Wednesday 11 December 2019

Kevin Myers: Imperial myth and modern delusion have become triumphant in the British mindset

Aphasia is the phenomenon by which the ability to understand or communicate can be lost. It is usually an affliction of individuals, but it also affects communities.

Ancient skills can, within a generation, simply vanish. This can be due to technology -- parchment giving way to paper, and the horse-cab to the carburettor. But other shifts are less easy of explanation. What has happened to the British ability to make things?

The people who gave the world the Spitfire, the Mosquito and the Lancaster, within a generation were incapable of making anything that flew, and so France became the undisputed leader of both the military and civil aircraft industries in Europe. Comparable collapses were occurring in the motorbike industry. Dust now gathers where once BSA, Norton and Triumph once made some of the great machines of the world.

Soon the British motor-car industry went the same way, consuming Morris, Austin, Rover, MG, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Bentley and Rolls Royce. There is now no indigenous British motor-car industry.

Social aphasia occurs when a key skill is lost. In the realm of British technology, affecting aircraft, motorbike and the car industry, the fatal loss was of engineering talents. A cultural shift within British life began to reward the non-technical: there was no equivalent of the German Dipl Ing, the engineering title which confers enormous social respect. Moreover, aphasia is clearly contagious, for it has now spread from the workshop to the television studio, where the writer is the equivalent of the engineer in Daimler-Benz or Dassault.

Turn on television next Sunday, if you please, and only briefly, to see how the disease of aphasia has spread from the Supermarine plant on the Solent and the Longbridge works in Birmingham to the studios of independent television. 'Downton Abbey' is the much-hyped, high-investment flagship drama of British television this autumn. It is to American series like 'The Sopranos' and 'Mad Men' what Milton Keynes is to Chicago, or Sunderland is to Seattle.

Writing for television is like designing anything: it takes prodigious amounts of effort. Any single episode of 'The Simpsons' will have at least half a dozen writers. 'Sex in the City' had three writers who specialised in gay jokes alone.

'Mad Men' not merely embodies the highest production values of Hollwood, but it is the product of enormously careful planning, and multi-layered writing. The plot is elaborate and structured and always surprising.

'Downton Abbey' is little more than a 21st century version of 'Upstairs Downstairs', set at precisely the same time, with the predictable myths of Edwardian England at its heart. The Titanic has gone down: Sarajevo is to come. Clichés fill the air, though sometimes with jarring anachronisms. "OK" chirrups a chambermaid upon receiving an instruction. "Oh cut him some slack," advises a valet later.

That this series is being so warmly acclaimed suggests that aphasia has reached into the critical classes as well. Moreover, aphasia long ago infected the management classes of the BBC, which began to pay themselves far more than programme-makers or writers. A comparable financial dysfunctionalism heralded the death of the aircraft, bike and motor industries.

Indeed, aphasia seems to be spreading. At this moment, an aircraft carrier is being built in Glasgow, the first of two for the Royal Navy. It has no steam-catapults, and so cannot launch any airborne early-warning planes of its own. Its aircraft will be American, vertical landing F-35Bs, which the Americans bitterly regret embarking upon and want to cancel. If they do, the British will have a multi-billion pound aircraft carrier without any aircraft.

No British journalist or politician that I know of has reported these salient facts -- or that (unlike the US or French nuclear-powered carriers) the turbine-driven British carrier only has a range of 10,000 miles before it runs out of fuel, or that the F-35B couldn't even reach Afghanistan from a carrier-deck, or that the carriers are so expensive to maintain that they'll act as a catastrophic and insupportable drain on the British defence budget.

And yes, it does sound glib to put this down to a single cause, "aphasia"; but aphasia is merely a symptom of a more general problem. This is itself political: a pathological failure to discern the twin lodestones of all successful policy -- reality and self-interest. That British television repeatedly returns to imperial costume dramas provides one insight into the problem: that Britain is building an aircraft carrier when its industrial base is nearly gone provides another.

In the English (as opposed to Scottish) mindset, it seems that imperial myth and modern delusion are triumphant, whether with the recent and fairly brainless daily recitations of the imminence of a Nazi invasion of 1940, or the re-creation of an ocean-going carrier-force, or a grisly return to the Edwardian soap-opera.

Regular readers will be aware of how critical I am of this Republic's obsessions with 1916. But maybe this reflects a common dementia of this north-western archipelago, in which the two islands endlessly tell starkly contrasting stories from different sides of the flickering campfire of a common history. However, a truly grown-up country like the US knows the only tense that really counts is the one that concerns tomorrow.

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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