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This Is England 2013: We've Become a Nation of Concentrics

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The herd mentality is strong in England. Something novel and bovine afflicts our rank and file. But that wasn't always the case. As Howard Jacobson puts it, the English possess 'obdurate independence, of furious and yet somehow poetical intransigence', which is evinced in our seafarers, artists, poets, thinkers and statesmen.

A list including Drake, Newton, Disraeli, Blake, Dickens, Bacon, Orton, Wilde and Lennon is one to be proud of. But that was then, and this is now. Now we are lost souls worshiping at the feet of Ian Fleming's wet dream, James Bond. He has become our totem, and more than that: our identity, to which we cling with quiet desperation. But I'm just being glib.

This week, snow lies across the country, suppressing mirth and stilling the air. The land is quieted, as is our national spirit, for it occurs to me that something is amiss in these isles. What became of English rumbustiousness, what Jacobson has called an 'obdurate independence'? In print he has described us as 'a wild, indomitable people, at our best when we express ourselves in wild, indomitable art', but it has been a long while since we have been allowed to do that.

No one person is permitted to talk out of turn these days, be he newspaper columnist or televisual wit. All media has become risk averse, and this makes for a very boring life.

'All nations are places of the mind: the idea of a country is what informs its laws, its politics and its art,' wrote Jeremy Paxman in his book The English, but we are now a cowed people, querulous and nervous, the individualism for which we were once respected now but a rumour. Express an opinion at odds with the cant and expect to be shunned as the herd mentality supplants our common, boisterous pride.

And yet there is real genius out there in abundance (one only has to read the culture section of HuffPost UK to know this), and as bookshops and libraries close, historic music retailers go bust and art galleries grow cluttered with the gimmicks of installation art, so do the writers, artists and songsmiths of tomorrow apply themselves with greater assiduousness to their crafts. By candlelight in far flung garrets, I like to think.

The question also arises as to whether current cultural blandness is a symptom of the human condition or, rather, of a debauched sense of Englishness. Are we, as Swift asks, 'possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices', or is this cultural low to which we have sunk merely a blip?

The answer perhaps lies in our mildewed notion of Empire, which brings us back to 007. Bond drinks, shags, kills and then salutes the Union Jack, but the Empire is over, and perhaps, just perhaps, it is incumbent upon us to forget him, and instead step gingerly towards republicanism and true social meritocracy.

'The Empire gave the British the chance to feel blessed. And the greater its success, the more blessed they felt' [Jeremy Paxman, The English]. Is it then no wonder we struggle with our national identity? The true greatness of this country is better attributed to the waves of immigration over the millennia that have produced a gene pool of tremendous strength and depth. Our cultural fibre is borne of our diversity, so to pander to our caste system is to do ourselves a disservice.

And to accuse an Englishman of having no sense of humour is to 'banish him from his tribal Blightiness', says AA Gill in The Angry Island, and yet what is it that we see on our TVs and in our theatres? Legions of so-called comedians who play it safe and smug, possessing all the edginess of a sixth form common room in a boarding school. I see pompadours and eyeliner on our male comics, but where's the wit of Spike Milligan or Peter Cook; or Vic Reeves for that matter?

'That glorious, fundamental cussedness' [Jeremy Paxman] of the English has vanished. Once a nation of eccentrics, we are now a herd of concentrics, playing it safe. We do as we're told, we dress alike, we think the same muddled, aspirational thoughts, enslaved by our smart phones as we utter sentences that rise at the end with that new and awful uncertain inflection, as if we are not even sure of what we are actually saying to each other anymore.

Everything appears to be in the negative, a meanness of spirit creeping into the arts, whereby anything which may be difficult to interpret or understand is cast aside in favour of that which can be sold with ease to a population enslaved by consumerism. What chance has a new Orwell if Fifty Shades Of Grey crowds the shelves in Tesco?

The 'massive, blustering confidence that drove the English', as AA Gill puts it, is something not easily found in 2013. England, to an outsider, must seem a flashy and shallow place, somnambulistic even.

But soon the snow will stop falling. Soon it will be spring. And soon our genius will return, for it must.

© Jason Holmes 2013 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes