This week, British culture has united pre-teen girls and petrolheads around the world in shock; here in Qatar, it’s responsible for our Ambassador reading the breakfast show weather report…
Britain is no longer the economic powerhouse it once was. You can mock us for everything from our cuisine, to being rubbish at not just all the sports we invented, but all the other ones too. Our culture, however, is one of our strongest and most significant exports – and has been for more than 500 years.
When you live in the UK, this is a concept you’re dimly aware of, like nuclear physics, or the possibility of sentient life on other planets.
But when you move abroad, its impact is there for all to see – and never more so than this week, when within hours of each other, not one, but two, founding members of made-in-Britain-recognised-everywhere supergroups headed off to pastures new.
On the one hand, Zayn Malik hit the eject button on his time in the planet’s biggest boy band One Direction, while in what is surely a world first, I temporarily have something in common with Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, in that we are both currently “in between opportunities”.
Clarkson, if you’re lucky enough to be unaware of his exploits, is a serial liability who unfortunately made the BBC vast piles of cash with his syndicated megabrand of a show.
That’s why he only ever got ‘final’ warnings from his bosses, despite racist stunts like this, this, and this (and that’s just in the past year). BBC management were finally left with no choice but to sack him last week after he verbally and physically assaulted a colleague.
The morning after all this pop cultural kerfuffle broke QF Radio, Qatar’s leading English-language radio station, had a guest co-host the breakfast show, in the form of the British Ambassador to Qatar.
He was there to plug the 2015 edition of the British Festival, which has been going on for the past few weeks, and still has a week or so to run. Ever the diplomat, he refused to be drawn into commenting on either man’s departure, but he did cheerfully read the weather report, pick the playlist and give shout outs to mums and dads on the school run.
In a way, he needn’t have bothered plugging anything directly because just by being there he was personifying the critical components – the sense of humour, mucking in and having a go and not taking anything too seriously – of what it means to be British.
Blame it on the boogie
But whilst the British Council gets busy promoting our capabilities in science, research and the visual arts, everyone else just wanted to talk about Zayn and Jeremy.
On the one hand, pre-teen girls all over the world were say-it-isn’t-so-ing and lighting candles as they held vigils to #prayforZayn; on the other, petrolheads from Thailand to Texas were crying into their motor oil about the future of their favourite four-wheeled franchise.
At least the girls have a biological excuse for their hysterical response.
There’s a lovely moment in the One Direction movie (which was originally released in stereoscope, and is therefore known as 1D 2D 3D in our house) in which the director, Supersize Me’s Morgan Spurlock, ropes in a neuroscientist to explain the chemical effect boybands have on young girls.
Make no mistake, this was big news. The impact of Mr Malik first departing the band’s current tour and then, a few days later, quitting the band itself, resonated long and loud in our house.
Not just on a practical level – because I’m taking Kid A to Dubai next weekend to see the band in concert, and was worried that the whole tour might be cancelled – but also because she has now had her first practical lesson in the pain of a broken heart.
To her credit, she took the news on the chin, even if she looked like she was holding back the tears.
“Niall’s your favourite, isn’t he?” asked her younger brother, trying to process the news. (He won’t admit it, but Amnesiac loves to bop around his bedroom to Best Song Ever as much as anyone else.)
Kid A nodded. “That’s all right then,” he added consolingly, as a few tears rolled of his own rolled down his cheeks and into his bowl of Honey and Nuts.
The trip to Dubai is a first-ever combined birthday / Christmas gift from us to her, and has been the subject of almost a year’s worth of planning since the tickets originally went on sale. Buying tickets for a show nearly a year in the future is not without its risks.
Mrs LC and I were worried then that she might not still like the band a year on, or possibly that we might not even still be living in this part of the world. As with so much in life, it turns out that we should have been worrying about an unconsidered option C: in this case, will the band still be together?
Petrolheads in the clouds
As for the petrolheads, frankly they should know better. The British sense of humour (and Top Gear is clearly more comedic than factual) is one of our most successful global exports. But Clarkson’s antics long ago passed the point of acceptability.
I’m not here to stick the boot into Clarkson, but if that’s what you’re after, look no further than this deconstruction by comedian Stewart Lee – it’s classic BBC: a scathing takedown of one its own golden geese, and transmitted on the very same network, BBC2.
Regardless of my feelings about Clarkson or the programme (and for the record, I’m not a fan of either) the BBC had no choice at all to make here.
Speaking with my employee communications hat on, no organisation can be seen to have one rule for talent and another for ‘regular’ employees. If the tables had been turned, and the producer had hit Clarkson, he would have been sacked immediately.
The global response to these two stories reminds you just how far British culture travels. For good or bad, it shapes and fuels the other nations’ perceptions about who we are and what we’re like, whether that’s via James Bond, Downton Abbey, Harry Potter or Doctor Who.
The upside of this is that the strength of our cultural exports and values is that there’s a good chance of someone in Colombo or Columbia seeing something like the delightful Paddington and thinking ‘hey, London seems like a place that’s really friendly to foreigners’.
I for one am looking forward to next week’s concert, where what remains of 1D (0.8D?) will hopefully demonstrate some of the other fine characteristics we Brits are known for – like fortitude, resilience, and strict adherence to employment contracts – and belt out the hits all the way to our not-very-cheap cheap seats.