As the Royal Wedding slouches into being, Britain is drowning under a wave of retro kitsch. The boho wankers of London have decided that liking the monarchy is vintage chic, a bit like owning a Gameboy from 1991, and have emblazoned club hoardings with the slogan ‘don’t hate on Kate’ superimposed over the Union Jack.
On the glorious day itself, a street party will be held in Shoreditch, in the heart of the capital’s trendy art district, to celebrate all things British and bygone — like wartime “victory rolls”, the lindy hop and the relevance of the house of Windsor. This bric-a-brac of old-fashioned Englishness does not include a polio float or imprisonment for homosexuals, but there will be a Chas-and-Dave tribute band.
For some, this is more supporting evidence in the case for Shoreditch to be purified with fire, its juice-bars sacked, its art toffs and trust-fund junkies driven weeping to Camberwell and Newham where they may have to pay for their own drugs. The retro rot has spread beyond hipsterville, however.
Other street parties in the capital will be distributing T-shirts printed with the omnipresent “Keep Calm and Carry On” design, the “ironic” wartime propaganda poster that now infests the chinaware of the middle classes, reminding us that fortitude in the face of government-imposed austerity is just like fortitude in the face of Nazi invasion. As with the “victory rolls”, the message is confused: precisely what does the marriage of a young 21st-century aristocrat have to do with a war we fought almost 70 years ago?
Twee aesthetic nostalgia for a fantasy of “lost Britishness” has reached fever pitch. It goes way beyond the Wedding. A part of the Daily Mail offices is wallpapered with images of bulldogs, telephone boxes and, yes, spitfires, done out in patriotic red, white and blue. Consumers are exhorted to buy dairy products on which, according to the advertisers, “Empires were Built”.
There is something monstrous in this fetishisation of wartime austerity and imperial pride, given that our government is currently dismantling the Attlee settlement and dispatching troops for yet another war of intervention — but there is something tragic there, too.
Inherent in this accumulation of cultural relics is the belief that modern Britain has little to feel proud of, and less to look forward to. Millions of people are about to lose their jobs and millions more are waiting for their living standards to drop through the floor as education, housing and basic consumer goods become harder to access.
There is a sense that the future is closing down, while Britain’s glorious past shines ever brighter.
The Second World War is reserved for special reverence, because this is the last moment in recent British history where we can be sure that our country was unmitigatedly on the side of good. Most of us want to be able to feel proud of being British, but that desire is being ruthlessly exploited in the quest for public acquiescence to enforced austerity.
The “Blitz Spirit” is evoked by PR managers from Dalston to Downing Street, encouraging us to summon that deferential British ability to weather any storm our rulers happen to steer us into. What nobody mentions is that this willingness to Keep Calm and Carry On is one of the very worst features of our national character.
All of this is no good reason not to take advantage of a day off and a party in the sunshine. But there is far more to Britain today than buns, bunting and retro-imperialism.
This country does not have to behave like a reclusive elderly person, polishing its relics in darkened rooms, hoarding mementos and paranoid prejudices from a time when the world made sense. This country doesn’t just have a past. It also has a future.