It’s hard to say what’s great about Britain

An arctic rock is to be dug up and brought to London, as a statement about climate change. A giant Lady Godiva in aluminium will be held aloft by 50 cyclists, reflecting heritage and green energy. That great national emblem, the three lions, is to be crocheted in sheep’s wool – presumably as a witty visual commentary on the state of the nation.

The 2012 Cultural Olympiad is under way. Costing £94m, it will, according to its art director, Ruth Mackenzie, be “the biggest arts festival Britain has ever seen”. The best artistic concepts can sound a bit silly in bald detail but, even making allowances, it is hard to be excited by what is being promised.

Those at the heart of Cultural Olympiad seem aware of the problem. “Everyone has been wondering what has been going on for three years,” Alex Poots, a board member, told the Mail on Sunday. “But it is going to be extraordinary.” The Mayor of London’s arts adviser, Munira Mirza, conceded: “I understand why people think, ‘Where is this journey going?'”

Where indeed? The problem is simple, and it extends beyond the arts. Above all else, the Olympics represent the chance for a country to pitch its greatest product, its national self, to the rest of the world. Australia (sunny, cheerful, sporting) did it triumphantly, as did China (mighty, organised, slightly scary). Great Britain has yet to work out what its national self is. Our pitch is all over place, because we are uncertain as to who we really are. Our first display at the end of the Beijing games featured a double-decker bus with a lot of people running around in a jolly multi-cultural shambles.

The logo for the games conveyed a similar message: Britain is a bit of a muddle but at least we can laugh about it. Tessa Jowell added a more depressing element when she announced that we were about to show the world how to hold the games on a budget. Now, the neatest symbol of an uncertain, self-mocking nation, the three lions are to be recreated in sheep’s wool, at a cost of £500,000.

The truth is, no one in 2012 is quite sure what Britain stands for. One moment, we are rather proud of our leonine image, the next we are poking fun at it with woolly irony. Happy to exploit a well-marketed version of our historical heritage – cricket, bowler hats, Burberry, Monty Python, royal wedding mugs – we are also faintly embarrassed about it. Our national image has become perversely anti-national: what makes this country really great, we tell the world, is the mixture of different cultures which it contains. Pundits, happy to trash the many aspects of our national life which displease them, wring their hands when asked for the enduring values the country embodies. Niceness? Open any newspaper. Competitiveness? Hardly. A sense of irony? Even that old favourite looks a bit unconvincing these days.

We are left, a touch desperately, with “creativity”: the arctic rock, Lady Godiva, the crocheted lions. This could be embarrassing. Next year, after the world has listened politely to our country’s once-in-a-lifetime pitch, it might still not exactly know who the British are, and what they represent. The question is, do we?

An online resource for local vigilantes

There are times when the Government seems to live in a world whose twin influences are George Orwell and Charles Bronson. Proposing an online map which would allow the public to see pictures of those convicted of crimes with details of where they live, the Home Office minister, Nick Herbert, resorted to technocrat-speak. “By prising open the system and revealing performance, we will make the agencies more accountable and drive better use of resources,” he said.

Behind this waffle is a truly creepy idea: a charter and guide for bullies, busybodies and vigilantes. Doubtless, it will be a vote-winner because it appeals to the nastiest side of modern society, led by vindictiveness, self-righteousness and a love of drama.

“We live in an age of accountability,” this sinister man explains. Other league tables have at least allowed the public to make a choice. Here the action being encouraged is direct and nasty.

Gone to the dogs, but in a good way

Like the best obituaries, there are some news stories which capture the hidden realities of life in Britain better than any survey. So it was with a pre-silly season item about two Home Counties’ dog magazines. Apparently, a row has broken out between the editors of Dogs Today and Surrey Dog World. One is called Beverley Cuddy, the other Lizette Roux; both live at properties called The Dog House. Their argument became so heavy and heated that the police were called in.

At some point, the pre-canine past of Lizette emerged. In her teenage years, when she was Liz Hoad, she had been a professional golf player. Subsequently, she had become a Page 3 model and had recounted, in the traditional manner, a number of affairs she had enjoyed with high-profile lovers. Seve Ballesteros was one, James Hunt, inevitably, was another. Lord Lichfield called her “Little Muffin, my tasty bit of crumpet”.

Rebuilding her life after a marriage break-up, Lizette was accepted into the Wentworth Golf Club under the name of Beth White. Golf, modelling, dogs: it has been a very English progression. Hearing of her past, the golf club also behaved in the traditional way: it cancelled her membership.

Independent, Tuesday, 28 June 2011