World Narrowing: Notes on Britain's Culture War
Hal G.P. Colebatch
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, interviewed in Newsweek in 1998, said films like The Full Monty about a group of unemployed men in the dying industrial town of Sheffield who became male strippers reflected a new mood: “Not merely in the sense that it’s a highly successful film, and that says something about the state of the British film industry now. There’s a great sense of confidence and adventure and a greater sense of comfort with ourselves.” The country, he declared, was thereby discovering an exciting view of its future: “look, what we’re actually good at is being inventive, creative, dynamic and outward-looking”. In 2001 a live sequence was shown before the Queen, who had already seen many naked men gyrating when touring colourful parts of her Commonwealth.
The 1999 American film October Sky is the true story of a group of boys growing up in a dying and hopeless American coal town in 1957, with basic company schooling and little to look forward to except a few years cultivating black-lung disease. They built and launched model rockets, taught themselves physics, chemistry, trigonometry, metallurgy, machining and systems-control. All became successful and their leading light eventually became a leading N.A.S.A. scientist. I would like to think that after his praise of The Full Monty, Blair may be subjected to a viewing of October Sky.
Seldom can the difference between two cultures have been so sharply illustrated as in the difference between these two films, made at about the same time and starting from very similar premises. One sees in British culture a stultifying decline in moral and intellectual curiosity and vitality — one goal of the Party in 1984, like the advance of Newspeak, which does appear to be in the process of being fulfilled. Former Sports Minister Kate Hoey proclaimed: “This Government has been a huge supporter of football.” Paul Hayward has commented:
“Soccer provides the perfect synthesis between pop, sport and the cat-walk. Its modern icons date Spice Girls and dye their hair a la David Beckham . . . Britain’s gleaming all-seater stadiums are the new cathedrals . . .”
This is proletarianised culture. An essential part is nihilistic rock-stars at Downing Street and now also soon at Buckingham Palace receptions, crime-ridden slum housing, useless sink-schools, vicious prisons and lethal health services, and briefly, a kind of pervasive squalor and stagnation. These are as necessary as the castles the Normans erected in Saxon England or the colossal statues of Lenin and Stalin that the Red Army brought to Eastern Europe: symbols of triumph and conquest. D. J. Enright has quoted a television listing: “That awful cliché, a message of hope.” Most of the rest of the evening’s viewing has to do with murder, sexual problems and sick comedy. No mention of awful clichés there. 1
In the new proletarianised culture, The Wind in the Willows is as bad as the work of Dante or Aquinas, or Newton, Einstein or Edison. The Natural History Museum, cathedral to science, is ultimately under as much threat as is Winchester Cathedral. The heritage of civilisation is doomed simply for being what it is. Ugliness, squalor and ignorance are culturally and politically necessary, and not only to provide employment for members of the caring professions.
Ignorance as Culture-Weapon
For the politically-correct Newton’s Principa Mathematica is a “rape manual” because “science is a male rape of female nature”. Beethoven’s music attracts similar strictures. A survey published in Country Life in October 2000, said two-thirds of school-children did not know where acorns came from and four out of ten did not know in which season harvest-time fell. It was reported in February 2001, that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority proposed Shakespeare be dropped from the English education system entirely, along with a requirement to study classical novelists and poets. The only requirement would be to study one novel. Journalist and creative writing teacher Philip Hensher, writing in TheSpectator of 17 February 2001, told of marking the work of a class of would-be journalists: “These were people who were mostly studying for A-levels in media studies . . . The standard of literacy in their written work was roughly what I would have expected to find 25 years ago in the work of one of the less able classes of nine-year-olds in an inner-city state school.” In a quite extraordinary initiative the French and German Ambassadors published an article in the same issue of The Spectator on the very poor knowledge of foreign languages in Britain, with fewer than 5 per cent of all British A-level students leaving state schools with a language qualification.
