Streets of London: A Nation Of Shopkeepers
A Nation Of Shopkeepers
Napoleon once described the English as a "nation of shopkeepers". He was describing a nation of petty bourgeois that worshipped commerce rather than culture, art, and food. This 150-year-old put down is probably no longer strictly true but it remains true in spirit at least.
I have recently been working at the series of concerts Robbie Williams has just held at Knebworth Hall. The concerts, which were held over three days, played to about 400,000 paying fans. One tenth of New Zealand’s population passed through the gates. It is a mind-boggling experience to stand and watch 130,000 people in one place; it is an experience that we New Zealanders feel more keenly. We can comprehend open spaces, but not crowded ones.
It was not just the size of the crowd that was astonishing but also the make-up of it. The crowd was overwhelming female, at about a ratio of 3 to 1. So much so I walked away each night having lost my ability to read maps and with a new found interest in Jimmy Choo shoes.
When Robbie spoke of love; for his grandmother, for his mother, for his fans, for England, and his inability to find it, the crowd cried. The crowd cried in large groups, in small groups, on their own, but they cried on mass. It was quite a sight.
Many of these fans had queued, a talent of the English, for 5 hours to enter the arena.
Once they were inside, they waited for another 8 hours for Robbie to come onto the stage. In this time, they were bombed with messages from Robbie’s official corporate friends. They watched adverts from X-box, Smart Cars and Vodafone across the big screens. Aside from these multi-media treats, every sight line was cluttered with logos, brands, tag lines and merchandising stalls. The crowd had nowhere to go. It was a siege, with the marketers relentlessly bombing the crowd with messages, no one escaping without at least a flesh wound.
All this activity was based on a lie. The naked lie that no one could quite say is that Robbie is not talented. His voice is flat and lifeless. He can only dance in a facetious manner, like the cool guy at the office party, all pulling faces and mock disco moves. His legendary interaction with the crowd, his “Mr Entertainment” crown that he wears, starts to chaff when you have watched it for three nights running.
This £80million pound man has no talent. He may have just generated £14 million in ticket sales alone. But he has no talent. It leaves you wondering about fame and riches in this country; and about their relation to talent.
Robbie however is not the most famous man of his generation in England. David Beckham holds that honour. The golden-balled golden boy of English Football. The once hated, then vindicated, now canonized English Captain. With his wife, they are the most celebrated couple in England. He is a style icon in both the white and black communities. He is the god of consumption and sales.
For all his fame and riches there is also a naked lie that no one dares say, that he is a talented footballer. He only has two talents on the pitch; he can hit a free kick well and he crosses the ball with great accuracy. But these two skills are contradicted by other shortcomings to make him nothing more than average. His recent 25 million pound price tag is based on commercial rather than footballing skills.
His one true skill is his ability to sell replica shirts.
This sales skill comes solely from the image that he and his minders have carefully built up. He, like Robbie Williams, is a triumph of image of talent. They and their advisors have carefully created and nurtured their image into a brand, into a product. Their fame, their sales skills, are the product of a thousand meetings of marketers, PR people and product placers.
Beck’s and Robbie are living proof that it is not great talent but great marketing that makes a modern English icon.
This is where we return back to Napoleons famous quotation. The shops he once spoke of have all been swallowed up by chain stores. All high streets have the same stores and the same products. The shopkeepers have gone; they are now marketers and PR professionals.
The PR agency, the Marketing agency, the Sport agents, the Recruitment agents; all those that swim in the very shallowest waters of the professional pool, are the heart of the British economy. They are the ones that value image above all, even talent. They are the ones that have created Beckham and Robbie and, for that matter, Tony Blair.
Substance, truth, art, talent are no longer sought in England. It is fame. It is an image. Witness Big Brother, Pop Idol, The Spice Girls, the closure of pure sciences courses, the rise of media studies, the Rise and Death of Princess Diana, the celebrity autobiography, Bill and Hillary Clinton, the celebrity chef, the Met Bar, political spin, the celebrity CEO, the internet boom and crash, The Premiership, Celebrity endorsements, branded clothing and Bling Bling.
Image is everything. Fame is enough. Talent is dead. Napoleon would still recognise the England he described. All commerce and no art.