The Culture Column

June 27, 2014 5:39 pm

Welcome to the empire club

Here are some ideas for that perfect downer of a present for the future, the dark side of British culture

Keen diplomatic observers will have noted and analysed the geopolitical ramifications of David Cameron’s present to Li Keqiang during the Chinese premier’s recent visit to London. The widely publicised gift, a shooting script of the first episode of Downton Abbey signed by the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, was rich in subtext. It is, I suppose, just about possible that Li is simply a fan of the programme. But that seems preposterous. This is politics. There was some kind of power-game going on, have no doubt about that.

Here is what may have been intended. First, the simplest scenario: Cameron was proudly showing Li how life was during the final years of the golden age of the British Empire. All that gentility, those plush interiors, that hegemonic drive. Intimidation through costume drama: soft power at its finest.

But hold on to your teacups. We learn that it was Li, in fact, who expressed his admiration for the series, and even wished to visit its Hampshire location, Highclere Castle. How devilishly clever. A softly powerful serve returned with stinging topspin. This, Li says as he receives the epochal document from Cameron, is what you used to have. This was the high point of British life. How far you have fallen. Now you huddle around your television sets to watch Britain’s Got Talent. How does that feel? Li will doubtless have seen the most recent episode of Downton, set in 1923. Guess what is coming up in three years’ time? The General Strike, that’s what. It was all downhill from there.

But Cameron has followed his softly powerful serve with a neat volley. Yes, Britain used to be this great. It was good to have an empire. But you know what? All empires flounder. You may be feeling the rush of power right now, and feel like you can do anything you want (enter stage left: fleeting reference to human rights) but don’t for one moment think it is easy, or that it is going to last.

This, I think, was Cameron’s hidden message. But he might have gone further. Downton Abbey is all very well, but he could have really stretched the point of imperial decline with some further well-chosen gifts. The prime minister, steeped in popular culture, or at least Dark Side of the Moon, missed an opportunity. But here are some ideas for that perfect downer of a present for the future, the dark side of British culture:

1. Free tickets for the Monty Python’s Flying Circus reunion at the O2, Monty Python Live (Mostly), opening this week. at the O2, Monty Python Live (Mostly), opening this week. Can there be anything more dispiriting than a bunch of ageing surrealists? Especially when they joke about only getting back together for the money, when it is clear they are (mostly) only getting back together for the money? Is there nobody young and funny and hungry left in the country?

2. Free tickets to see a British film. Of course British technicians and actors are admired the world over. But the general intention of British movies is to make us depressed. We know this because every few months there is an article in the press headlined: “British Films are Depressing”. The latest was by the actor Toby Stephens, writing in March. “We need to stop trying to do the same movies over and over: the gangsters and football violence,” he wrote. Not to mention the kitchen-sink realism, the homely working-class comedies, and the upper-class-twit farces. A personal favourite is Rita, Sue and Bob Too, the ugliest film of all time.

3. The CD, or better still the DVD, of Let It Be, The Beatles’ final album. This marked the terminal decline of Britain’s last golden cultural age. Mop-tops mired in mutual contempt, antsy arguments, bad songs. Pop music, after one or two sleepy detours (see Dark Side of the Moon), never recovered.

4. Free tickets to a VVIP preview of any art fair. Watch the hyper-rich eschew the joys of handbag shopping for an hour or two, and spend millions on paintings of dots instead. Watch out, Premier Li, it’s coming your way, faster than you think.

5. An original manuscript of a devastating rock lyric. This week, the handwritten words to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for more than $2m at Sotheby’s. The song is a succinct snapshot of life in the western world (“Now you don’t talk so loud,/ Now you don’t seem so proud,/ About having to be scrounging your next meal”), but the British can do better. Here’s a coruscating analysis of social immobility: “All that rugby puts hairs on your chest,/ What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” That’s from the Jam’s “Eton Rifles”, a personal favourite of the prime minister, and why wouldn’t it be?

In the Global Times, a Chinese tabloid affiliated to the People’s Daily, readers were urged, in the wake of Li’s visit, to take pity on the “old declining empire” that is Great Britain. “Britain’s national strength cannot be placed in the same rank as China now,” it thundered, “a truth difficult to accept for some Britons who want to stress their nobility.”

You see, Mr Cameron, they fell for it. Li Keqiang, in the meantime, may be having deeper thoughts: do I really want to have an empire at all?

peter.aspden@ft.com, @peteraspden

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