesick. I have come to realise, however, that it is not England that I miss but the idea of the place. The reality is somewhat different.

Whatever happened to Britain? The place where a pub existed on every street corner and a church on every other one. Indeed, whatever happened to the British pub? Its plight mirrors that of hollowed out British society. Many of the churches are now empty shells, but the pub — it has been transformed into the modern theme bar, the ‘‘theme’’ being a notion of the very tradition that was destroyed under the banner of ‘‘progress’’. Now that traditional communities have been swept away and lost, there is a media-induced thirst for what once was. Or, more precisely, to a fairytale, misty-eyed view of the past, bogusly reproduced and resold for profit.

The modern pub: mass-produced ‘‘real ale’’, wooden floorboards and old-world mythology. There is a huge profit in nostalgia, even if the whole thing is a massive con trick. People now sip at the trough of make-belief sentimentality — of how they think things used to be. But it is not how it really used to be; it is how it is now — a theme world dreamt up by advertising executives and consumer trend analysts. It is a cynically manufactured reality, which quenches the thirst for ‘‘community lost’’.

Britain is now a place of quick-fix divorces and immediate gratification, where the notion of community has been bulldozed away by a society that worships at the altar of the individual. I just have to look at the various web sites of UK newspapers to cringe at the result. A black boy gets an axe embedded in his skull just for being black: he dies. In a case of ‘‘road rage’’, a man gets out of his car and attacks another with a crowbar for beeping his horn at him. Women’s health is in danger because so many now indulge in binge drinking on a regular basis. You only have to walk down the vomit-soaked streets on any Friday night in any city centre to see the grip that alcohol has.

The last time I was in the UK, I was in my local post office when a man ran in, attacked the cash delivery man with a cosh, and made off with the takings. It must have been the third time that something like this happened at that office in the last 18 months. As the thief absconded, I thought to myself: ‘‘Welcome home!’’

When I am back in Britain, I will only realise that I am there for sure when I see shopkeepers and cashiers caged in behind reinforced glass, and when I walk down the road, or enter a shop or a railway station, only to see CCTV cameras pointed at me. The almost ubiquitous arm of ‘‘law and order’’ has found its way into every nook and cranny of public life in the UK.

CCTV came into its own when certain people’s livelihoods were being stripped away in the name of producing a ‘‘flexible’’ and ‘‘cost-effective’’ workforce, again in the name of “progress”. They couldn’t become fully paid-up members of the consumer society, so they were sacrificed on its altar.

The legacy has been a permanent underclass of people who cannot ‘‘pay their way’’. They are now surplus to requirements: a drain on welfare resources at best and a threat to society at worst. It was impossible to wall them in on their housing estates, so CCTV became the next best option. In order to root out the ‘‘unsavoury’’ elements everyone is now on screen. Paranoia at its finest.

And entertainment on TV is not much better. It is part of the same act. The advertisements and the game-shows that interrupt the commercial breaks are exponents of the kind of self-seeking materialism that now all too often passes for entertainment. Why be aware of the world’s ills and challenge anything when you can live in the dark, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok and shop till you drop? It is a consumer paradise where unfettered desire is a virtue and obsession is the faith.

The poor old Brits can see no way out. For instance, they are disengaging from party politics, and who can blame them? There’s little to choose from. In recent times, the shaping and controlling of agendas has meant that the threshold of opinions considered ‘‘subversive’’ has grown: forms of political ‘‘involvement’’ are encouraged which seek to guarantee integration and ‘‘participation’’, rather than forms of action that may lead to a direct questioning of or a challenge to prevailing forms of institutionalised power.
‘‘Consensus’’ is manufactured both in cultural and political terms. Political discourse and much of the popular mass media is void of analytical debate, and even the news has become public theatre, often presented in emotive, one-dimensional, ‘‘human-interest’’ terms.

Harold Macmillan, the Tory Prime Minister in the 1950s, once told the Brits that 'they’d never had it so good', as a result of rising post-war affluence. Times have changed since then, from a period of factory labour trade unionism to an era of consumerism and gleaming shopping malls bathed in designer lifestyle propaganda. Maybe now it’s a case of ‘‘you’ve never had it so bad’’ as people drown in their Friday night vomit, shop till they drop for things they don’t really need or indeed want, arrange the next credit loan from their banks, and bask in their emptiness by watching TV with eyes wide shut. Yes, it’s the idea of England that I miss, not the reality.`

© Colin Todhunter June 2006

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