Other surveys showed large numbers of school-children ignorant of the most basic facts of history and geography including in some cases, as Roy Kerridge recounted in The Story of Black History, published in 1998, what country they lived in.
In August 2001, the O.E.C.D. released figures indicating that the proportion of 17-year-olds receiving education or training in Britain was lower than in almost all other industrialised countries, including Poland, Ireland, Spain and Italy, and barely ahead of Greece. According to other official figures 7,000,000 adults in Britain, out of a total population (including children) of about 59 million, lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills. Another O.E.C.D. study of 28 countries showed that an average of 66 per cent of those aged 35 to 44 had “upper secondary” qualifications, with the British figure being 63 per cent, just below the average. With 25 to 34-year-olds the average was 72 per cent and the British figure was 66 per cent, showing a widening gap. A survey in January 2001, indicated only one in six British school pupils correctly identified Sir Winston Churchill as Britain’s Prime Minister during World War II, nearly one in 20 thinking that role had been occupied by Adolf Hitler. A quarter of those questioned did not know in which century the First World War had taken place.
Knowledge of geography seemed comparable to that of history: according to an N.O.P. survey a few months later, 13 per cent of eight to 16-year-olds could not locate Britain on a map, 53 per cent could not locate London on a map of the British Isles, 60 per cent could not name the language spoken in Tokyo, and 82 per cent did not know the Acropolis was in Greece.
As far as juvenile knowledge of theology went, a survey conducted for a B.B.C. documentary found a large number of children identified God with the Prime Minister. The producer said, “I think it is because they are all authority figures.” However, asked what the Prime Minister did all day, one six-year-old said: “He wakes up, gets dressed, sits in his chair, reads the newspapers, switches on a very old-fashioned telly to see what’s happening on the news, then says, ‘Oh Dear!’.”
In August 2001, there was a reported shortage from more than 100 local education authorities of 3,500 full-time teachers. The real figure was much higher. Other teaching posts were often filled by foreign teachers with dubious qualifications or command of English, from countries such as Bulgaria. Head-teachers admitted in one survey in September 2001 that more than one in five teachers were not suitable for the jobs they would be asked to do. The head of one comprehensive school admitted appointing two people who “had walked in off the street with no qualifications”. Not only mathematics, science and technology, but even English and history were among the hardest subjects to recruit teachers for.
In August 2001, John Randall, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, responsible for inspecting University teaching, resigned in protest when most of the higher education inspection system was scrapped. Mr. Randall, who had headed the agency since it was established in 1997, said all students would suffer from being denied independent information about the quality of courses but particularly those who were the first in their family to go to University. Professor Anthony Gibbons, head of the London School of Economics and reportedly a close friend of Prime Minister Blair, had threatened to refuse to allow assessors on the premises.
A-level passes continued to rise as standards were lowered. Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools from 1994 to 2001, said:
“Bog standard comprehensive schools have failed, the Prime Minister’s spokesman tells us, to deliver. The time of the bog standard university has, it seems, come . . . [I]f it were not so tragic it would be comical.”
At one level there are large vested interests who do not want an educated population as this would deprive them of their base of voters and clients. It might be said that with an Adversary Culture Nomenklatura committed to an attack on core values, widespread improvement in education is impossible: every type of cultural pressure militates against it.
British cinema and television have made little use of the opportunities of modern electronics and special effects including digital editing. Since 1995 nearly £100 million of National Lottery money has gone into the British film-making industry. Little of quality has emerged. There are exceptions, but a broad-brush picture in certain colours is unmistakable. British cinema seems largely mired in a dark version of social realism at a time when great advances in electronics and special effects should have a hugely liberating effect on what film-making can do with the imaginative resources of Britain’s heritage. British special effects technology has played a very large part in the American film industry. No use blaming lack of money: George Lucas made the first episode of Star Wars on borrowed funds.
