There’s a juice advert I keep seeing on my commute to work that is slowly driving me insane. “In our survey, we asked parents, ‘What would make buying juice for your family easier?’” it asks in a funky font. “Idris Elba in a Cardigan,” it answers. Stare at this for too long, as you travel through the hinterlands of South London, and confusion starts to turn to anger. There is no joke. Indeed no rhyme or reason. It is the pure distillation of Twee Britannia: nonsensical, irreverent, irritating. Soul destroying.
Britain’s recent history presents something of a conundrum. Despite undergoing some of the biggest change in our nation’s history, there has been no overwhelming cultural mood to define it. Through the Queen dying, leaving the EU and undergoing a general sense of decline, the memory of our popular culture is a hazy recollection of celebrity novels, cooking books, BDSM erotica and light hearted detective fiction. We might like to pretend that people were reading Ali Smith moralising about Brexit or chin stroking as the poet laureate wrote climate change poems about polar bears. Alas, the nation shunned such preening moralising. We read Richard Osman thrillers and shoved our gob with treats from the Great British Bake Off.
In a time of discord, what detectable cultural consensus there is has been defined above all by a lack of seriousness, a whimsical retreat into a contrived idea of Britain as a stoical nation of loveable eccentrics. Twee Britannia has seeped itself into the soul of the nation, coming to define one of the last common bonds of public life. See Jess Phillips define her patriotism with Boaty McBoatFace, or the viral success of the Very British Problems brand. See every bestseller in the non-fiction chart this Christmas, from David Mitchell to Mary Berry.
The triumph of Twee Britannia, however, is built upon a dark truth. Beneath the surface of Keep Calm and Carry on Posters is a nation in the grips of a far more severe existential crisis. Popular culture is dead. Big name comedians, television events, even national treasures are a thing of the past. We are a nation of Only Fans, viral Tik Toks and Instagram influencers. Streaming and big tech have torn apart the strange glue that light entertainment and popular culture had on British identity in the second half of the 20th century. Now we live in an atomised culture, oscillating between a cerebral curation of personal interests, nostalgia and the viral indulgence of the downright inane.
As in Beijing, Boston and Brussels, so too in Buxton, Bristol and Tunbridge Wells
For those still left in the increasingly exclusive business of asserting a popular national culture, the burden has never been felt greater. Through the old sources of influence — bestselling books, state funded films and terrestrial television programmes — they have found themselves trapped in the false allure of twee Britannia. There is after all nowhere left to turn. The future holds misery and horrors. The past, beyond 1997, a murky cavalcade of paedophiles, racism, sexism and year zero evil politicians. The present, a minefield of culture war faux pas and cancellations. No surprise, then, that the nation has embraced an ahistorical, unmoored aesthetic of Britain trying to reassert its inherent twee above all this nastiness. Beyond all the discord of Brexit fallout and culture wars, there is a society that increasingly defines itself purely by awkward moments, baking, creative swearing, fake nostalgia and cups of tea.
All of this is of course an invention. Britain’s present misery provides only fuel for the twee inferno. At times, when forced to define itself, the only idea it projects is that Britain is still a nice place. The greatest proponent of this idea is the poet laureate of Twee Britannia, Brian Bilston. Reading a Bilston poem is to appreciate the failure of trying to combine the artificiality of twee Britain with a sense of purpose. A poem about refugees carries all the gravitas of a 12 year old responding to a creative writing prompt. Here, the twee aesthetic persists in its rhyming couplets and subversion of nasty right wing tabloid imagery. Combined with an overcooked sincerity, Bilston achieves the incredible feat of making the people he wants you to feel sorry for seem almost made up.
Beyond Bilston there are other victims of this cultural trap of artificiality. Osman’s thrillers, comforting casserole of loveable pensioners, Bake Off and Bond. David Mitchell, whose “horrible history for adults” resembles less a believable narrative of English history than a nightmare of being forced to watch a panel show of dated comedians indefinitely. Yet all these books, like much of Twee Britain, persist in selling in their millions, passing innocuously from Waterstones’ 3 for 2 to the charity shop shelf. An anachronism borne of the present.
That’s precisely the point. Twee Britannia is a sanitised, ahistorical product: designed to avoid the thorny issue of who we are and where we’re going. This is a culture by stakeholder, conceived in the warped minds of its creators to strike the lowest common denominator of inclusivity. Anything truly idiosyncratic, weird, bloody minded or inconveniently real about the nation is shorn. Unsurprisingly, Twee Britannia and its most successful practitioners have tapped into the globalised perceptions that drive the viral trends of social media. As in Beijing, Boston and Brussels, so too in Buxton, Bristol and Tunbridge Wells.
A fear years ago, the documentary maker Adam Curtis predicted a renaissance of sincerity in response to an internet culture saturated in irony. The same rebellion is more deserving of Twee Britannia and its many offshoots and manifestations. There is a nation out there, reformed, changed, ugly, but at least real. Rebelling against Twee Britannia will throw off the many shackles of our self deception and tell a far more interesting story of the nation we now find ourselves in.
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