A funny kind of English

Observations on the British image

It's always useful to make the world feel good about us. Britain is not short of image-makers. For news, there's BBC World. For valour, our lads in the sand in Iraq. For fame, a globe-trotting prime minister whose name most people seem to recognise. For sound, Jack Straw blowing our trumpet at the UN.

Furthermore, to provide cultural support for such assets, we have a worldwide concern called the British Council present in 109 countries in order to penetrate the earth's dimmer corners with our values. But what is this that halts the light?

In France, where heaven knows Britain wants to shine, the council ran until recently a Paris library that once stocked 20,000 English-language books for people drawn to British literature, history, politics and science. The council's handsome stone premises on the Esplanade des Invalides seemed a native-friendly venue. Now, however, the public is denied access to the library, and the whole Information Service might as well be off-limits since it has taken to opening only two afternoons per week (and then for just two hours). Those who hanker after British values find it hard to fit in with so tight a routine.

The trouble is not just that the council, with a nod from the Foreign Office that funds it, has closed the library and vaporised its riches (there's still a US-funded American Library in Paris, catering to Shakespeare fans and offering Philip Roth in place of Martin Amis, which seems a reasonable alternative). Clearly, it also intends to abandon English as a value worth promoting.

Our overseas cultural representatives still spend a modicum of time teaching foreign children (not grown-ups) the language for a price, informing students how to go to college in Britain and occasionally getting a British author to come by for a chat with the natives. Otherwise, in Europe and no doubt worldwide, they have moved to e-culture. This involves penetrating the dimmer corners with e-democracy, e-government and virtual services. The invitation sent out to an "information society" conference staged by the council's branches in France, Germany and Italy is gloriously clear on the goal: "To allow countries to explore mutually the challenges of practical implementation of information society policy and making impact in their communities [sic]."

Even my computer winks red lines of linguistic protest at this objective. But it seems there's a purpose to it. Under new Labour, remember, we've set our sights on portraying Britain to the world as a with-it, reform-minded venue with a liberal, free-market economy. This requires a modern message (remember Cool Britannia?), which the British Council, with its £160m annual bite from the Treasury, is called upon to deliver.

Out with books and history, then, and in with Googling and e-values for a healthy intake of the best of British. Has nobody told the purveyors, apparently so bravely inspired by the millennium-end dotcom flap, that the bubble has burst?

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