Friday, September 15, 2006

Snail-Ways - The New Brit Part 1


A new popular vision of holidaying - where home is simply displaced to familiar places in the sun - increasingly defines much of what it is to be British. Paul Stump tries to keep up

The 'New Brit', a term used - maybe coined by - Jonathan Meades, is everywhere and is quasi- Procrustean - he/she/it is a form that can be moulded into any shape. Almost. For there are parameters, there's an event horizon, there's a physics in the way.

So let's investigate what is constant about New Brits; let's bother with the outer limits later and concentrate on the centre that holds.

The New Brit, as was calamitously testified by the recent shamefaced sneaking-out of figures suggesting another plunge in the numbers of pupils studying foreign languages, doesn't do Abroad, and is making sure that his offspring do it even less than he does. No - that's unfair, he does Abroad, but only an anglophone Abroad, which of course isn't really Abroad at all. It's home. Even better, it's home as we want home to appear.

Go to any pub in the United Kingdom. Anywhere, from the Bull's Head in Craswall on an old sheep drover's track across the Black Mountains to the Shipwright's Arms, a squat lonely inn on the grey-green estuarial marshes near Faversham, Magwitch country. Go to dosser's pubs in Aberdeen or roadhouses on the Hog's Back (ah, the Sunday grills of Surrey), yob yachtsmen's watering holes in Burnham-on-Crouch, tall sad old piles where the Catford dealers go. You'll hear the same.

Holidays are only discussed - or 99% of the time, save for the poncey old bag who goes on about Puerto Pollenca - when they have been taken in the US or below Capricorn in Tri-Nations territory, amongst Boks, Ockers and Kiwis.

On and on they go. The food - quantity not quality, always. The sun - you can't beat it. The cars, always the cars - they feel like they're in Clarksonia. Nobody ever discusses a train journey, or a walk (unless it involved a fight, or the threat of one) in any of these countries.

Barstool behaviour now revolves so much about how much or how often one or another has seen Fort Lauderdale or New York or Boston or the Gold Coast or Dunedin or "LA" or Bondi or Manly or the Cape that it's become a form of conceptual tone-painting.

It's a desperate sign when someone who describes driving a preserved Edsel from Frisco to Vegas, or an investigation of New Zealand's bizarre Rimutaka Railway, or having one of the sightless golden moles of the Namib desert crawl into a sleeping bag actually seems dazzlingly interesting. And despite the fact that hacks keep reminding us in the jollying tone of a World Cup or Olympic opening ceremony that this is supposed to be the world-unifying era of the supra-modem, it's just that once every six months the description of a cruise down the Rhine-Neckar canal or a beachhouse in Croatia or their last year in Marienbad would be as refreshing to pub life as having the Damned's first LP on the jukebox. But because New Brit disdains speaking foreign, this isn't going to happen any time soon.

British xenophobia and ignorance, ingested at the Imperial tit, are touchy, incendiary subjects, and are contingent here. Barmen in Setubal knowing how to say 'no ice'; Watney's Red Barrel, yes, yes, we know all that, and thank you Eric Idle, it was funny then and still is.

Brits don't like cleverness, and I gladly if unfashionably concede that learning a foreign language is fucking difficult. People have said to me, 'oh, you've got a gift'. No; just sheer hard work and falling pathetically and repeatedly in love, and I am still less than mother-tongue in French and can get by in German and reading Dutch is sort-of feasible. 'Just make an effort and they'll understand' is a sad cliche, and woefully wide of the mark in Flanders, but New Brit seems to care less and less about even doing that now. New money means new mobility, and that means instead of replicating native squalor with mushy peas and Worthington E in the sun you can now choose relative exotica - Bubba's All-You-Can-Eat; Biggest T-Bones South of Mobile? - under a sun just as balmy.

There was a time when pub conversation and smalltalk centred around exotica that actually was exotic. A scene in Esmonde and Larbey's craftily vicious The Good Life (1975) has Margo Leadbetter rhapsodising about her forthcoming holiday's overture; 'sundowners at the Stanley - that's in Mombasa, of course'. The scenario was meant to be striking for its exceptionableness rather than the expense of its acquisition. This was a contrast to Surbiton. New Brit sees in his peripatetic Sun Belt shamblings an analogue of ordinariness, except with a higher ambient temperature and more meat on the plate. 'There was Bud, 10cents a bottle all night,' slurred one Northampton slaphead to me about wintering in one of the US's independent brewing centres. What was frightening about this statement was that you knew he was referring to the Anheuser-Busch beverage rather than Budvar's finest. But who the fack drinks that? It's from the Czech Republic. Or somewhere. And nobody goes there, spesh not New Brit.

Those who once holidayed in Monte Carlo, as it was then charmingly known, went for snob appeal, expense (one and the same) and sophistication. Grace and Rainier, the casino, eating lobster the wrong way. Harold Steptoe spent 10 sitcom years dreaming of cultivated and strange accents, and of course - to paraphrase in the vernacular - topless birds with big knockers. If you were rich enough, all your friends and flunkeys spoke English anyway. But they went for the extraordinary; it matters not a jot to me if a couple from Nuneaton landed in St Tropez just because they'd got enough money to sample this difference (my italics). It is identical in kind to a holiday in Leningrad to watch Conservatory pianists practise Scriabin or Rachmaninov in freezing rehearsal halls with ice on the windows, before falling hopelessly for one of the corps de ballet in the Kirov.

Paul Bowles once compared air travel before and after WW2 with the wistful 'somehow, the world had changed'. In Bowles' heyday, one travelled either for adventure or for novelty with bourgeois comfort. In the 1950s those who saved hard and managed to hop a ride on Le Train Bleu or the fabulous Mistral went to see if it was all real - the gloss on the palm leaves, the naked flesh, the turquoise shallows. Now, New Brit hops a bird to Fort Lauderdale or Melbourne to see if Desperate Housewives or Neighbours is real. Much as his prole 50s homologue, he finds it is, or thinks so. It is everything he has ever wanted; cheap, showy, bourgeois display and consumption ('and it's all so tidy, no crime, well, apart from downtown, but nobody goes there, the jungle, that is'). New Brit's dreams are tacky as tinsel, as pricey as pearls. In the colonies, he finds them, and can't get enough. And the key? The language barrier? Only with those fucking spic servants.

Given that most English now consists of brand names and slang and management-speak shared around the anglophone world, it's hardly surprising that New Brit finds his centre of gravity where there are just as many people as boring as him, as secretly worried about prostate cancer, who wear the same baseball cap and whose sons can talk about the same Playstation 2s without even the shade of syntactic misunderstanding to intervene.

The Costas? Spain? Never mind the Balearics. Why bother when you don't have to holler at waiter or liftboy, why bother when it's as cheap or cheaper to drink across the border in TJ than it is in Torremolinos?

Brits hate languages. New Brit hates them more - and as long as cheap flights to the moistly welcoming outposts of the language remain, he will go on hating them more and more. Which, for those of us who enjoy the Heuvelland or Chartres or Linz or Salamanca, so much the better. But we spend much more time in pubs here, listening to the anglophone supremacists, than we do over there.

Two vicious cycles. Something must be done.

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