A neurasthenic outlook, a quirky kind of smile
The ghosts of heavy industry they haven’t these empty miles?
Empty miles of illness devoid of any rest?
No need for tumble weed its wilder than the west
Bush hammered concrete blocks in brittle shades of sand ?
Brutal yet luxurious in temporal demand?
– British poet John Cooper Clarke
London, United Kingdom – As a long boat housing the London Philharmonic Orchestra approached Vauxhall bridge and the seemingly empty (through topped with snipers) headquarters of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, overlooking the Thames, the musicians broke – inevitably – into the James Bond theme, to the delight of rain-soaked crowds on both sides of the river. That’s Britain doing what it does best: selling pop culture to the planet.
My gracious London hosts – one of them taking the trouble to carry a huge salmon on the train all the way from Devon – had set me up at the perfect vantage point, a high-rise flat facing Vauxhall bridge, right across from MI6, to follow the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant; the royal barge cruising up the river with an accompanying flotilla of a thousand vessels – everything from gondolas to Chinese dragon boats, Maori canoes and meticulous replica 18th century warships.
“Call it a post-imperial hangover after a mighty buccaneering past or just an excuse for a monster street party.“
Call it post-imperial hangover after a mighty buccaneering past, or just an excuse for a monster street party. The Guardian in an editorial didn’t fail to mention this was “the biggest flotilla since the time of Charles II”.
This was “a monarch in a barge like a burnished throne, sailing up London’s river from Chelsea, home of oligarchs and plutocrats, to the city, home of the unpunished financial sector for whose misdeeds the rest of us are paying”. Here, in a nutshell, is the cream of London’s – and Britain’s – profitable ruling class.
It’s useful to remember that in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad – an immigrant from Polish Ukraine writing in sublime English – places his narrator aboard a Thames yawl, thus implying the dark side of British imperialism.
But now, for a brief moment, even distressful imperial overtones were awash by the overall jolly mood. Time Out magazine could get away with splashing on its cover a rehash of Jamie Reid’s seminal Silver Jubilee-baiting collage for the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen– with the headline “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!”, a direct quote from the pre-punk David Bowie hit Suffragette City.
Proustian – not Conradian – rivers of irony could also be glimpsed from the fact that this 1977 Molotov cocktail against the establishment was now part of the excellent British Design 1948-2012 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. After all, the venerable V&A was built – and named – after the UK’s longest serving royal (and her cousin – also her husband).
The show that never ends
The massively kitsch, rain-soaked Diamond Jubilee provided a nationalistic adrenalin rush all across Britain. Wily politicians seized on it as they stoked the flames of the economy blame game. Britain is in recession? Blame the irresponsible, indecisive eurocrats. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne stressed the crisis at the door was “killing our recovery”.
“Rupert Murdoch, his son James, corporate redhead dominatrix Rebekah Brooks are as dodgy as they come.“
No raised eyebrows here, for as far as traditional British common sense is concerned, unelected bankers in Frankfurt and bureaucrats in Brussels with the power to condemn Aragon or the Piraeus to perennial unemployment is something utterly despicable.
Then there is the Lord Leveson inquiry on phone hacking to further complicate matters. Wall-to-wall TV and print coverage tells most Britons what they already know, or suspected, about the petty Mafia tactics of the British tabloid press. Rupert Murdoch, his son James, corporate redhead dominatrix Rebekah Brooks are as dodgy as they come. The (extinct) News of the World hacked phones and persecuted celebrities with relish.
One could always count on The Spectator, the customary fountain of delightful snobbery, to point out the inquiry “has become like The Mousetrap: a show that never closes”. Better yet, a “neverending inquiry on everything”. Or a farce where Britain’s rich and powerful hurl insults against each other to the delight/disgust of the galleries.
It’s also useful to remember that The Spectator itself (in 1955) coined the term “the establishment”, as in “the matrix of official and social relations within which power in Britain is exercised”.
Now, essentially, while those Chelsea plutocrats/oligarchs plus city financial sharks share the loot, the “new establishment” – media shills – slug it out with celebrities and politicians. Former prime minister John Major has been the latest to confirm that Godfather Murdoch virtually ordered him how to conduct Britain’s foreign policy, otherwise his media empire “would not be able to support” him. Monty Python might be able to turn it into something like this.
God save da Queen
Queen Liz has never shone brighter as a pop icon – witness London engulfed by Queen kitsch. Apart from the fact that the Queen is an extremely dignified lady who faultlessly performs her job, crucially the House of Windsor has turned into a formidable PR operation. No wonder support for a republic in Britain is now less than 13 per cent.
The rebranding of the monarchy may be credited to Paddy Harverson, the communications secretary at Clarence House, who used to be director of communications of Manchester United. Royals are evidently much easier to spin than troubled footballers.
