Why the UK's luxury brands aren't expected to "do a Gucci"

There was a dual tone throughout this programme: a kind of impatient casting up of the eyes to heaven about Britain’s lack of tax incentives for luxury craftsmen, and a deep smugness that many of our producers have neither the backing nor even any remote

Selling British Luxury
Radio 4

A programme on Monday about the UK’s luxury brands (Church’s brogues, Fox Brothers flannels) naturally applauded their “subtle fusion of heritage and craftsmanship”. But there was a dual tone throughout: a kind of impatient casting up of the eyes to heaven about Britain’s lack of tax incentives for luxury craftsmen, and a deep smugness that many of our producers have neither the backing nor even any remote desire to “do a Gucci” and be wheeled out across China. “The discernment trends are with us,” sniffed Deborah Meaden of Dragons’ Den, speaking very fast in a convinced tone, like someone forever moving towards grabbing mid-level loot. It sounded sensible but hardly audacious.

I once interviewed a former chief executive of Louis Vuitton who said that his favourite part of the job was not the parties or products (I believed him – he was wearing a zip-up cardigan) but the dawn poring over sales figures, seeking shapes and promises in buying, forging forth to Chennai and Yekaterinburg and Siberia.

“I have a very big idea of what Europe is,” he said inexorably. “Basically it starts in Paris, and ends up via the rest of the world in Vladivostok.” At the time we were in Kazakhstan, where he was opening a store in a mall aimed at young Kazakhs oil-rich from a treacherous site in the Caspian sea and shopping high-end for the first time in a century. And yet, the first product I spotted in this gold-dripping mall? Not, in fact, Louis Vuitton or Prada or Hermès – but a bottle of bubble bath from the Somerset brand Cowshed.

Later that day, on the damp walls of a restaurant on the outskirts of the largest city, Almaty (arrived at in a 1980s Lada), I noticed a mouldering but cherished hand-tinted, 18th-century print of West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire. If ex-Soviets can foster such whimsical ideas of Britain, anybody can. (And they do. One of the last prisoners in the Gulag, a double agent and former KGB code-breaker, said that his most prized possession back in Moscow had been an AA road map of the UK, featuring a special route to T E Lawrence’s house in Dorset.)

For now, though, we must accept our roots in the petit-bourgeois trading classes, plug our cufflinks, and think smallish.

Is it cause for smugness that British brands aren't able to "do a Gucci"?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear