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Laurie Penny: Why won’t we grow up and start planning for the future?

Britain's Summer of Angst.

Ahead of his first visit to the White House as Prime Minister this week, David Cameron published a remarkable op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which he lays out his vision for Britain’s future role on the global stage. The piece is a feat of political positioning, and Cameron’s realism about Britain’s status as "junior partner" in the "special relationship" is to be commended. The only jarring note is our glorious leader’s desperate claim that Britain is “a strong, self-confident country, clear in our views and values”.

This is a painful untruth. Loath as we may be to admit it, this country is embroiled in a torturous crisis of identity and purpose, unsure of our collective views, unconvinced of our national values, our confidence profoundly and, some might argue, justly shaken. We are undergoing a systemic and traumatic change in the political settlement that has defined the past two decades of our national self-image, and as our new overlords attempt to relaunch civil society with platitudes about community spirit and £60m pilfered from disused bank accounts to fund a few museum volunteers in Liverpool, even the conservative right can't offer a stable, positive vision for Britain’s future.

Our culpability in the Deepwater oil disaster, our role in the financial crash of 2008, even our miserable performance at the World Cup, have disturbed the popular impression of Britain as a country that “punches above its weight”. If 2009 was the "summer of rage", then 2010 is surely the summer of angst. After the rash of "Will you be supporting England?" articles during a certain international kickball competition, England’s dismal result – being knocked out before the quarter-finals by Germany, of all humiliations – was an own goal for the weary mythology of "two world wars and one World Cup".

Even the liberal press is shuffling with embarrassment about having attached any importance to the games, and it would be crass of those of us who always thought of the World Cup as a silly willy-waving competition to feel in any way vindicated. Britain’s self-esteem is at a chronically low ebb, and this matters for the left as well as the right: extreme nationalist organisations are on the rise, the future looks grim and uncertain, and the bloodier, uglier parts of the past, as evidenced by the Tories’ stated desire to "tell a big story" about the glory days of empire, keep getting brighter and brighter.

Readers of this blog have accused me variously of hating or misunderstanding my country and all the things that make us great. I find this rather harsh. In fact, I think I’m in a unique position to empathise with the current crisis in Britishness, as being a person from the UK in 2010 is not dissimilar to the rather embarrassing emotional trajectory of being a sensitive young person in one's early twenties.

You’re broke, and making bad choices about your money; you’re unsure who your friends are and worried about a future whose outer edges you can barely imagine; you spend your time guiltily re-examining all those horrendous things you did when the world was younger and meaner, but the navel-gazing is interrupted by bursts of shocking arrogance and gleeful, dirty pride. You had such plans and ambitions, and now the world seems to be moving on without you, leaving you behind; you long most of all for a sense of narrative coherence, for a certain story to tell about who you are and where you’re going.

It is right for the left to worry about Britain’s self-conception, because it affects every aspect of our policy, from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dark hints by Cameron about working with America “for an Iran without the bomb”, to the costly renewal of Trident, and the coalition’s indulgence of the City of London at the expense of the people of Britain.

Paul Gilroy, the historian and author of After Empire, eloquently observes that Britain’s unwillingness to grieve and move on from our former global superpower status is stifling our growth and development as a nation.

“The vanished empire is essentially unmourned,” he writes. “The meaning of its loss remains pending. The chronic, nagging pain of its absence feeds a melancholic attachment.” This despondency fuels a persistent fatalism in our national outlook, a complaisance, even on the left, with cannibalistic neoliberal policymaking, a meek acceptance that the present is unfair and the future will be worse.

This is a ridiculous way for anyone to behave, much less a nation with 2,000 years of illustrious and inglorious history. Britain is not behaving like a "strong, self-confident country". It is behaving like a country in the middle of a violent and bewildering identity crisis, a country that has deceived its citizens time and time and again in order to prop up its sense of self-importance, a country whose insecurities are doing untold damage to ordinary people in the UK and across the world. It is behaving, in short, like a country that needs to get its act together and grow the hell up.

