Cool Britannia

The reason for the lack of postings for the last week or so is that I have been on holiday in the USA.  I’ll do some reflections on the experience – which was really enjoyable – as the jet lag wears off.  Let’s start with the US view of England.

We stayed in B&B and travelled on public transport, so had the opportunity to talk to quite a few Americans.  Admittedly, they weren’t typical – they were middle income people on holiday, and we weren’t in New York or California.  But it was extraordinary to note how the view of England has remained almost completely unchanged over the years.  People just loved Downton Abbey – a well made period drama, sure, but basically a soap opera in frock coats.  We were asked about the Queen – even a drunk in a New Orleans bar wanted to talk about the Queen.  Prince Charles came up, as did the recent royal wedding.  One woman asked over breakfast if the British still argued about how best to make tea – did we warm the pot ?  Did we put milk in first or last ?  Two couples mentioned the Cotswolds as the first place that came to mind from their trip to England, another Canterbury Cathedral.

Tony Blair got a lot of criticism for trying to present a more modern view of Britain – the press called the campaign Cool Britannia and then used the very term they had invented to attack it.  Maybe asking Oasis to No.10 wasn’t an essential component of the campaign, but the general thrust was surely right.  It would stun many Americans if you pointed out that the UK had invented the jet engine, discovered antibiotic drugs, introduced DNA testing, ran the first programmable computer, opened the first nuclear power station, wrote the language that powers the internet.  We have more than our share of Nobel prizes, Olympic medals and No.1 pop hits.  I think it is actually damaging to think of our country as a permanent museum, in which morris dancing troupes jigged around Tudor cottages.  I don’t ask tourists to prioritise the inner city or industrial wastelands, but there must be a way of politely modernizing the outsiders’ view of the country.


Here’s a suggestion.  Why not ask Arizonans if they still ride horses to corral their cattle ? Or Californians if they use a shallow dish to pan for gold ?  Or maybe see if Chicagoans know a good source of bootleg liquor ?  The questions sound ridiculous, but they are actually more up to date than much of the view of Britain that we faced across the morning waffles.

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