Best of British.

Last night, I found myself in a pub in North London watching a comedy show. It was one of those upstairs-of-a-pub affairs with a makeshift stage and a bill of comedians who were teetering on the precipice between amateur and pro. Way beyond open-mic, somewhat making a living from it  but not yet represented by an agent. It was really good. A good bill of comedians, a crowded room, a good atmosphere. At one point, I found myself trapped by the bar, stood next to a bit of a barfly. One of those uniquely London guys who has more testosterone in his fingernail than the average educated man is capable of generating in a lifetime. You know the type, in his fifties, tight white t-shirt, muscular as fuck but with a proud pot belly. Constipated pose and expression. Close cropped greying hair and a face like a walnut. He was sat at the bar eating chips, watching the comedy with an intense scowl yet, when a joke he liked (or, dare I venture, understood), his mouth fell open, and a light spray of semi-masticated potato projected forth through a loud and gravelly Sid James style HAHAHA. He was enjoying it and heartedly endorsing it. This is good.

Occasionally, on a really funny joke, he’d look round at me to check I was laughing too. I generally was, so that was OK. Here’s what pissed me off, though. Every time someone mentioned Britain or England, he’d raise his pint or bark support. I just thought… sod off. I’m sick of national pride being appropriated by the worst of Britain’s specimens. I’m categorically not saying this was a bad man, he seemed very nice. I didn’t speak to him. But he served as a mental catalyst, an innocent figurehead of my feelings on the subject. As he raised his pint to the mention of our motherland, all I could think was ‘You’re the reason I can’t buy those really nice Union Jack cushions I saw in John Lewis’. This statement alone confirms me as a middle-class snob, I’m aware, but there’s something to it. I love the Union Jack. I’m not sure I care what it represents now but aesthetically and historically, I really dig it.I was in Hereford Cathedral last year, checking out the Mappa Mundi and they had these amazing Union Jacks from the British troops of World War 1 hanging, untouched since the day they were hung in the rafters, slowly bleaching and decaying in the sunlight. It was an unintentionally powerful sight. These faded banners that had meant so much, that had been imbued with correct sentiment and pride and had inspired people to give their lives for something they believed in. At the same time, some horrible bastard was sticking a BNP leaflet through my door containing the same icon but in lush, vibrant, glossy colour promoting an entirely opposite ideal.

Patriotism is a funny thing. Billy Bragg wrote a stunning book on the subject called The Progressive Patriot which I highly recommend. For my part, I don’t know how I feel about being British. Or English. I don’t think I’m proud of being a nationality. I’m happy to live here. I very much like this country. I love it’s countryside, size, climate, history, architecture, character and tradition. I feel very privileged to be in it, but don’t strictly feel a part of it. I tend to only feel English or British when I’m away from it. Living in Scotland, with their marvelous institutionalized anti-English sentiment. I felt very English, although I felt it was an identity forced onto me by others rather than projected from within. I was stunned how seemingly intelligent people I knew there were happy to talk about what ‘we’ (the English) had done to ‘them’ (the Scottish) when, like myself, most of these people were only second generation citizens of their birth nations. At the time of the true oppressions, my family weren’t English and theirs weren’t Scottish.

I think I feel more Jewish than British and I’m barely a practising Jew. My family stem from Poland, Germany and Belgium but I feel no connection to these countries whatsoever. I’ve never even visited any of them. There was a good reason my family left the first two. A very close friend of mine went to Poland last year to see the village her family came from, the whole trip sounded like a hellish experience and all she was confronted with when she finally found it was a long desecrated synagogue and hateful locals – one of whom spat at her for asking about the Jewish history of the area.

I just don’t really understand the concept of national pride. To be fiercely proud of the geographic location of your birth? That’s just bizarre to me. I suppose when you have nothing, do nothing and represent nothing, you hold on to whatever you can. Maybe that’s why there is a history of aggression and violence which seems to go hand-in-hand with patriotism.

I do love this country, though. Long are the days where I pined to flee it and live overseas. I’m very happy here.

So, I started thinking about what I could get behind. Where the Union Jack represents so much of what your average patriot feels a part of (dominance, power, arrogance, pride), what is the icon that – for me – represents what I personally love about Great Britain? I flicked through a few things in my head that might best represent the country – Mushy Peas, Noel Edmonds, Traffic Wardens, The National History Museum, Footballers committing sexual assaults, the transient presence of music featuring normal people who won televised contests. These are all representative in their own ways but I can only think of one thing which is undeniably British and truly represents so much of what I love about this nation. And that thing would have to be….

