Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

17 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Three): Same Old Boring Theme

I apologise if I’m boring my readers by banging on about Andrew Marr’s Radio Four series, Unmasking the English, the third programme in which was aired this morning. If I am boring you, perhaps this is in part a reflection on the series itself, which is starting to get a bit predictable and repetitive on the boring theme itself.

English daily life is just a little bit (or perhaps a lot) boring; so we need to spice it up by going just a little bit (or a lot) wild in our leisure time – for instance, by such mad pursuits as quad-biking in Northumberland, racing souped-up Volkswagens (good-old English make, that!) in Surrey, hunting foxes (er, before they banned it) or binging on stag weekends in Amsterdam. The historical-fictional exemplar for this type of Englishness: R S Surtees’ 170-year-old character Mr Jorrocks; contemporary avatar, the motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson.

Same idea about the fundamental antinomies of English culture and personalities, too: orderliness, indeed fastidiousness, in real urban working life offset by living out a fantasy of aristocratic, reckless abandon in the country. And also, the same thematic and logical contradictions in the programme:

  1. Are the English still – or were they ever, really – like the (apparently) out-of-date Mr Jorrocks; or is that template dying out? Mr Marr provided as many examples of how the mundane, ‘degenerate’ character of modern English life has led to our losing the Jorrocks spirit as examples of its survival: founder of the ‘lads’ mag’ Loaded lamenting that the only outlandish pursuits vaunted by the genre today are those that involve exercising the right arm, rather than the ‘crazy’ Jorrocks-like danger sports that originally filled Loaded‘s pages; anecdote of the adrenaline junky Jeremy Clarkson and friend ‘madly’ hiring an Amsterdam prostitute’s shop window for the night, in true Jorrocks spirit, to make fun of all the pissed English stag-night celebrants as they, indeed, staggered past in search of more decadent sport (degeneracy).
  2. The above ambiguity being linked to the fact that Jorrocks is a fictional character of the past; and therefore, looking for his traces in the present is always going to be something of a quixotic quest for fantastical splendours only dimly reflected in present realities – but then a quest that reflects back on those realities as if showing what a sad lot we English are, dwelling on the past almost in the very act of trying to reinvent it against the drab backdrop of our daily toil. We seem to be stuck in the same old mould, us boring English.

But then, isn’t the reality of life always just a little bit more (or less?) boring than our fantasies – including the reality of our ‘hobbies’ through which we try to alleviate the monotony and narrow regularity (indeed, regulated-ness) of daily life? Even those examples of apparent disorderly behaviour with which Mr Marr contrasted the general tedium vitae exemplify a very English concern for orderliness, rules and rituals: the regular routines of Friday-night car racing, and the de rigueur immaculate presentation and maintenance of the souped-up VWs; the rituals, ceremony and protocols of the hunt; and even Clarkson can’t tear round a circuit or hurl himself down a hillside without turning it into a competition involving tightly (if somewhat randomly) defined rules.

Maybe that’s the real madness and genius of the English that Jorrocks exemplifies: not a wild, aggressive, untamed zest for life that stands in contrast to our tamed and boring modern lives; but a will to push things to the limits while at the same time expressing one’s mastery and domination by imposing and maintaining rules and order even on and at the edges of madness and mayhem. The two together – order and chaos – in manic, eccentric (dis)harmony; never at the extremes of either but the one tempering the other and infusing it with self-mocking humour.

In other words, taking the piss even while getting pissed; and getting pissed off if the rules of binging (stag nights and all) are not respected.

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