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God sell the Queen

It’s not been a month and already the Brits are rubbing their hands and counting the profits. Reports in the press say that the royal wedding, has brought in millions, if not billions, of pounds in tourism, souvenir exports and memorabilia sales. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:21 IST
Farrukh Dhondy
Farrukh Dhondy
Hindustan Times

It’s not been a month and already the Brits are rubbing their hands and counting the profits. Reports in the press say that the royal wedding — of Prince William to Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, now Duchess of Cambridge and Marchioness of Wonderland — has brought in millions, if not billions, of pounds in tourism, souvenir exports and memorabilia sales.

Bully for Britain. In these hard times every little helps and we look forward to further national enrichment through the early betrothal of Prince Harry to his girlfriend Battersea.

The Wedding, the attention it received from billions of well-wishers all around the world and the profits it garnered for Britain prove once again that Napoleon, when he called Britain “a nation of shopkeepers” was being grudging.

This is the greatest nation of shopkeepers. That greatness lies in being able to sell and persuade the world to buy repeated designer versions of the Emperor’s New Clothes — this time the Prince’s red and gold Ruritanian uniform?

It was perhaps Robert Clive who first realised that the Bengalis, living in a hot climate, weren’t rushing to buy woollen blankets and sweaters knitted from the produce of Highland industries. Neither did they flock to buy the rusting cutlery produced by the precursors of the Sheffield steel industry.

The only way to make money for the East India Company was to abandon the pretence of trade — the exchange of something concrete for something similar — and start selling military expertise to Muhammad Ali of Arcot and Mir Jaffar of Bengal and to demand tribute, expenses and a share of taxes levied on the land in return. A bargain!

It is no intention of mine to denigrate the excellent ladies’ underwear purveyed by Marks & Spencer for which some Arab and subcontinental female shoplifters are willing to risk a sentence at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Now would I, afficionado of the Parsi Peg, deride the quality of single, double and even quadruple malt whiskies. I merely wish to point out that the ladies’ underwear is manufactured in China and points East and that there is more Scotch drunk in Chandigarh than ever left the shores of bonny Scotland.

No doubt Rolls Royce engines used in combat aircraft sold to Colonel Gaddafi are an exception. But by and large Britain, unlike China, doesn’t make things to sell. It maintains its predominance in the world by selling its culture or anything that will pass for such.

Thomas Macaulay didn’t introduce English education to what Rudyard (is there any other?) later called “lesser breeds without the law” in order to have Bengalis quoting Shakespeare. And yet today they quote TS Eliot and perhaps even Carol Ann Duffy with defiant impunity.

Bismarck it was who, when asked which bequest of his century would most influence the 20th, said “that America speaks English”. His reply ignored South America, didn’t bother to mention India and was by chronology ignorant of the internet. Nonetheless, it was a perceptive reply.

Shakespeare and Royalty may sell in perpetuity, but these are but the window dressing. The shop has many mansions. The form that Bollywood films take owes more to the western ‘musical’ film tradition than it does to the Natyashastra and if it has, in its contemporary avatars, got over Rogers and Hammerstein, it derives its addiction to improbable plots and action from the English superfraud James Bond.

Who will deny that after Enid Blyton, who translated the colonial sense of adventure and exploration into a language she put into the mouths of babes, the most successful worldwide fantasy is that of Harry Potter and his world of British public school magic?

What a fantastic formula!

And how many writers for children should be kicking themselves for not finding it: take Tom Brown’s schooldays, with the bullying, hard games and hierarchies, add the imaginative improbabilities of creatures and powers from video games and, not forgetting a dash of contemporary feminism, Bob’s your million-seller! Thin air to mazuma!

The government of Margaret Thatcher waged war against the unprofitable and uncompetitive sectors of British manufacturing industry. Which, comparing the wages of British miners to those of Poland and the relative price of making a yard of cotton in Oldham and in Ahmedabad, meant all of it.

Her prime ministership rid Britain of the last pretence of selling blankets to Bengalis. It sought instead to lure capital to its ‘financial services’, a euphemism for well-practised and well-oiled usury.

There is nothing wrong with a nation living for centuries by having the best stories, the best songs and even the best tax-dodging accountants. (Er. No! Maybe the last is not so good). After Elvis and rock’n’roll, the world’s pop industry turned to Liverpool.

The plots of most successful detective stories still derive from Agatha Christie and when Batman faces The Joker, is there not a clear heritage from Sherlock and Moriarty if not Father Brown and Flambeau? (Note the non-Englishness of both villain’s names!)

Finance and culture — wonderful abstracts to be the capital of. But what happens when our American cousins start playing sub-prime games and turn those same financial services into devastating drains on the public purse?

And what happens if the fires of new technologies are kindled (geddit?) and books become free or indeed if the video gaming element in Harry Potter overtakes the Tom Brown’s schooldays appeal?

Hmm... Maybe we can sell a film about our stammering king...

(Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: May 18, 2011 23:03 IST