In the Guardian Saturday 17th December 2011, Jonathan Jones discusses how Britain has turned in on itself – a response to an article in the American Vanity Fair by Kurt Anderson. Anderson he says maintains that American styles – its values and meanings, pop culture etc, have not altered significantly over the last 20 years. Jones argues Britain, by contrast, has radically altered over that time. He gives examples of where a new, confident Britain has asserted itself: Tate Modern, the Shard (something in London), River Café , Fat Duck, Martin Amis, Grayson Perry – his ‘icons of the new come and go’ as he puts it.
For Jones, his Britain has been moving towards ‘a new national pride’ – many of us would agree that something of national significance has been happening, particularly this year in Scotland but this is not what Jones has in mind, he is referring to, the Last Night of the Proms and the Gallacher brothers. Jones’ references are all very much limited to an area well to the south of the country.
Jones likes this new assertiveness, this confidence which ‘strengthens our national self-regard’ – and it is undoubtedly a good thing that every nation should feel exactly that kind of confidence about itself. Yet, yet, the article oozes a distinct lack of awareness about anything going on around the fringes of – not Britain – but England.
The patriotism he posits is ‘a modern British vibe’ – and again he points to the likes of Blumenthal (Fat Duck) to epitomise this ‘vibe’. Blumenthal apparently is into British recipes going back to Tudor times. So is this Britain, Jones writes about really England after all? The Tudors were English monarchs but the Romans did call England Britain so he is right to use this term, except we now, and I think Jones as well, regard Britain as something larger, encompassing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. His other food reference is to a book called English Seafood Cookery. Doesn’t Scotland have the largest fishing fleets in Britain and we have top chefs and food writers but evidently this too has failed to impinge on Jones’ consciousness. Oh, and there’s a picture of the roast beef of old England.
Jones makes sweeping generalisations which are factually wrong. He says Thatcherism became broadly accepted in Britain – pure nonsense, it was totally rejected in Scotland and I’m fairly sure in Wales as well, and the culture inherited from Thatcher is not rife throughout the whole of the UK, although I am sure it is alive and well in parts of the south-east of England.
From food to conceptual art, Jones goes on and on dredging out examples of British supremacy – Hirst, Emin, Sam Taylor Wood – I’d have thought in the light of Lynne Ramsay’s recent success she might have got a mention. No. Her inclusion could have strengthened his argument about British success but her exclusion highlights another of his assertions that there is something understood as British culture. There isn’t. Scotland and England have distinct cultural traditions. Come to Scotland and speak about the so-called historian Starkey and you would get a very different response from Jones’ adulation.
Starkey is Jones’ ideal historian. He says he can’t get enough of his books. Strikes me he has confined himself too much to the small-minded Starkey interpretation of the past. Holding up Starkey as an enlightened analyst of our times is surely far-fetched. Starkey who regards British history as ‘mono cultural’ flies in the face of reality.
As patriotism sweeps the nation, Jones wonders if there is a downside to this national emotion. No, not a hint he has registered the vote for the SNP last May. Two kinds of nationalism, Jones? Mono cultural? Really?
He dallies over literature. Foreign fiction gets short shrift for falling out of favour but this is nonsense – think of the huge success of Mankell, Larsson, The Killing etc. In their stead he cites a book about Tudor England.
This article is a sad piece of writing which says nothing of any value about the state of Britain. It is sloppily researched and culturally and politically myopic – a little England cocksure Anglo-centric rant.
The self-confident mood which has swept Scotland from last May is the elephant in Jones’ piece. This assertiveness of national confidence and determination is no demon, as Jones defines nationalism (although he isn’t thinking Scotland here, as Scotland is nowhere to be found other than a single mention of Trainspotting). What occurred last May was a positive awakening of a subjugated nation whose own achievements have gone largely unrecognised and uncelebrated by its domineering neighbour.
Jones slips uncomprehendingly between Britain and England. His Britain is what is immediately surrounding him. He doesn’t look too far to find what he wants. What he wants to see is what he knows. He may not be xenophobic but it is clear he fails to understand the concept of Britain and has limited awareness of the real cultural and political identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or if he does he has failed to show them here.