The Sinclair C5.

What can I tell you about the C5 which that picture doesn’t already?

Well, British inventor Clive Sinclair, having revolutionized the home computer market in 1982 with the launch of the ZX Spectrum (which, along with a loose-limbed star wars figure and worn-out vhs tape probably best represents my childhood, in icon form) decided to revolutionize transport. And that’s what he came up with. After a failed court case in which a man was charged with drunk driving a C5, it was officially, in the eyes of the court, defined as a tricycle. Probably not the label that Sir Clive was striving for.

It was, of course, rubbish. Everyone knew that even at the time. I remember my dad taking me to a shop which was selling them, sitting me in one and telling me it was the future of travel ‘Really?’ I asked ‘No’ he chuckled, ‘it’s rubbish.’

Check out this video from the day it was launched:

They hoped to sell 100,000 in the first 12 months. They ultimately sold 12,000 and even that figure baffles and delights me. There were 12,000 people who not only thought ‘yes, that’s a good idea!’ but put their money where their mouths were.

It’s pretty trite and easy to mock the C5 but for every one of it’s failings, I see something unequivocally English and love it even more.

Let’s start with the biggie – this is an electric vehicle. 25 years later we’re only just starting to open up to the prospect and advantages of battery-powered transport. Sinclair was there 25 years ago bringing such a vehicle to the open market. This to me not only represents the forward-thinking and wisdom that I like to associate with this country but also the unashamed entrepreneurship.

It’s too small to be in any way safe on the road in traffic. This to me represents the bullish logic and impervious will of our nation. When you look at a map of the world, it makes no sense that a country so infinitesimally small was, at any time the most influential and powerful nation on the planet.  Self belief and the indefatigable notion that  we were the leaders made it so. Could the C5 have not done the same to the roads given time?

The egalitarian availability of technology. Whereas most new technology starts out as the plaything of the rich, this revolutionary machine retailed, on release at £399. That’s under £850 in today’s money. A very fair price for a brand new mode of transport – good pushbikes and mopeds sell for similar figures. It was also truly ‘for the people’ because t had been designed to go at a top speed of 15mph – meaning that anyone over 14 could use one without needing a driving licence, road tax or even a helmet. I can’t help thinking a helmet might have been a good idea, though.

The sheer optimism of the design. This is a vehicle designed to be used on the streets of England that leaves the driver completely exposed. Not just to the elements (notice there was a special ‘cagoul’ designed to fit over the driver’s body and part of the vehicle) but, conceivably, to groups of youths or thugs who could simply walk alongside the thing hurling abuse and, presumably, worse. I mean, they could just kick the thing over. And yet there is an inherent happiness in this design a glass-half-full rebuttal that could best be summed up in songs with titles like ‘It doesn’t always rain’, ‘cold weather keeps you perky’, ‘you’re not going fast enough for a multitude of insects to die on your face’ and ‘cars of the future won’t leave their engines running at traffic lights and kill you with carbon monoxide poisioning’. I mean, cyclists are fully exposed all the time and yet we don’t mock them (unless they wear lycra shorts), for them, the thrill of being outside in the elements is all a part of the joy.

The final thing that for me makes the C5 utterly representative of England is it’s ebullient nature. You can’t keep either down. The C5 might have died a death in 1985 but just 26 short years later and we’re almost ready for the launch of the Sinclair X-1 – fully redesigned to tackle all of the shortcomings of the C5, Sir Clive gives us this:

Besides being waterproof and safely visible to other road users, It is all the things the original were – affordable, egalitarian, optimisitic, bullish, self-believing and, well, rubbish.

So, there you have it. My icon for all that is best about Britain. I just wish I could get cushions with images of them on.

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Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 5:32 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Reminds me a lot of the hype that surrounded the launch of the Segway. Steve Jobs allegedly called it “revolutionary” or something. They’re still around, sure, but it’s too embarrassing to actually use one.

    I do remember gazing longingly at the ads for the Sinclair ZX-80 (and ZX-81) in the pages of Omni magazine, though.


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