Culture commentator says that America keeps bringing back the past while the UK is culturally constantly trying the new.
It takes a rare party leader to reach beyond the arid debates of the political elite and touch the passions of the people. David Cameron has proved himself that kind of leader with his use of Britain’s European veto. This controversial gesture has struck a patriotic chord with a large part of the nation. It has put the Conservatives ahead in the polls and left Ed Miliband’s leadership of Labour looking exposed while Cameron’s leadership of the Conservatives is sacralised at the Eurosceptic altar.
Where does the mood of inward-looking, self-contented British patriotism that Cameron has gratified come from? Is the collective emotion that Cameron’s anti-European stance unleashed an atavistic throwback to Churchillian “bulldog spirit”? Is it home-counties pub-talk bigotry? The respectable equivalent of far-right thuggery? It is none of these things. Cameron spoke to a very modern mood, widely shared across traditional party allegiances, that is not backward-looking but self-consciously contemporary, not coarse but sophisticated. He is surfing the wave of the new British cultural nationalism.
This is a good time to look deep into the tides of cultural history, and take the pulse of nations. With what resources of imagination and shared symbolism are we entering what the International Monetary Fund says may prove a world crisis on the scale of the 1930s? The writer Kurt Andersen does this for contemporary American culture in the January issue of Vanity Fair. “Contemporary” may be the wrong word, for Andersen argues that American styles have not changed in 20 years. Fundamentally, pop culture is the same now as it was in 1990, with the same basic values and meanings. Madonna morphed into Lady Gaga, but in cultural terms they are the same, he thinks. America, he argues, has entered a dignified paralysis. Maybe, he says: “This is the way that western civilisation declines, not with a bang but with a long, slow nostalgic whimper.”
The essay is fascinating, but above all for a British reader it makes you wonder why Americans are so much better at this kind of state-of-the-nation navel- gazing than we are. Britain invented the discipline of cultural studies, but today we rarely seem to have time to measure the contours of our national culture. This is because the period that Anderson diagnoses in America as a time of stagnation has, in Britain, been experienced as fast, fast, fast: ever-changing and radical.
In the late 80s, Thatcherism became broadly accepted, and a combination of strong service and financial sectors definitively replaced our industrial heritage in the national psyche. Since then, cultural change has been non-stop in Britain. From Tate Modern to the Shard, from the River Cafe to the Fat Duck, from Martin Amis to Grayson Perry, icons of the new come and go. While America slowed down, Britain sped up. Only now, in the 11th hour, on the eve of what looks like being a profoundly challenging era, can we stop to ask – sped towards what?
In reality, the roller coaster was a ghost train. While America, claims Vanity Fair, openly recycled its cultural history, we seemed to be going where we never went before. Instead, we were dressing up old habits in new clothes, and finding a bright, new look for some of our oldest and – many ex-colonial countries might say – our most dangerous urges. As the Sicilians would put it, everything must change so that everything can stay the same.
The thrust of British cultural innovation since 1990 has been towards a new national pride. The country that gave the world Rule Britannia has learned a lot of new tunes, but they dress the old arrogance of the British in new clothes – from Last Night of the Proms to the various incarnations of the Gallagher brothers. All the sensations and shocks that made modern British culture famous have served to strengthen our national self-regard.
This year British design had a truly great moment. Alexander McQueen’s posthumous exhibition, Savage Beauty, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was the event of the year in New York: McQueen was recognised as a romantic genius, a sublime artist of fashion. In Britain, meanwhile, the McQueen house dressed Kate Middleton for her wedding at Westminster Abbey in a dress that seemed to have floated straight out of some medieval manuscript. The British future married the British past in a moment when union flags hung stiff as shields on Regent Street.
Some of us may want to forget such moments, but they are real. Patriotism is real. In his essay My Country Right or Left, written at an earlier moment of peril in 1940, George Orwell denounces “the leftwing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions”. Patriotism and the courage it can inspire are healthy instincts, he argues, “for which, however little the boiled rabbits of the left may like them, no substitute has yet been found”. The Tory party has never shrunk from those emotions, or harnessing them. But the patriotism Cameron locked into when he said no to France and Germany is not the patriotism that stirred Orwell, let alone Nelson. It is a modern British vibe.
This year, compulsive foodies and affluent diners and drooled at Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, Dinner, in west London. Dinner serves something genuinely unexpected – state of the art versions of historic British recipes that go back as early as Tudor times. The dishes – they have their dates printed by them on the menu – include meat fruit (c 1500) and savoury porridge (c 1660).
