There’s a commercial on what passes for the telly these days, and I like it. This is a rare occurrence for me, but I like it for two reasons. First, because I can remember the brand (Aviva) and second, because it sums up the Englishness of seeing something bizarre and pretending not to notice.
There is in turn another one which makes me smile – about two blokes who inadvertently book a holiday in a nudist camp – but for the life of me, I’ve seen it five times and I still can’t recall who it’s for.
What enchanted me about both the commercials, however, is their celebration of the English ability to ignore the bizarre and say “Good morning” as if nothing was wrong.
The best advertising finds a mnemonic that is brand-associated, and works endless variations on a cultural tic. This not only ensures the campaign has ‘legs”, it endears itself to the citizens of that culture….and ensures the brand is not just recalled, but also embraced.
When I use the nationality ‘English’ in this context, I do so advisedly: it is an English, not a British, thing. All colours, religions and social backgrounds are included, but the culture we’re dealing with is English.
One of the reasons Tommy Cooper was so hysterically funny was that characters in his jokes were eccentric in exactly that manner, but were unlucky enough to meet other people who weren’t. An example:
“I was walking down the street with a teapot on me head, and this woman says excuse me you’ve got a teapot on yer head. I said I know, I always do that on a Tuesday and she said it’s Thursday today. I felt such a fool”.
You see, while the Welsh do a nice line in irony – and you can’t beat the Scots for a judicious mixture of doom and self deprecation – only the English have this humour based on being potty, but not wanting to give offence by pointing out pottiness. It’s a sort of comedy of “the eccentric hidden by good manners”.
I once lived in a lovely Victorian estate in South London called Telford Park – at 42 Telford Avenue as it happens – and every day as I left for work, this bloke in top hat and tails came down the street on a bicycle whose wheels powered a gramophone record player belting out Wagner behind his saddle. Opposite our house was a vicarage, and quite often the vicar and I would quit our residences at the same time as the bipedal concert orchestra shot past. We’d smile, wave and say good morning as if all this was perfectly normal.
At Grammar school in Manchester, we had a history teacher – Mr Frith – who was also in charge of the Cross Country Team. The history classroom was situated at the head of a field, at the end of which was an old, gnarled tree. So when kids got homework questions wrong in class, this teacher would order the miscreant to run down to the tree and back.
Across the quadrangle from Chateau History was the woodwork room. I well remember my woodwork teacher there observing the comings and goings of exhausted small boys and – looking at his fob watch – observing, “I see Mr Frith’s attempts to instill some vague sense of national pride in 3A are proceeding on schedule”.
We English have an almost obsessive need to normalise the abnormal. At its best, this came through during the Blitz as “Business as Usual”. At its worst, it exists today in a truly bewildering attempt to glorify the socially dysfunctional, and ignore the myriad faults of a corrupt, anti-democratic supranational folly across the Channel calling itself the European Union – a confection which is neither united, nor representative of the multivariate Europe I have always embraced.
I fully appreciate and understand that people under thirty will think me an old crank who is unsure about the sky/ground/day/year relationship. They think such a thing because a disturbing myth has been put about in our mass and educational media to suggest that everyone over 55 is a nasty reactionary who wants only to look back.
In fact, we of the wrinkly tendency are sick of people looking to tired old ideas to deliver them from evil. We’ve been around long enough to grasp that they don’t work, have never worked, and lead only to people either with no work, or work in which they find little or no satisfaction.
It is an extraordinary thing to be English in 2019. The old are younger than they’ve ever been, and the young look for any wreckage to which they can cling. The well-meaning politicians who can harness that inversion to create unity may yet find they have the world at their feet.