One of the easiest ways for a British writer to gain cheap credibility with readers is to sneer at his fellow-countrymen. Foreigners like these acts of literary self-abuse because they make them feel smug. The English love them even more for the humiliation, so appealing to our national taste for masochism, which they provide.
Martin Amis played the game when going through his America-loving phase – “the British now lead the world in decline” was a regular interview soundbite. Geoff Dyer has just gone further with an essay for the New York Times in which he praises the Americans for their politeness and tolerance while trashing the rudeness of Britain, the coarsening of its daily life. He has terrible stories to tell. Someone had walked on to the court at his tennis club in Islington. A barman at a gastropub had been rather brisk when dealing with an American friend. “Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone.”
Actually, the best way to offend someone in Britain is to dare to suggest that there are good things about the British way of life. Our national self-hatred is profound, almost an article of faith. In other countries, an attack on national values will cause anger; here it is defending them which enrages people.
Is Geoff Dyer right? Do we really, as a nation, loathe each other? Or was that simply a reader-pleasing joke? Come to think of it, could any sane person argue that bar staff in London are ruder than in, say, New York or Paris? An instinctive dislike of our own country now transcends class and background. The media, high and low, broadcasts the same general message: we are part of a culture which is spiralling downwards. This week, newspapers fell delightedly on yet another survey which purported to show that Britain is an increasingly grim and miserable place.
The source of this information was a little-known magazine called International Living but, no matter, its findings were prominently reported in lead stories. The quality of life in this country is now rated 25th in the world, according to International Living. We are rated below Lithuania, Uruguay and Hungary. It seems a somewhat lightweight survey – France is treasured for its “pretty sidewalk cafés”, Germany is appreciated for its efficiency, and so on – yet it is widely quoted because it is bringing British readers the bad news they want to hear.
At one level, this anti-patriotism is trivial. Few of the professional writers who trot out the clichés of the moment actually elect to live abroad. Many might quietly admit (but rarely write) that the mess and social complexity which these islands offer are what make it creatively stimulating. Yet, at a more important level, national self-loathing informs the way our news is reported, the way politicians see and are seen, the way we are governed. As the London Olympics approach, it seems increasingly likely that we shall be the first country to present the games not with any kind of national pride but with a shifty sense of shame at our own general hopelessness.
Independent, Friday, 8th January 2010.