Dinner takes to a sublime and faintly parodic extreme the great revival of British food that might be traced back to Rick Stein’s 1988 book, English Seafood Cookery. Once again Orwell was there first – his 1945 article In Defence of English Cooking looks forward to the day when restaurants will take British food seriously. It might be objected that the real story of popular eating in Britain since the 80s is an amazing new appetite for diversity. Every high street can offer dishes from sushi to gourmet burgers. But this is precisely the point about the new cultural patriotism. It is a sophisticated choice, not a reflex habit. If you only know British food, you cannot take a cultured interest in Britishness as a flavour.
Like haute cuisine, avant garde art may seem an unlikely cultural form to inspire nationalism. Yet that is what it has inspired since the 1990s. Why did a middle-class public traditionally disdainful of “pretentious” conceptual art suddenly take it to heart? The fact that our young artists in the 90s were making waves around the world appealed to patriotic pride. From bashing them, newspapers became their boosters. British modern art is now seen as a national asset. In 2012, Damien Hirst will have a Tate Modern show, representing us culturally alongside the Olympics. Just this week, Sam Taylor-Wood collected an OBE and Tracey Emin was elected Professor at the Royal Academy. What’s next – an artist in parliament?
Now there is a fashion for rediscovering earlier British modern artists. This year the Hepworth, a new gallery that pays homage to British 20th-century sculptor Barbara Hepworth, opened to acclaim in Wakefield, while exhibitions celebrated British modernists from Edward Burra to Graham Sutherland. What’s going on? None of these people are exactly Picasso.
This is where the appetite for British culture becomes a bit more troubling. It is one thing to be interested in your own backyard, another to stop looking over the fence. Britons have become far less respectful of “foreign” culture since the late 1980s.
First we decided we were proud to be anglophone. From the 60s to the 80s, to be culturally progressive in Britain was to worship European cinema, subtitles and all. American filmmakers such as Scorsese and Tarantino freed a generation from this cinematic cringe. Once it became all right to prefer American films to French ones, we could start bigging up our own films, from Trainspotting to The King’s Speech. Yet the strangest proof of the new cultural patriotism is the fate of the novel.
In the 80s a new wave of British writers rejected what they saw as the staid, home-grown tradition in favour of daring international styles. From Ian McEwan championing the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, to Salman Rushdie emulating Thomas Pynchon, a generation globalised the British novel. Today, there is a far more inward-looking literary culture. The biggest hit among recent British literary novels was Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Booker-winner Wolf Hall – a historical recreation of Tudor England, the mirror of Dinner’s archaeological menu.
Meanwhile, foreign fiction gets short shrift. Where the Rushdie-Amis generation revered the American novel, a judge of the Man Booker International prize this year actually got a serious hearing for her dismissal of no less a figure than Philip Roth. Sometimes, it is actually Orwell’s “boiled rabbits of the left” who lead the charge to Little England, for the years since 9/11 have made it progressive to dismiss American high culture.
All of this may seem a far cry from the introverted nationalism that hails David Cameron as a Eurosceptic hero. Daring to criticise American authors? Visiting exhibitions of Barbara Hepworth? Paying through the nose to eat like a Tudor? What have these rarefied byways got to do with hating the EU? The culture that makes people happy to kiss Europe goodbye is surely a lot more guttural and basic, fuelled by relentless stories about EU madness in the Daily Mail.
But consider this. One of the spectacular growth areas in modern British culture is the rise of popular history. Television history has no more eloquent exponent than David Starkey. There might seem a terrible gulf between Starkey’s brilliant insights into the politics and personalities of Henry VIII’s reign and his remarks on the riots this summer. But his historical imagination bridges that gap: he apparently does see the Britain whose history he has studied and popularized as “monocultural”. In the pleasures of patriotism lurk the demons of nationalism.
Orwell was right. Patriotism is a powerful force, and it is hard to replace its vitality in bonding societies. Not only that, but the new British cultural patriotism is in many ways justified by results. I like and admire the art of Hirst, the imagination of McQueen and Blumenthal, and I can’t get enough of Starkey’s history books. This really has been a strong period of British creativity. But where has it left us? Britain, it seems, has never been more cocksure or xenophobic. Many people would be happy to see us float away from Europe and go it alone. This confidence has been fed by years of cultural boosting. The British have entered a world of their own, staring together at that champagne supernova in the sky.