The great stories, fact or fiction, celebrate courage, initiative, endurance, valour, achievement, nobility, goodness. The idea of celebrating invention or achievement or industry seems archaic and improbable today, part of the discounted middle-culture (and this in the country that made the industrial revolution). In the two centuries of turbulence since the French Revolution, the health and wealth of mankind in most of the world has increased immeasurably. Credit must go overwhelmingly to scientists, inventors, engineers, medical researchers and a few economists. Are none of them worth celebrating? Blair claimed: “Nobody cares about the past any more, except for nostalgia.” 2 What do they care about? Britain has more than 90 Nobel Prize-winners — the largest number in the world after the United States — but one is hard-put to recall that the life or achievements of a single one have been celebrated, at least in recent British cinema. America made Apollo 13, the story of saving the crippled space-craft and its crew from beyond the moon in almost impossible circumstances. A British story about Michael Foale and saving Mir would be out of touch with the Zeitgeist. I do not see why it should not be successful. Foale himself is available as a consultant — an advantage some historical epics lack — and even the sets and effects should not be very expensive given that most of the action would be inside the space-station. We are talking about the country that once made The Sound Barrier.
In British films, where, at the start of the 21st century was the gentle, sunny comedy of Genevieve or True as a Turtle? Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was made in America. The film version The Lord of the Rings, a worthy rendering of that great epic, which had been specifically written to create a kind of mythology for Englishness, was made in New Zealand, by a New Zealand director, with American money (eight weeks after release it was well on its way to taking its second billion dollars).
Darkness as Culture-Weapon
The B.B.C. has been placed to an unprecedented degree under the control of Nomenklatura individuals linked with the Labour Party as well as with the Adversary Culture. Both the Director-General, Greg Dyke, and the Chairman, Gavyn Davies, were not merely Labour supporters but gave money to the Party. Davies’s wife ran Gordon Brown’s office and Blair had stayed at his holiday home. In January 2001, Dyke called the B.B.C. “hideously white”. The irreverent Taki speculated on the possible reaction had he described the British Olympic team as hideously black.
The B.B.C., envisaged by its creator Lord Reith as a beacon of cultural edification, was becoming a major instrument of proletarianisation and nihilism in the culture war. Former Blair advisor Tim Allen wrote in TheSpectator of 23 February, 2002:
“Flick through last week’s Radio Times and you will find that one channel was showing some pretty remarkable programmes . . . Porn Star, described as ‘A visit to the set of an adult film shoot at a house in California, featuring interviews with the director and one of the stars.’ . . . Nude TV, in which, apparently, ‘the most private and misunderstood part of a man’s anatomy is laid bare.’ And if that doesn’t turn you on, how about Toilets: Fear, Phobia and Fetish, a documentary on Saturday uncovering ‘some of the secrets behind closed cubicles’?”
So which trashy satellite channel has stooped so low as to compete for viewers by screening porn and crap? Well, it is the B.B.C., actually. The corporation’s new digital channel, B.B.C. Choice, appears to be packing its late-evening schedule with precious little else. Its early-evening schedule is hardly more highbrow. Last week it managed to cram in 26 hours of gameshows and 12 hours of showbiz news and chat.
And the great news is that the B.B.C. has asked the Government’s permission to double the channel’s £50 million annual budget.
Allan suggests this is part of a relentless competition for ratings. But it is essentially political: forcible cultural proletarianisation to destroy middle-culture and values, and, ultimately, the Conservative Party’s support-base as well. Davies dismissed critics as “southern, white, middle-class, middle-aged and well-educated”.
