16 August 2012 by Pelle Neroth
I always thought the pin sharp descriptions in his book about the Spanish civil war among the best stuff he wrote. It operated as an effective counterpoint to his exciting account of the chaos of the war in Spain. The red chorizo sausages that gave you diarrhoea, the empty streets with deserted trams when Barcelona erupted in gunfire. I suppose the descriptions of "England in deep, deep sleep which would not wake up until the roar of bombs" are one of the best known bits of English literary reportage. At any rate John Major evoked it when he spoke of England being a country of long shadows on cricket grounds and invincible green suburbs. It is the only thing people ever remember John Major saying.
No matter how often I go back and forth between Britain and Europe, I always have a George Orwell moment, as I describe it to myself. The shock of one's home country (ie England) having been defamiliarised by foreign travel or a foreign sojourn. I make observations and tot up the score. Europe v England.
About many things, but not everything, England comes off worse. Though when I say England I really mean London so perhaps England gets unfairly included in an assessment that does not really apply to it. England has better, brighter poster advertising. Always has had advertising ahead of its time. I remember looking over some slides recently of London in the 1970s from the excellent nostalgia website called the Retronaut. The cars are old and unshiny, the pedestrians are wearing bell bottomed trousers, there is still the odd bowler hat about, But the advertising, for Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges is brilliant and innovative, and would not be out of place on a poster billboard 35 years later, today. (Except of course, because of an EU directive, tobacco advertising is forbidden.)
English advertising is superior then and still wins the prizes at the annual advertising festival at Cannes. (And the same goes for the other entertainment and information industries, but it is the advertising you notice immediately on coming in from abroad.) Another bright spot, in recent years, is that there is a better and faster service mentality in the UK compared to the Continent. But much else gives a shabby appearance.
You notice the poor quality of the motorway driving out of Dover to London, compared to the French motorway coming into Calais. At London's airports you notice the worn carpets. Coming into London there are the depressing shop fronts, increasingly likely to be boarded up. I write this from Sweden, where everything is spotless and efficient. Everything just works. There are long white beaches without a scrap of rubbish on them. Buses in rural areas are both frequent and efficient, arriving on the minute, and connecting seamlessly to the local railway network. Malmo, where I spent a few years of my childhood, has undergone a fantastic regeneration programme. Modern office buildings, with no weeping concrete, line the harbour basins where once shipyards provided 5% of the world's shipping.
It is all incredibly stylish and has none of the almost fascistoid monumentalism - perhaps it is the Chicago style - that you find at Canary Wharf. Even the multi-story car parks look good, as their purpose has been completely disguised by exterior lighting designs that reflect in the water at dusk. It is not just the boldness of the designs but the attention paid to the little things, to detail. And older constructions are not neglected. Every single facade I have seen looks newly painted, no flaking in sight. Sweden is of course helped by a growing economy and because it is so underpopulated.
South East England is groaning under the strain of its population boom brought about, in part, because it acts as a magnet for the whole of the EU. I know what I will be thinking when I get back. How can England regenerate its infrastructure when there is just so much to be done?
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 16 August 2012 09:43 AM General
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