Reflections on Britannia waves the rules and You can’t go back

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May 2nd 2011
Published: May 2nd 2011
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Britannia waves the rules
This may not be as coherent as it should be. I’m struggling to formalise my thoughts on this so bear with me. I’ve been working through this for several days.
The link above is to one of the finest political speeches ever delivered from one of the finest films about work and working class values and working class people I saw it again last week on TV. Those final moments have lost none of their power.
Most of the people I know are educated, middle class. Most (I suspect) have come from a working class background. Britain is such a working class country. It oozes working class culture from its beer to its breakfasts to its TV shows like On the Buses and Minder and New tricks. It’s so working class because the Yang of the working class Yin, the elephant in the room which no one wants to talk about, is the British aristocracy. In 1961 at the lady Chatterley trial the prosecuting barrister questioned whether anyone would want his wife or his servants reading such filth. John McGrath names his theatre company 7/84. He did so deliberately. The name represents the fact that 7% of the British population owns 84% of the wealth.
Danny’s speech in BRASSED OFF highlights the fundamental tension in the notion of what it is to be working class. Danny rails against Maggie Thatcher for shutting the coal mines in the name of expediency: breaking the unions. The miners want their mine to stay open. It’s what they know. It’s their heritage (since the late eighteenth century at least). But Danny is dying from black lung. Most of the others will do the same. So they’re defending and fighting for something which is killing them (note that the vast majority of smokers in Australia are the poor and disadvantaged). One of the major planks of working class values is the notion of the dignity of work. But the work they do is dangerous and is killing them slowly.
Iron Bridge was the kickoff point for the industrial revolution. The first major construction made from coke-fired ovens was the first iron bridge in the world and this revolutionised not only iron production but it revolutionised the way people viewed the world. At the time canals were the National Broadband network of the age. Canal boats pulled by horses were the epitome of the pre combustion engine technology. Within 40 years thousands of miles of canals were gouged by hand across the country. Within another 50 years the railways had transformed transportation and canals reverted to a minor transport role and in the 21st century a middle class indulgence. Within another 10 years ships made of steel, the telegraph and photography had further transformed our communication. The computer or your I phone that you’re reading this from, can trace their origins back to the technological breakthrough that was iron Bridge. The technological age which followed first enslaved and then freed its workers. And then in the late twentieth century enslaved them again to the god of consumerism. Britain led the industrial revolution. The early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese and it was the second generation of innovators which took advantage of the great leap forward provided by Britain. Britannia ruled the waves for about 150 years but Britannia no longer rules the waves. In fact it is so moribund that it is currently building 2 aircraft carriers. One of these will be mothballed as soon as it is built, never entering service!!!Britannia is now a pale imitation of the industrial powerhouse it was 100 years ago. Britain still has pretensions to great power status. But all it can offer the world now is a royal wedding, a festival of pomp and circumstance, the hollowness of which merely serves to remind everyone of what was.
You can’t go back
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not tryin’ to get ya”. – Colour TV Blues, Don McLean
The Prisoner was the perfect 1960s TV show. It pandered to young people’s belief that the “system” was stacked against them. The X Files et al owe their origins to Patrick McGoohan’s waking nightmare.
The Prisoner was shot on location at Portmeirion in Wales. I loved the Prisoner when i was growing up. When planning our trip I was determined to visit Portmeirion to revisit my “prisoner experience”. Portmeirion is a homage to the bower bird: the found and acquired objects, it was conceived and created over a period of 50 years by eccentric Sir Clough William-Ellis. He set out to create... well something, Part Italianate, part Greek, part nelson’s column, part Santorini St Nicholas; all set on a hillside leading down to an estuary which is so tidal they warn you about quicksand. The doco that you can sit through has the William-Ellis discussing how he got bits of building given to him by other nobles and he then set about using them. In the Prisoner there were hints that it was located in Morocco or Algeria. On TV it suggested the exotic, the strange, somewhere inhabited by “others”.
We arrived at 3.30 (half price) and wandered in. 40 years ago it may have been exotic. These days it just looks cheap and shabby. The pond in the town square is in need of cleaning and re-painting. The whole place has a sense of being run down.
All in all not so much a disappointment, more an affirmation that sometimes it’s better to leave things alone rather than having reality impose itself upon and forever taint, your halcyon memories.


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