As the Queen’s jubilee approached, the B.B.C. put out a directive that celebrations should be covered “critically” — the obvious sub-text being that any spontaneous expressions of patriotism, loyalty or other positive emotions should be ridiculed. 3 In February 2001, the Television Standards Panel ruled, following a complaint, that it is not considered offensive to call Queen Elizabeth a ‘“bitch” on the B.B.C. “if the remark is made by a black person”. Peter Mullen wrote in the Salisbury Review of Spring, 2002:
“Then there are the British children’s drama series which are also set in schools: Grange Hill and Byker Grove. All the children in these schools are scruffy and ill-mannered. I once raised the issue of uncouth behaviour in such as Grange Hill with one of its producers. He replied, without a hint of irony or shame, that he wanted to make the programme ‘realistic.’ In other words, Grange Hill is what State schools are like in real life. Quite: real live thugs and yobs watch Grange Hill and Byker Grove and have their thuggery and yobbery reinforced. And on the usual spurious grounds that ‘art’ has to be like life only more exaggerated, the thugs and yobs of the series have got to be more thuggish and yobbish than those in real life. The consequence is that life mimics art and real schoolchildren aim to behave as outrageously as their fictional counterparts.”
Moral issues are raised in the British schools series, after a manner. The subjects constantly paraded for our attention are bullying, drug-taking, domestic violence, racism, sexism and the difficulties faced by single-parent families — in other words the whole repertoire of the fashionable, left-wing social agenda. Once again the producers defend this debasement of public taste and reality. A.I.D.S. and rape are favourite themes, of course. And, when it comes to sexual relationships, there is much preaching of the only remaining injunction: “Wear a condom.” Have these producers no understanding that drama is meant to be a form of moral education, cathartic and even redemptive? A generation ago there were television and radio series for children which were often hugely entertaining, often amusing and highly-regarded while they took the human world seriously: The Barlows of Beddington and Jennings, for example, which were set in public schools. Moreover, these programmes were about something: they had moral content. Terence Rattigan’s excellent 1964 stage play The Winslow Boy, which was subsequently made into a universally-popular film mocked and derided by the apparachiks who produce Grange Hill is an example of a form of class distinction that has no place in the “modern” world. Can’t the producers of the lumpenproletarian shambles of Grange Hill see that it is a far worse case of class warfare? Yes, one is afraid they can. They know whose side they are on.
A few days after this was published Lord Dubs, chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, said television broadcasters were increasingly breaching guidelines against showing sex, violence and bad language in hours when children were most likely to be watching, criticising programmes including EastEnders, Coronation Street, and Brookside for increasing obsessions with story-lines involving drug-taking, rape and incest (including, on the B.B.C.’s EastEnders, mother-son incest, though presumably without the high art of Oedipus Rex). In August 2001, the B.B.C. decided to increase the showing of EastEnders to three nights a week.
This proletarianisation is not in response to market-demand but is being forced. What is the most successful recent film presentation of school-life, a film at the end of which the juvenile audience actually applaud? Harry Potter, which is set in a traditional English public school (only more so), with uniforms, houses, prefects, discipline, sports, and a wise and respected headmaster. It is no coincidence that Harry Potter has been furiously attacked by the Adversary Culture Nomenklatura (one journalist who specialises in attacking the Royal Family in the tabloids said it was not intellectually stimulating).
Australian soap-operas have been popular in Britain because, while generally lower-middle class, they tend be far less if at all coloured by nihilism and negativity and to be capable of celebrating life and opportunity. It is no coincidence that they tend to be despised by some of the sadder Australian expatriate intellectual figures. A 1999 Government-backed report, commissioned by B.B.C. Worldwide, Granada, Media International and Pearson Television, “Building a Global Audience,” criticised British television programmes as too “gritty, dark and sociopolitical”.
