Sunday, 11 January 2009

A Dangerous Kind of Embarrassment.

This week I bring you bad news, not quite an obituary, not yet anyway, but a clear intimation that the days of two British institutions are numbered. The institutions in question are ‘Morris’ dancing and manufacturing, surprisingly their failing fortunes are linked by a single factor, embarrassment.

‘Morris’ dancers with their bells, sticks and straw hats decorated with garlands are, along with tea taken on a clipped lawn and cricket on the village green a quintessential part of the English summer, well they are so far as it is imagined by the heritage industry.

There are currently some 14,000 ‘Morris’ dancers in the UK, although the number of people taking part is declining and the age of the people taking part is rising with each passing year. If things continue as they are experts claim ‘Morris’ dancing will be ‘extinct’ within twenty years, the reason for this decline is, they claim, that young people find folk dancing embarrassing and so don’t want to include it in their portfolio of leisure activities.

Charlie Cochran, who rejoices in the title of ‘Bagman’ for the ‘Morris’ Ring, the body that promotes ‘Morris’ dancing in the UK is so concerned that he told the BBC this week ‘Once we’ve lost this part of our culture, it will be almost impossible to revive it.’

Try as I might I cannot find it within me to share Mr Cochran’s alarm over the demise of ‘Morris’ dancing, it has always seemed to me to be a little too tidy and quaint to be truly authentic, traditional I don’t doubt but tradition of a sort that has had its face washed and been taught enough good manners to have become divorced from its rough hewn roots.

There is also the small point that Mr Cochran and all the other people gathered to wring their hands over the demise of yet another link to Merrie England have forgotten what it means to be young. To be young, in this age or any other, is to be in the grip of the tyranny of being cool, meaning the need to be exactly like everyone else in your peer group whilst pretending to be determinedly individualistic.

It is a pose and one that people seldom cling to much past their mid thirties, one day soon the current generation of trendy young things will, like all the others that went before, will discover that the things they thought were dangerously un-cool when they were twenty seem like a good way to pass a summer’s evening. That might even prove to be true of ‘Morris’ dancing outside a pub with a thatched roof and some strong cider on tap.

I am much less sanguine about the decline in manufacturing, figures released this week revealed that production rates have fallen to the lowest level since 1981. A fact demonstrated this week by the fate of Staffordshire based pottery firm Wedgwood, which celebrated its two hundred and fiftieth year in business by going into administration, the possibility of an injection of venture capital cash from the other side of the Atlantic has thrown the company a lifeline, but much of its production is likely to be transferred to Indonesia.

As with ‘Morris’ dancing manufacturing in the UK can cite embarrassment as one of the causes of its decline, the British have always tended to have an ambivalent attitude to people who made their money in ‘trade’. When this attitude was largely confined to the landed gentry riding to hounds and drinking port in exclusive London clubs it was little more than a piece of harmless eccentricity, now the same attitude has been taken up by the products of the new universities it has become a serious threat to the nation’s prosperity.

The blunt truth, and this, I fear, is going to be a year of blunt truths, is that the grimy business of making, rather than simply hoping to design, things that people want to buy is the foundation on which the wealth of a nation is built. Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the still world famous pottery firm understood that fact implicitly, as did all the other ironmasters who made Britain the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

That is why two hundred years after his death the name of the company he founded lives on, if not for much longer in the county of his birth, I doubt the battalions of young graduates marching out of university with degrees in Media Studies and dreams of getting rich without getting their hands dirty will leave quite so deep a mark on posterity.

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