In America, a road is a national icon and even dustcarts add shine to the everyday. Why are the British so poor at appreciating the ordinary? asks Hugh Pearman
I’m staring through the perimeter fence at New York’s Ground Zero, along with a gaggle of other people who have come to see what’s going on. Nothing much is, except for a surprisingly large temporary subway station. Suddenly, there’s an ominous noise, like an approaching plane. Not the whine of a jet, but the growl of something like a World War II bomber.
It gets louder and louder and then shoots into view. It’s not a plane, it’s a truck. One of those all-American trucks with a huge engine cowling and great chromed, vertical exhaust pipes, doubtless tuned to produce just this thunderous noise. As it roars off at alarming speed, it sounds its stentorian air horns. I imagine some plaid-shirted good ol’ boy activating them by pulling a lanyard in the roof of his cab.
Having grabbed everyone’s attention, the truck makes its exit. Behind that awesome racket turns out to be… just an ordinary, medium-sized, municipal garbage cart. For all its shock-and-awe presence, what it is and does is deeply humdrum.
It would be easy to draw a political parallel here, but what interests me is not the redneck aspects of American culture, but the residue of that culture. It comes down to a glorification of the everyday. This is something we are not at all good at in Britain. The two nations that are best at it have divergent political views, but one of them gave the Statue of Liberty to the other. Yes, France and America.
I’ve talked previously in this column about the nobility of ‘good ordinary’ design compared to personality-led design. This is something different again. America can turn a deeply boring road – Route 66 – into a national icon. France can make the morning purchase of bread into a quasi-religious ritual. What have we got? The A1 and Tesco.
I think this explains why the British film industry always struggles to match the performance of the French or American versions. We have no myths to draw on apart from memories of wars won or lost, or the stifling matter of class distinction. We don’t seem to do everyday life with conviction. Worse, our farmers are industrialists, while our trains, planes and automobiles are mostly made by others.
The guy in the Ground Zero garbage truck knew who he was and what his way of life somehow represented. The bakers of Paris and the vignerons of Bordeaux have a pretty good idea, too. As for me, I’m so English I have even earned money by picking hops. I am very happy, possibly even slightly proud, to be English.
But I haven’t a clue what I would have to do to acknowledge, let alone celebrate, the Englishness of my way of life. The militant taking of tea? Fundamentalist cricket? Standing politely in queues as performance art?
In the end, we are a chameleon breed. We adapt to everything else. We are clever – note how we are re-colonising France by stealth. Note how many Brits do well in America. Maybe this is what makes us so good at design: we have few inconvenient national characteristics of our own to get in the way. Our presence implies a certain kind of history, a doggedness, an offbeat charm. It is very saleable.
In contrast, that American trucker with his attitude and airhorns just wouldn’t be able to operate in London. He’d be laughed at. In a funny way, that’s a shame. We could do with a more interesting kind of dustcart.