In 1997 The Lakes portrayed the Lake District, one of the most beautiful parts of Britain, as being at least as drug-ridden, “dark, gritty and socio-political” as the rest of the country, the sub-textual message being that there is no escape, and romance and beauty — perhaps even hope — are delusions of doomed, bourgeois middle-culture. The icon of contemporary British cinema is Trainspotting. Nature Boy said it was all right to be a killer as long as one loved animals and hated capitalism. Recent television detective series are well done technically but mired in political correctness which makes the identities of their villains quite predictable. Positive, celebratory films and books when they appear are often very successful. They are, however, seldom British today. Even the genuinely funny British comedies tend to revolve round themes of defeat, limitation and hopelessness. With a few exceptions the classic British television comedies, like Brushstrokes, Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son and others, with life, affirmation and vigour, tend to be from “the past”. ‘Allo! ‘Allo! with its light-hearted send-ups of every national stereotype (such as Guy Siner’s marvellous Leutnant Gruber), or Keeping up Appearances, seem on the other side of a cultural watershed. Steptoe and Son was an immortal tragi-comedy of the conflict of father and son, with characters worthy of Dickens. Its true successor, Frasier, is American, with the crotchety old policeman father who is a so much shrewder judge of human nature than are his psychiatrist sons. 4 The science-fiction cartoon satire Futurama, with the beautiful cyclops Leela, is, like Frasier, an American production which actually makes some intellectual demands on its audience and is popular and successful because of it. The true successor to William Brown, Bevis and so many other individualistic British boys is also American, the eminently spankable six-year-old hero of Calvin and Hobbes. The successor to Jim Hawkins and Frodo Baggins is Luke Skywalker.
In September 2000, the British Film Institute took a poll among 1,600 producers, writers and critics as to the best 100 British television shows ever. The winner was Fawlty Towers, a choice which gave rise to accusations of elitism. William Deedes commented in the Daily Telegraph that to construe giving first place to the excellent but not very intellectually challenging Fawlty Towers as “elitist” offered a startling commentary on this country’s prevailing cultural standards.
At about the same time it was reported that a low-budget British film Croupier, considered “too intelligent” for home audiences and screened for only two weeks in Britain when released in 1998, had become a major success in America, and was described by some U.S. critics as one of the most outstanding films of recent years.
Orwell was once concerned that a boy’s comic paper portrayed one “hero” as swinging a rubber club, propaganda for and omen of an age that glamorised brutality. In Raffles and Miss Blandish he called reading the “tough” pre-war thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish “a header into the cesspool”. There is now a vogue for “medical-legal thrillers” obsessed with decaying corpses, autopsies, wounds, physical deformities, human and animal torture etc. Crime and detective stories were once largely mental puzzles, and vehicles for characters from Sherlock Holmes to Poirot and Inspector Ghote. Chesterton with Father Brown used detective stories to illuminate aspects of Catholic faith. Now increasingly they appear to be showcases for sadistic pornography, necrophilia and psychopathology.
Examples include The Sett (William Heinemann, London, 1996), written by, somewhat depressingly, the well-known explorer and adventurer Ranulph Fiennes. The book is little more than a compilation of what were apparently the most brutal and stomach-turning images and ideas the author was capable of. Among other things a mother and small daughter are raped, sodomised and buried alive by badger-diggers, the daughter’s jaw being knocked away with a kick first. A pathologist (a homosexual who has been blackmailed into investigating by the bereaved father who before dying of cancer has become a criminal living with a prostitute whose nipples, as I recall, are later burnt off with a clothes iron) digs up the decomposing bodies and reports:
“A second kick or blow has detached the lower maxilla, including the mandible, the palate and dental arch, from the rest of the jaw. Yet she was conscious at the moment of death . . . the daughter’s right hand was clasped vice-like about a tree-root in the narrows of the grave . . . Her body was head down. There was an amount of earth in her mouth and what you would call her wind-pipe . . .”
Six pages in this section are devoted to describing the decomposition of the bodies. The book is nearly 500 pages long, all in much the same tone. Somewhat similar in content is Stanley Pottinger’s The Fourth Procedure, praised by multi-best-selling pap authoress Barbara Taylor Bradford as “[T]he thriller of the year. Great suspense, fast pacing and lots of plot twists make it hard to put down. You won’t want to until you’ve read the last page.” There are many other such books but this is probably enough publicity for the genre.