“Whatever Brit boom there was under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown profited only a few industries; the whole push was conditioned by humongous financial leverage, astronomic consumer debt and reckless property speculation.“
In 2011, Harverson was the mastermind for making the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William “the global PR event of the year”, according to – what else – PR Week magazine. Then came the metamorphosis of Prince Harry – from drunken lout stumbling out of nightclubs dressed as a Nazi to “soldier prince” who gallantly serves his nation in Afghanistan. Not to mention the careful rehab of Camilla, aka the Duchess of Cornwall, formerly the despised “invisible other” between Prince Charles and Lady Di.
When Queen Liz first sat upon the throne 60 years ago, the UK was no less than the third-biggest economy in the world, after the US and the Soviet Union.
Now Britain may be richer, but the economy is a mess. The industrial base has been completely hollowed out. The stark inequality between north and south reminds one of BRICS members India, China or Brazil. The city of London – essentially a maze of financial services – runs the show.
Whatever Brit boom there was under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown profited only a few industries; the whole push was conditioned by humongous financial leverage, astronomic consumer debt and reckless property speculation. A bubble. Since the 2007 crisis, real living standards in Britain have, in fact, fallen. It will take until 2017 at least for them to be back to the 2003 level.
In Britain, class is king; Queen Liz, although informally, holds the title of the “poshest person in Britain”. Yet even the increasingly destitute working classes love her. No wonder; they’ve figured out she’s not the problem. Financial turbo-capitalism is.
Queen Liz once famously asked British economists why none of them had seen the 2007/2008 crash coming. Now she might be asking a different question – as if, by supremely royal irony, she might be remixing the Sex Pistols in God Save the Queen (“there is no future/in England’s dreaming/no future/no future/no future/for you”).
So, she might ask, what is our future when we have not run a manufacturing trade surplus in ages, our North Sea oil is practically over, and virtually everyone is buried in piles of debt?
We are the flowers in the dustbin
A few glimpses of what the future may hold are doing the rounds.
On the politically correct front, we have Britain in a Day, a multiple point of view selected from more than 11,500 YouTube clips, hailed by Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald, as a rare example of “communal film-making” and by the BBC as the “definitive self-portrait of Britain today” – everything from the Occupy London protests to that graphic symbol of class struggle, the fox hunt.
On the politically incorrect front, there’s Lionel Asbo: State of England (Jonathan Cape), the ambitious forthcoming novel by Martin Amis reportedly about Britain’s alleged “moral decrepitude”.
Amis’ eponymous yob changes his real surname as a tribute for having being issued an Anti-Social Behavior Order when he was only 18 months old. The real action starts when he wins more than $200 million on the National Lottery and becomes “Lionel the Lotto Lout” – with all predictably picaresque consequences, such as becoming a darling of the Murdoch-style tabloid press.
The problem is the premise is actually much juicier than the execution. Amis brilliantly caught the zeitgeist of the 1980s in Money. Now, over 60, and relocated to New York, he gives the impression he’s so disgusted by a nation of Asbos he might as well ignore them all.
In terms of the near future, the question of questions definitely revolves around Britain and “the continent”. If it was possible to sum it all up in just a few words, it might go something like this.
Labour and Tory politicians are slowly reaching the same conclusion; sooner or later a referendum asking Britain if it wants to stay in the EU will be inevitable. Whatever happens – from a “Grexit” to an euro meltdown to a more close-knit political union – the dangerous liaisons between the UK and “the continent” will radically change.
“Reality would rather spell out a Britain as a second-class observer of Europe. So no wonder British politicians will keep fiddling about while the EU slowly burns.“
The British political class, not to mention the city, dreams of a Voltaire’s Candide best of possible worlds scenario; to keep Britain’s clout in Brussels; to keep unrestricted access to all European markets; and to make no concessions in terms of national sovereignty. Only then comes the referendum – and popular opinion will say “yes” to an Europe-lite arrangement.
That, of course, is cosmic wishful thinking. Reality would rather spell out a Britain as a second-class observer of Europe. So no wonder British politicians will keep fiddling about while the EU slowly burns.
This Sunday there are the crucial French and Greek parliamentary elections – which will have a tremendous impact all across the EU, possibly cornering sado-austerity practitioner “Onshela” Merkel even more.
Then there’s the Euro competition – the football, not the currency – where England, playing like Chelsea, might even advance to some form of inglorious victory.
Then the Olympic extravaganza – reportedly scheduled to open with the sound of Duran Duran (the “Best of Britain” as farce; why not choose The Specials, Paul Weller, Siouxsie and the Banshees, New Order, Blur or quintessential London poet John Cooper Clarke?)
Then, finally, reality will be back with a bang in the autumn of discontent – and perhaps, furious rage. No future/no future/no future/for you?
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).