There’s a generation now, here on the island, which grew up entre deux guerre, as there was in the 1930s: after the Cold War, and before the Pervasive War, looking for a new way out of the old years. Towards the end of the 20th century — sold New Labour, sold Cool Britannia. Pop culture. Y2K the biggest fear. Borrowed cool (and not just the Wallpaper* elite).
But the Millennium didn’t end the 20th century, any more than January 1 1900 was the start of it. C20 got off to either a very early start (Alan Moore’s take on Jack the Ripper), or a very late one (the Russian Revolution or the Great War). The 21st century started September 11 2001.
And suddenly, marketing-driven Cool Britannia ill fits the mood of the times. Unease about our ‘special relationship’ with America, and drifting differences with Europe. There’s a war going on, and we’ve felt the shuddering end of something around us: the inconclusive, embarrassed retreat of the 1990s into history. Where did Now go? Weren’t we young and sexy and almost part of the New Empire — or was it almost reconciled with Old Europe? And now, the Pervasive War.
Britain knows how to deal with war: retreat into Englishness. Not Britishness, now soiled with the tar of New Labour’s brush, but Englishness — the old ways, but in the new way refined. Tokens: taking what we learned in the 90s — design fetishism, euro-cool, how to spend, and applying it to our own heritage. Think Real Ale vs Premium Bottled Lager, think St John’s elitist Puritanism vs. 90s fusion cuisine. Think Burberry. Winning the Rugby, not the football. The Surveilled Society vs. the Nanny State. Bridget Riley. Henry Moore. Upmarket Bed and Breakfasts vs. boutique hotels. We aren’t wannabe Parisians or New Yorkers. Living in New England, keeping our heads down but not quite in the sand.