The B.B.C. chose as Britain’s official song to celebrate the new Millennium an old Rolling Stones hit whose lyrics included:
“If I could stick a knife in my heart/ Suicide right on stage/ Would that be enough for your teenage lust.”
A B.B.C. spokesman commented, “If it is to have a positive effect, we must have a song which works and is credible with world-class performers.” Proceeds would go to the Children’s Promise millennium charity, set up by the Prime Minister.
After one gun-massacre by American school-children in April 1999, Hugh Gurdon wrote in the Daily Telegraph:
“Civilisation cannot accept and avoid sadistically administered nihilistic violence. Boys who don black trenchcoats for a murder spree are not being spontaneous, but acting out theatrical parts. If society does not know gloating murder is unsuitable as a form of entertainment, why should they?”
In May 2001, the Royal Shakespeare Company was producing a play described by The Spectator’s critic in the following terms:
“[T]oenails are extracted and nipples threatened with excision by razor . . . later, as the corpses and attendant jokey banter multiply, most of the audience decided that the whole thing was a comic romp and treated it accordingly. And it was this reaction which left me more alarmed than anything else, for it seemed we had all become party to the milking of unspeakable wickedness for mirth and entertainment . . .”
It is common to claim previous generations protested at the alleged decadence of Elvis Presley or Bing Crosby, and that books and plays now considered innocuous were once banned. The point invariably implied is that each generation is unreasonably censorious of the entertainment of the next generation, which is in fact not harmful at all. To be shocked by it or to protest against it is to show oneself outdated and marked for death. It is, however, possible to come to a quite different conclusion: that there is a progression taking place, and entertainment actually is becoming more vicious.
Superstition as Culture-Weapon
Brother Guy Consolmagno Ph.D., S.J., a distinguished scientist and priest working as an astronomer at the Vatican observatory, wrote:
“[F]or every serious book of science in a bookstore, there’s a whole shelf of astrology and U.F.O. nonsense also promising to give you the ‘secret knowledge’ of the universe . . . gnosticism . . . The New Age is the place where bad religion meets bad science.” 5
British astrologer Jonathan Caines revealed that he commanded an income of more than £1 million annually - despite Astrology’s failure to predict any important events such as the fall of Communism, the death of Princess Diana or the 11 September terrorism. At the end of the 20th Century authors could make fortunes by writing books identifying vaguely pointed shapes allegedly reproduced from ancient Sumerian inscriptions as space-rockets. One ludicrous best-seller claimed the word “Nephilim”, mentioned cryptically and briefly in the Old Testament, translated as “people of the rockets.” A Harvard academic investigated why so many people believed they had been abducted by Space-Aliens, and came to the conclusion that it was because they really had been. There was a new issue of the works of Mr. Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, a Tibetian Lama whose soul, it was found upon investigation, had transmigrated into the body of an English plumber. Readers’ comments on amazon.com’s web-site indicated lively international interest in it. Niall Ferguson, Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, wrote: 6
“Just lately, I have begun to fear that I am living in a neo-medieval society . . . It is the revival of superstition which alarms me . . . how else are we to explain the huge success of (for example) a book such as The Bible Code, a ludicrous piece of neo-cabalastic claptrap which claims a secret message can be extracted from the text of the Scriptures by giving the original letters and words numerical equivalents. To my astonishment, this has been one of the year’s publishing successes.
Until recently, I had always supposed the basic achievements of the Enlightenment were pretty secure . . . Yet now I realise I was too optimistic. For not only are ordinary people reading superstitious tosh like The Bible Code. Increasingly, they are behaving with all the irrationality of medieval peasants . . . the achievements of the Enlightenment are under attack in universities, too . . . ”
The Times of 15 December 2001 carried a bizarre story (Times writer Mike Hume referred to it again on 31 December 2001 and 5 January 2002, and it also appeared in the Edmonton Journal of 30 December 2001 and on the Internet) to the following effect.
