October 24, 2011

In May's Britain, a lonely authentic voice

We're now on the third generation of Englishmen A.E. - After Empire. The 40-somethings of the UK are the grandchildren of the Men Who Lost the British Empire, somewhere between Jutland and Malaya.

Even more than their elders, this generation seems slightly discombobulated by the resulting vacuum. I've never had anyone actually stand up during a business meeting and scream "what the hell happened?!?" but wouldn't be surprised if they did. It weighs heavily. It is particularly noticeable for an American, as they tug at your sleeve, looking at you urgently as if there were something you must understand, but they are forbidden by their masters to tell you what it is.

Even as a tourist walking around London the memories impose themselves. It's a bit daunting to walk down the street and see Clive looking down on you: "Credited with securing India." Well done. Or Chinese Gordon, who put down the Taiping Rebellion, refused financial compensation (except for an imperial yellow jacket), and, if paintings are to be believed, died in the Sudan while checking his wristwatch.

So it is sobering to think that, with the Scots threatening to opt out and the Welsh inclined to do the same, the City that once ruled the world might soon command only England, a landmass approximately the size of Iowa.

As its armed forces atrophy, the U.K. sinks inexorably into dependence on others for its security. Thatcher was able to arrest the process briefly, but the view today is that the U.K. could not fight a Falklands war with its current capability, another bitter pill for the Admiralty. Admiral Woodward says the Falkland Islanders “are more deserving of our continued support than the wretched citizens of Afghanistan and Libya”. His view is unlikely to prevail, however. Chances are the U.S. will have its way, and the Falklands will one day become the Malvinas.

After that awkward pause in the 60s and 70s, American hegemony is a reality once again for the Anglo-Saxon nations. "American English has a global role at the beginning of the 21st Century comparable to that of British English at the start of the 20th". Anyway, the UK fits right into our territorial plans, and with Fox News running their newspapers, all should be well.

It leaves a bit of a problem around cultural identity. You can't be dethroned from the ultimate fighting championship and then drop 50 spots down the rankings over the next few years and keep the same attitude on life. You're not the big dog anymore. Adjustments, however humbling, must be made.

Some handle it well, some don't. I count three adjustment strategies, each one well-exemplified by a presenter from the wildly popular BBC television series Top Gear:

Anger: One might lash out, full of bravado, hoping that the resonance of one's voice will communicate that however bloodied your nation might be, it remains unbowed. Jeremy Clarkson plays this role in the show, and while I am very fond of his gift for hyperbole (a perfectly brilliant example is here), the overcompensation becomes seriously distracting when he descends to baiting Mexico, or the poorer citizens of whatever country they're filming in. For those who imagine that  Britain has become a nation of impotent, abusive cads, Clarkson, alas, presents a fine target.

Audacity: Well, if you can't shout down your neuroses, you could try standing up to them. A better example of courage, if not cultural sensitivity, is The Hamster, Richard Hammond (all 5'-7" of him). Probably the best driver among the three, he has pulled off some truly daring stunts, pushing the limit so hard that he crashed and nearly died in 2006. Small wonder he idolizes Evel Knievel. I've known more than a few Brits like this. Once they're away from the nanny state they go a little bit crazy, running all sorts of risks. The ones who survive bring some good stories for their mates back home.

Keep Calm and Carry On: But Anger and audacity, however tempting or entertaining, are not really British characteristics. Think of an Englishman you admire. Loudmouth? Showoff?  No...chances are he spoke in a level voice and deflected credit to others, even when he singlehandedly held the position, killing the last Hun with a thrown Wembley.

No seriously, we were at the Tower of London, and they had a list of VC winners. It was this sort of thing, over and over again. Ordinary men, mostly, unexceptional but for one common characteristic: extraordinary calm in the face of greatest adversity. I'm talking about the sort of fellow who, knowing he is slowing down the Scott expedition, decides to go for a walk in a blizzard, saying "I am just going outside and may be some time." Groups of men with this attitude can do amazing things.

I don't wish to suggest that James May is the sort of fellow who would singlehandedly hold off an attacking force of Germans with his Lewis gun, but he is no coward, either. He's driven a Bugatti Veyron to the limit and traveled into space. While doing so, he has generally had the decency to speak in a civil tone. He, or his scriptwriter or agent or image-maker, have worked out that there's room for someone on tv who acts the way the English are supposed to act. The way they used to act when their country mattered.

This is not to say he is David Niven - he can be witty and sardonic, but also sarcastic and profane, although his use of the expletive "oh, cock" is generally well-judged. Some praiseworthy aspects of James May:
  • His approach to picking up women.
  • His disregard for fine distinctions.  "All this is yours for 140,000 pounds. Now that is quite a bit more expensive than Porsche's four-door, the Panamera, but, there are two very good reasons why you should choose the Aston Martin. Firstly, and unlike the Porsche, it does look rather magnificent. And secondly, most importantly, this is quintessentially British. Despite the fact that it's made in Austria. Which I think is in Germany."
  • His Lego house.
  • He's had his delinquent moments, too, but with a few exceptions they affirm a positive view of the man.
Most importantly, he is not constantly straining to stay in character.  While Clarkson is at pains to convince you he is an asshole, and Hammond is overcompensating for God-knows-what, James May is just James May.  More Britons should follow his example.

May's book Car Fever, a compilation of recycled newspaper columns, is lightly entertaining.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

Very nice, very nice.

October 24, 2011 at 10:25 PM  

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