Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind) is the latest viral YouTube sensation. It’s an excellent production of an excellent idea, very nicely done. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll have to have a poke around the internet as it’s now been removed from YouTube by EMI. It’s a parody of Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, a duplicate of that song and video but with all references changed to Newport and Wales. The result is very funny. The humour comes from the fact that it is so self-effacing. In that most British of ways, it appears to celebrate the shortcomings of Newport alongside its triumphs in a way that is so subtle that it walks the line between being straight, being ironic and being sarcastic. The result is that there is no ‘nod to the camera’, no explanation of what is really meant (as in the American trend of confessing sarcasm by adding ‘not!’ to the end of a sarcastic statement). It’s very funny.
It’s difficult to explain why the line ‘access from the A4042’ or references to leeks and shopping centres are so funny. It’s due in part to that juxtaposition in the lyric of we would expect to be profound, poetic or meaningful with the mundane and everyday. It also professes a lack of pretension on the part of the singers as they reveal their ordinariness. This sort of humour has been a staple part of British comedy as far back as we can trace. Charlie Chaplin perfected and personified it; the ordinary man with whom we can laugh with and at his ignorance (and of course our own). Laurel and Hardy continued it with dialog (Stan Laurel was the main writer and British). The Goons moved it into radio and Morcambe and Wise and Monty Python perfected it on television. Acts like Vic Reeves and the League of Gentlemen continued this idea of ordinariness, the lack of glamour and being ‘a little bit rubbish’ as being very funny. Today you’ll find it in sitcoms like ‘The IT Crowd’ and at the core of new Zealand’s ‘Flight of the Conchords’, the struggling inept novelty folk duo.
So while we in Britain and other similar like minded places like New Zealand and of course Ireland, are so keen to laugh at ourselves, which is such a good thing, it also has a possible dark side. Unlike the general attitude of the US, we are quite able to settle for second, third or even last place. Just think about the nation’s attitude to the World Cup and the Eurovision Song Contest. We’d love to win, but don’t really expect it and are almost relieved when we fail.
Let’s return to Newport. The songwriters choice to replace New York is inspired not just because of the similarity of the words and the syllables. Newport can be thought of in many ways as the antithesis of New York. Where New York is big and impressive, important globally and culturally, Newport is perhaps a bit obscure and ordinary. It’s the same reason that Slough was chosen as the setting for the sitcom ‘The Office’ and that the other town mentioned in that show is Swindon. Both towns are unrelentingly uninspiring and unimportant compared with Britain’s larger metropolises or cathedral cities.
And here lies the rub. How did Newport (and Slough and Swindon) get to be so architecturally random, sprawling and lacking in cultural or historical character? I wonder if it’s the other side of this ‘acceptance of mundanity and failure’ coin. All towns have town planners and yet almost all British towns that have had new building work since the 1950s seem unplanned, ugly and disconnected. Towns like Basingstoke and Bradford, once attractive market towns have been ripped up, flattened and totally re-built twice since the mid 1960s (although in Bradford they still haven’t put it back together again yet) with all original character lost.
Like other nations, Britain had a brief flirtation with ‘Modernism’ that replaced rather than renovated Victorian slums in the post war era. Many of those concrete tower blocks have themselves since been pulled down and it seems Britain’s planners have even less of a plan and identity now.
Knowing what a desirable and beautiful town is not as subjective as you think. If it was we wouldn’t have the same kind of towns listed as British or World Heritage Sites such as Saltaire in Yorkshire (right next to Bradford incidentally) and Bath in Somerset. We have all agreed what a good town is, so why don’t we build new towns, or renovate towns in that same way?
Let’s widen that statement. Why don’t we build ‘World Heritage Sites’ instead of looking at the glories of the past that have miraculously survived?
Do we have, just as the Newport song suggests, a low expectation of what’s possible in this country? If this is the case nationally, it’s very likely that it extends to how we feel and think personally, on some level. When it comes to our own work, our own creativity, our own businesses and all our own projects, do we have an in-built criteria of ‘that’s good enough’, ‘I’m not worth it’, ‘we don’t deserve any better’, ‘we can’t really succeed’, ‘don’t aim high then we won’t be disappointed’?
I believe it can be traced back to the end of the First World War and the despair, debt and depression that followed it and the dismantling of the British Empire. Suddenly we weren’t number one and were now reliant on other nations for help and support.
As a nation I think it’s time to create a new paradigm. There is no Empire to fall back on to create old fashioned Saturnian paternal and militaristic pride, but there is our broad and complex and wonderfully multi-faceted culture, our freedom, our rich history, our shared struggle and our achievements, to create a new kind of national pride.
When I wrote a song about the World Cup and the psychic octopus that correctly predicted the outcome of the matches, I was asked why did I think that England didn’t just not win, but got placed lower than ever in World Cup history. Were the players to blame? Were they too affluent and arrogant? Was it bad management or poor coaching? Was it because the players were too old? Are their too many foreign players in the Premier League hence supplying a smaller pool for the nation team to chose from? What was it?
I believe that the core reason is the same reason that I’ve been alluding to in this article. This nation is no longer programmed to win and we are resigned to that. Children are not educated to win at school. We don’t have a success ethic in business. We’re ashamed to make a lot of money. We’re frightened that competition means that it labels someone else as a ‘loser’.
If we want to win the World Cup, trying to pick better players and intensive coaching is too late in the process. That’s just trying to treat the symptoms not the cause. If we want to win we need to learn how to win again. We’ll need to encourage players at the very youngest age. We’ll need coaches and great players training the next but one generation, children who are starting school now. And it’s not just about football. The same techniques of success need to be applied to tennis and cricket. They need to be applied to music and painting. They need to be applied to languages and writing. They need to be applied to maths, the sciences and engineering. Possibly most of all, they need to be applied to creativity and attitude. If we can teach our children confidence in their creativity, we will have taught them how to be successful without arrogance. We will have taught them pride without vanity.
Why shouldn’t we aim high? Why shouldn’t we build ‘World Heritage’ works in whatever project we are working on?
And of course we shouldn’t worry about losing our comedy and humour. We can always laugh at how useless we all USED to be.
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