In August, during a family holiday on the Mexican Riviera, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie went through a “rebirthing ritual.”
The Blairs stayed at the very swanky Maroma Hotel near Cancun, where rooms fetch as much as $1,800Cdn a night. While there, they underwent the hybrid New Age/Mayan ceremony.
Dressed only in bathing suits, Britain’s first couple stood outside a brick pyramid on the hotel’s grounds and bowed towards each point of the compass while chanting to each of the four winds.
The spiritual leader of the ceremony encouraged them “to feel at one with Mother Earth”, TheTimes reported, and to “experience inner feelings and visions”.
The Blairs then moved around the middle of he pyramid, one facade at a time, praying first to the Mayan symbols of the sun and baby lizards, signifying spring and childhood. They then prayed to another wall, on which a bird was painted, expressing adolescence, summer and freedom. On the third was a crab for maturity and autumn, and finally a serpent for maturity and transformation.
Moving inside, Tony and Cherie immersed themselves in the herb-infused mist of a Mayan steam bath to sweat the physical and spiritual impurities from their bodies and to “balance the energy flow”.
Mayan holy songs were incanted as they meditated and attempted to conjure up visions of animals in the steamy air. The celebrant explained the meaning of each of their hallucinations.
Before emerging from the pyramid, the Blairs were instructed to give voice to their hopes and fears (they said a prayer for world peace) and then undergo a “rebirth”.
This involved smearing one another with papaya and watermelon, then with mud from the Mayan jungle outside, TheTimes explained.
Finally, while exiting the womb-door of the pyramid, “the Blairs were told to scream out loud to signify the pain” of birth. They then walked hand-in-hand to the beach for a dip.
Edmonton Journal columnist Lorne Gunter commented that Mrs. Blair was said to be a devotee of many kinds of alternate therapies and spiritualisms. She was said to wear a “bio-electric shield” pendant filled with magic crystals to absorb the negative radiations of cellphones and computer terminals. She studied with a New Age guru and had officially opened a holistic medical centre in November 2001. “Imagine,” he commented, “if the Blairs had instead joined in an ecstatic, full-immersion Christian baptism . . .”
If this story was correct, and it was not denied by Downing Street, it seems significant that it had not broken for nearly six months, and had then had such limited exposure. Mrs. Blair, in the habit of wearing a sari to Hindu functions, also took to wearing a Hindu bindii (marking between the eyebrows).
Dumb and Dumber
Steven Glover wrote in TheSpectator of 11 August 2001:
“Since Monday of last week TheSun has covered its front page every day with some aspect of Big Brother, or another equally brainless and voyeuristic programme . . . called Survivor. That is nine successive days. TheDaily Star has missed only two days over the same period. The Mirror, having described itself as the Big Brother paper while the programme was showing, has oddly become rather superior, restricting itself to more ruminative inside pieces . . .”
TheSun alone, Glover pointed out, was read by almost one in four of the adult population of the country.
Certainly in one of its aspects the Government would like a more intelligent society, yet it is allied with both political interests and cultural influences that militate against this. The adversary culture has a vested interest against intelligence. When the former Sports Minister boasted: “The Government has been a huge supporter of football”, what social and cultural result did she expect? Blair claimed: “Our rock music is taking America by storm”, rather than “Our chess is taking America by storm” (how many have heard of British champions Michael Adams or Nigel Short?) or “Our inventions are taking America by storm.”
There is another point here: the more dumbed-down a culture becomes, the less likely it seems that a politically-significant part of the population will be able to question complex legislation or even political scandals. The most obvious example is legislation affecting Britain’s sovereignty and the European Union, but the same applies to all manner of other social-engineering legislation. Not only will a dumbed-down population tend not to be interested, but fewer and fewer forums will exist where such matters can even be discussed.