What characterises a quarter-life or mid-life crisis, as well as mortgaging one’s long-term solvency to pay for expensive bits of bling such as sports cars, international wars and nuclear missile delivery systems, is a sense of lost time: a sense that, whatever happens, the years to come cannot possibly be as eventful, as exciting or as prosperous as the years that have gone by.

This, of course, is nonsense. Britain is a country with a future as well as a past. We may feel ancient and irrelevant, but Britain is a young country, and this is a young planet. We will never again be a superpower, but we have much to contribute to the future of global society, a future which, however stridently world leaders, business owners and neoliberal apologists choose to ignore the fact, will indubitably continue beyond the year 2030.

It is with deep love for my country that I dearly wish the British would grow up, get over ourselves and start planning for that future.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Appearing in a book is strange – being an actual character must be stranger

Much as it jolts me to come across a reference to my music in something I'm reading, at least it's not me.

I was happily immersed in the world of a novel the other day, Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone, when suddenly I was jolted back into reality by my own appearance in the book. One of the characters hears someone singing and is told, “‘It’s Leonora. She sings with her window open.’ ‘She’s good – sounds like Tracey Thorn.’ ‘She does, doesn’t she.’”

It was as if I’d walked on stage while still being in the audience. It’s happened to me before, and is always startling, a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. From being the reader, addressed equally and anonymously, you become, even momentarily, a minor character or a representative of something. In this instance it was flattering, but the thing is, you have no control over what the writer uses you to mean.

In David Nicholls’s Starter for Ten, set in the mid-Eighties, the lead character, Brian – a hapless student, failing in both love and University Challenge – hopes that he is about to have sex with a girl. “We stay up for an hour or so, drinking whisky, sitting on the bed next to each other and talking and listening to Tapestry and the new Everything But the Girl album.” Ah, I realised, here I represent the kind of singer people listen to when they’re trying, though possibly failing, to get laid.

Fast-forward a few years, to the mid-Nineties of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, a book constructed from lists of people and things, clothes and music, which apparently indicate the vacuousness of modern life. “I dash into the Paul Smith store on Bond Street, where I purchase a smart-looking navy-gray raincoat. Everything But the Girl’s ‘Missing’ plays over everything” and later, “In the limo heading toward Charing Cross Road Everything But the Girl’s ‘Wrong’ plays while I’m studying the small white envelope . . .” Here I’m being used to represent the way bands become briefly ubiquitous: our songs are a soundtrack to the sleazy glamour of the novel.

These mentions are all fine; it’s only the music that features, not me. Spotting yourself as an actual character in someone’s novel must be more shocking: one of the perils of, for instance, being married to a novelist. I think of Claire Bloom and Philip Roth. First she wrote a memoir about how ghastly it was being married to him, then he wrote a novel about how ghastly it was to be married to someone very like her. Books as revenge: that’s very different indeed.

Few people who had ever met Morrissey emerged from his memoir unscathed (me included), but particularly Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. He was hung, drawn and quartered in the book, yet seems to have maintained a dignified silence. But it’s hard knowing how to deal with real people in memoirs. In mine, I chose not to name one character, a boy who broke my 18-year-old heart. Feverish speculation among old friends, all of whom guessed wrong, proved how much attention they’d been paying to me at the time. I also wrote about my teenage band, the Marine Girls, and then sent the chapter to the other members for approval. Which led to a fresh outbreak of hostilities and not-speaking, 25 years after we’d broken up. Don’t you just love bands?

Worrying about any of this would stop anyone ever writing anything. Luckily it didn’t deter John Niven, whose scabrous music-biz novel, Kill Your Friends, mixes larger-than-life monsters such as the fictional A&R man Steven Stelfox with real people: and not just celebs (Goldie, the Spice Girls), but record company executives (Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, Rob Stringer) known best to those of us in the biz, and presumably thrilled to have made it into a book. John confirmed to me recently: “In the end I got more grief from people I left out of the book than those I put in. Such is the ego of the music industry. I heard of one executive who bought about 30 copies and would sign them for bands, saying, ‘This was based on me.’ You create the Devil and people are lining up to say, ‘Yep. I’m that guy.’”

In other words, as I suspected, there’s only one thing worse than being written about. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred