Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Imagine


Around this time of year, as the shops really start to crank up the Christmas machine, I am often struck by the decline in the standard of our public imagination. Christmas, of course, is entirely built out of inauthentic cliches, mainly borrowed ones. When, for example, did "red ribbon tied in a bow" come to signify "a Christmas gift" in this country? Angrily twisted sticky tape would be nearer the mark. I suppose it's no worse, as a signifier, than "snow". Do you remember the excitement when your favourite comic would arrive in the week before Christmas with the masthead topped with snow? And the baffling sense of anti-climax, when it never did snow before New Year?

But Christmas is not the only stimulus for my glumness, however. It really starts with the lead up to Remembrance Sunday. I think the concept of "the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier" is a piece of public imaginative theatre so brilliant and so moving that it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. We used to do it so well, didn't we? How could a country -- once capable of such an original, appropriate and unsentimental act of therapeutic symbolism -- sink so low?

Look around you at our civic, industrial and retail architecture. Everywhere, flat-pack buildings with all the aesthetic appeal of a carpet tile, all the pride and permanence of a closing-down sale; mere factory farms for the incubation of "imaginative and innovative solutions" that are nothing of the sort. Worse, look at these huge new national institutions we've had wished on us, like the National Lottery or Children in Need. How tacky, how predictable, how unworthy they are!



And then, this year, the Ashes series is about to be contested in Australia. Never mind the cricket, what an amazing idea that little urn of ashes was, what a focus of imagination and engagement it represents! Especially looked at from this era, when the iconic trophies and contests of sport have become mere brand vehicles for the highest commercial bidder. We have gone from stripey-blazered Corinthians to shell-suited chameleons in a couple of generations.

The private imagination, though, does seem intact. We're actually living through something of a Golden Age of the Arts. It's the public domain that seems to have atrophied; we're no longer giving it our best attention. Everything is now measured by "good enough", "just in time", "one size fits all", and above all, "value for money". That is, "bad", "late", "too small", and "cheap". It seems we're now prepared to sit back and watch hard-won public national treasures -- our Health Service, our Civil Service, our schools and universities, council housing, trades unions, legal aid (this list could get appallingly long) -- abolished, sold off, or irreversibly cheapened.

"Privatization" doesn't just mean flogging off the national family silver; it describes a nation retreating mentally and physically from the public arena into the private realm, watching comforting but unimaginative rubbish on TV while real rubbish blows uncollected in the pot-holed streets outside. Imagine!


15 comments:

helen said...

Like your images very much and I liked your title. It reminded me of John Lennon's song. He has been in the press a lot recently.

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Well Mike, what a fine grump you have on today. In that spirit; a bountiful bah humbug to you as well! 8-)

Really like the last image; I'm always taken by man's creations, setting sun, and nobody home.

Mike C. said...

It's the bein' so cheerful as keeps me goin', sir!

Mike

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Well, sir! Your last comment has upended my work schedule, as I'm forced to wander the dusty corners of the interweb in search of Mona Lott, Tommy Handley, et al., and ITMA.

# "I don’t mind if I do"
"After you, Claude - no, After you Cecil" (Moving men)
# "TTFN" (Ta ta for now)
"I am as happy as a sandbag" All phrases from a show that ended before I was born, and yet they have lived on.

Thanks!

Bron

Mike C. said...

Excellent! Shall I do you now, sir?

Mike

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Mike, Apparently, ITMA has lived on.

I think "Claude and Cecil" was "borrowed" from a much older bit, with Laurel and Hardy.

I wonder if all the Yanks in Britain during the war listened as well.

And, how do you answer a double entendre?

Bron

Mike C. said...

For real gold-plated BBC radio filth, you need to listen to a series from the 1960s called "Round the Horne". Wonderful! Hard to imagine how they got it past the censors -- we used to listen to it as a family at Sunday lunch time. Obviously, 90% of the audience was oblivious, not least because the exchanges between some characters was in a gay slang "polari". It's still very funny.

For 100% unparalleled originality and catchprases that simply won't wash out, though, you need "The Goon Show" -- I don't know whether that ever crossed the Atlantic (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe) but it is as permanently tattooed on the cortex of any Brit over 50 as Monty Python.

"I got the time writted on a piece of paper". Sheer class.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

A good point from our last correspondent. Recently at a gig, the artist was commenting on trying to buy a glass of wine at the bar:

"Have you got the wine of the month, the Chardonnay?"

"No sorry, sir."

"Pinot Grigio?"

"No, sorry sir."

"Have you got a Semillon?"

"No sir, just pleased to see you."

Mike C. said...

Brilliant! Our country may be going down the tubes, and we may have a royal wedding to endure, but our double entendres are still world class!

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

The girl asked him for a definition of "double entendre", so he gave her one. . . . I'll get my coat . . .

Steve said...

When you started speaking about flat-pack buildings I wondered if you'd been reading Owen Hatherley's new book.

Mike C. said...

Steve,

No, but I think I read a review of the book you mean ("A Guide to the New Ruins of Britain") recently. Isn't he the guy who likes towerblocks? Having grown up in one myself (albeit one tipped on its side) I feel uncommonly qualified to speak on the subject: they're pretty grim.

I think there are a lot of us who know something's gone wrong, and can write eloquent Jeremiads on the subject, but no-one seems to have a remedy for putting it right. I used to be fairly (alright, extremely) left-wing, but have learned things about human nature in my latter years (for a start, I've stopped denying that there is such a thing as human nature...)

I think we're all "Waiting for Everyman", in the words of that wise but sad Jackson Browne song.

Mike

Gavin McL said...

Well I like the middle one - and enjoyed the grump.

If we're talking about double entendres then mention should be made of Humphrey Littletons fine and filthy monologue that used to start I'm sorry I haven't a clue

I do miss them

Mike C. said...

Gavin,

Yes, Jack Dee doesn't really fill dear old Humph's shoes, does he? I thought they should drop the show completely when he died.

On the Remembrance Day theme, I was always oddly moved by the knowledge that he is the mad guards officer with a trumpet recorded forever leading the revels outside Buckingham Palace on VE Day.

Mike

Gavin McL said...

Yes I know that picture - It does feel special that we know who that crazy trumpet guy is.
He evidently went ashore in Italy carrying his trumpet.
As per your guide to creativity item 9 stick at, make it your day job!

Gavin