Sunday, November 19, 2006

Land of Hype and Glory?

I have been travelling to Britain with some regularity for most of my life (I have one parent who was born and raised there and the family ties were tight), and with particular duration and frequency for the last decade or so, as a result of research and, more recently, to get to my workplace. I have also spent nearly two decades immersed in an academic effort to grapple with the country's culture and history.

I think I can fairly say that I've long been in love with the place.

Nonetheless: I'm concerned.

what concerns me is something I've had a difficult time expressing. I tried to explain it to a good friend of mine some weeks ago in London by pointing out that despite years of economic growth and loudly trumpeted 'modernisation' so much of Britain - even it's world-class capital - remains so thoroughly...'shabby', as I put it.

Of course, a kind of down-at-heel amateurishness has long been central to the charm of the UK, particularly back when it was combined with a sense that the British were incapable of taking themselves too seriously.

But, I think what I've been noting is a new and unpleasant sense of cultural superiority abroad on the island, a widespread opinion that things are vastly better
(faster, richer, cooler...) in Britain than in, say, continental Europe. Which would be halfway tolerable if it weren't combined with so much selling of old beer in new bottles, if all that half-baked surface coolness was not, in the end, just so tremendously over-hyped and costly.

In retrospect, then, it was less the shabbiness as such which was bothersome and more its coexistence with a shouting, superficial version of hyper-modernity. (Britain has become, in some way, a very bling kind of place.) This - alongside a relentless decline in the quality of public life and the growing tabloid hysteria which seems to be infesting once reliable bastions of at least semi-serious culture (e.g., the broadsheets and the BBC) - has been instilling an increasing sense of discomfort when I'm there, a discomfort which engages in a constant duel with the other side of my brain which is so thoroughly fond of the place.

It's a type of cognitive dissonance.

(Perhaps I'm not alone: A recent story in Spiegel cites a survey according to which up to a quarter of Britons are considering moving abroad.)

But, of course, only a former native can really wax eloquent about the disappointments of 'home', and over at Click Opera, Momus had gone some way toward expressing what I was trying to get across to my good friend on an otherwise lovely night on the South Bank. (I think, however, the only thing I succeeded in was annoying him with my relentless negativity and opinion that many things were, actually, much better in Germany. Sorry, dude.)

Momus, who has spent considerable time living in Japan and now lives in Berlin,
writes of his impressions of Birmingham on a recent trip.
Host Greg, who meets me at the airport [...] tells me that the only good food I'm likely to encounter in Brum is the bratwurst being sold at the German Christmas fair. Apparently the centre of town is full of tiny chalets selling gluhwein and sausages. On loan from Frankfurt.

When I go hunting for breakfast the next morning, I discover the truth of Greg's words. The pedestrian centre of Birmingham is full of familiar retail chains -- Boots, Habitat -- but there are no small businesses, the sort of places where cooking gets done. Everything's pre-packaged, pre-prepared, cold, slick, global. One place says "Cut sandwiches... sausage and egg?" The question mark -- and the lack of tables -- puts me off. I end up eating at a slick chain called "Eat: Real Food". They offer cold dishes in plastic boxes; sushi, feta salad, Thai noodles with cashews. I opt for the latter. It's bland beyond words. And expensive.
Noting the extent to which tabloid hysteria seems to have taken over British media (current obsession: paedophilia), he moves on to discussing - quite effectively, I think - the ways that Birmingham and the hotel in which he stays sums up much of what is unsettling about early 21st-century Britain:
So Birmingham has this contrast between soft and hard, safe zones and danger zones. Soft-and-safe is shopping, marketing, luxury, self-indulgence; chatting to your friend on your mobile phone as you walk through the Mailbox, a luxury shopping centre housing the BBC headquarters. Soft is my hotel, the slick Malmaison, which is "premium marketing-designed" in that terribly British way.

By "premium marketing-designed" I mean that graphic designers and marketers have made something over to allow it to pass as a luxury product and therefore command inflated prices. It's rebranding something upmarket not based on any really expensive new contents, but on a series of luxury signifiers. It's very British, because Britain doesn't really want to put the time and love into really improving quality of life, but it does want to hoist prices.


The room -- tastefully decorated with low-hanging orange and brown lampshades -- is full of amusing signs. Instead of "Shampoo" and "Conditioner" and "Do Not Disturb" and "Please Make Up Room", the signs say "Soft as a feather" and "Fresh as a daisy" and "I want to be alone" and "Room upside down" (printed, cleverly, upside down).

So, a few slipping glimpses of an unfamiliar town in my motherland. Each time I come back, this country seems harder, slicker -- and softer too, if you can afford the soft bits, that is; the spa, the mortgage on the "exclusive" property. In some ways the megalithic slickness of the post-industrial capitalism here makes Britain resemble Japan.... But there are big differences. It isn't just that the mobile phones people depend on so much here are still (ten years after my web-capable Nokia) unable to offer full web access, let alone video like their Japanese counterparts. It's not just that Japan has protected its small businesses, or that it retains a sense that it's worth doing things well for their own sake (rather than just marketing things as "luxuries"). Japanese citizens also have a sense of basic kindness, respect, trust and discretion towards each other.
I'm not familiar with Japan, but I think much of the above also applies in some way to Germany, even though some of the same trends affecting Britain can be (more subtly) noticed here too.

German thoroughness may not be the sexiest of national traits, but it does mean attending to substance as well as surface and function as well as form. There is much less tendency merely to rely on the ethereal hype of PR and instead to actually offer something different or better. (This is, after all, a country which still makes things rather than just selling them.) The corporatist impulse which, it is true, may not be as 'dynamic' as Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism has meant that forms of social 'solidarity' (though seriously bashed about due to the pressures of reunification and recession) remain meaningful in mainstream politics. A commitment (fraying, but still operative) to avoiding the worst forms of social inequality and maintaining a vibrant public life has meant that the gap between the 'soft' and 'hard' life in Germany remains much less yawning.

That Spiegel story I mentioned above interviews several Britons who have immigrated to Germany, drawn by a greater sense of public safety and the ability to maintain a higher quality of life for less money.

Of course, there are problems in Germany (first among them is high unemployment and second is probably...the inability of most Germans to form orderly queues), but a recent story in the Süddeutsche Zeitung helps - admittedly anecdotally - to put them in perspective: a German sociologist reports taking a group of American colleagues to what is considered a 'bad neighbourhood' in Bremen. The Americans' response: 'How nice!'

Would the same response even be thinkable, I wonder, in the 'danger zones' of Britain?


Anonymous said...

Glad that you found that account of a very brief trip to Brum useful! Of course Germany is an important point of comparison for me, as well as Japan -- I live in Berlin.

I think shabby is still a good word for the UK, but it's also hella slick, so the final impression is some weird and not-quite-right combination of shabby and slick.


J. Carter Wood said...

Momus, thanks for dropping by, and yes, that was very useful. It's funny how sometimes a single brief episode (or in this case just the report of one) can help things fall into place.

Shabby and slick ('shlick'? 'slabby'?) seems to sum at least part of it up. There are, of course, much nicer aspects to the UK (Blighty is not simply blighted). Nor is Germany a utopia (nor, I imagine, is Japan).

But my experience of Germany (living in a variety of smaller cities in the south, mainly, though including a couple trips to Berlin) have helped to provide a new relative pole against which to judge the two other places which - in different ways - I've thought of as 'home': America and the UK.

Enjoy your trip.