The Midland Bank decided to dumb-down its arts sponsorship, giving £1 million to a rock festival, abandoning its long-term commitment to the Royal Opera House and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, which a bank spokesman categorised as “elitist and old-fashioned”. Another bank, NatWest, sold two panoramas of Eighteenth Century London by Antonio Joli for £1.7 million to buy so-called “Britart”, including works by exhibitors at the Sensations exhibition. 7
Robert Stevens, former Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, wrote in The Spectator of 14 July 2001:
“At Yale Law School the library is now open 24 hours a day, staffed professionally. I returned to Oxford to find the Bodleian talking of closing at 7 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. I never cease to marvel at the wonderful provisions and intellectual excitement at Princeton, and the think-tank at Stanford. I returned to find All Souls, which comes closest to having the resources to be the centre for the study of humanities in England, taking pleasure in issuing a press release about its fellows dancing around the quadrangles under the leadership of a wooden duck.”
In April 2000, the University of Staffordshire was offering a course in David Beckham studies, presumably to complement as a complete modern education the course in Princess Diana Studies on offer from a Welsh University. Will a chair of Paula Yates studies follow? Meanwhile Napier University in Edinburgh (Edinburgh!) commenced a course titled: “Having the Donut and Eating It: Self-Reflexivity in The Simpsons.” (In Australia the Adelaide University introduced a course on Buffy the Vampire-Slayer, which deserved a better fate. The possibilities that might arise from conflating this with the Diana course, or perhaps of a double major in Buffy and Diana studies, seemed endless.) The B.B.C. said Frank Muir’s best-selling memoirs A Kentish Lad were “too literary” to serialise. In the New Statesman, John Colvin wrote of “increasingly infantile television, radio and newspapers, condemned by their own practitioners”. 8 The continual trends in newspapers were to larger pictures and type-faces and fewer words, as well, even in major metropolitan papers, as elementary errors of historical fact and grammatical mistakes
On looking at much contemporary popular culture and publications, and in particular the contemporary media, from the top to the bottom of the market range, it is tempting to believe there has actually been a genetic deterioration - that too many of the best and brightest have gone to the newer settler societies or lie childless in graves in India and Flanders. One argument against this deterioration being a reflection of a genetic decline is that it seems too recent, too precipitous and too universal.
The ultimate icon of Cool Britannia, Princess Diana, believed in astrology and resorted to the (apparently unhelpful) predictions of “witch-women”. Some clairvoyants in the astrology-obsessed women’s magazines give advice on complex personal, medical and legal matters. Presumably the wretches who write in for this advice take these soothsayers seriously, but what of those of more intelligence and resources who also buy these publications? Why do they make no protest on behalf of their less fortunate sisters? One woman with sixteen years’ experience on these magazines made the point that: “Editors and most of the staff regard their readers with total contempt,” though it is a little surprising that they should consider themselves in a position to feel contempt for anyone else.
Writing in The Spectator of 15 September 2001, Peter Osborne invoked a scene of cultural and personal decadence in another key. He had been covering Blair’s speech to the T.U.C. conference four days previously:
“Bill Morris, the T.G.W.U. boss who was chairing the conference, stood up and announced that a calamity had occurred and that the Primer Minister’s speech had been delayed. The delegates . . . remained in their seats and listened to yet more details about composite motions. I did not see one trade unionist leave the chamber to seek more information.”
1. D. J. Enright, Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (O.U.P., Oxford, 1995), page 131.
2. The Spectator, 11 December 1999.
3. Weekly Telegraph, 6 February 2002.
4. Also, a neurotic psychiatrist is intrinsically funnier and less simply tragic than a neurotic rag-and-bone man.
5. Brother Guy Consolmagno, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2000), page 87.
6. Daily Telegraph, 11 November 1997.
7. Daily Telegraph, 26 February 1998.
8. The New Statesman, 27 September 1999.
National Observer No. 53 - Winter 2002