Country Branding

Constant hot and sunny weather in London. Gordon Square today is packed with young people in the time honoured student poses: lone figures reading paperbacks on the grass, groups of friends chatting, happy. I walk through the square in my cream linen suit & tie and feel out of place, even though I too am a student. I even have my own locker in the Birkbeck building on the square (in Virginia Woolf’s old house).

I used to get upset about constantly feeling out of place. But then I realised that for some people, their place is to feel out of place.

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I visit the superb ‘Propaganda’ exhibition at the British Library. It is difficult to emerge from it without wanting to become an anarchist, frankly. The exhibition’s history of state manipulation takes in everything from Trajan’s Column to coins and stamps (asking who gets to appear on coins, and why are there people on coins in the first place), before bringing things up to date with last year’s Olympics. A video features Alistair Campbell, Tessa Jowell and Iain Dale talking about how the 2012 Games were an example of ‘country branding’. The political interpretation seems to fit both sides – there’s the Twitter comment on the Opening Ceremony by Tory MP Aidan Burley: ‘leftie multicultural crap’. Whereas the equally right wing Iain Dale thought it in fact represented ‘the best of Britain’.

Also in the video Campbell says ‘the public mood drove public opinion’, which rather recalls his ‘People’s Princess’ speech for Blair at the time of Diana’s death. That kind of language is propaganda in itself: producing phrases which seem to provide a voice for the public as a whole, while in reality they purely represent the voice of the man who wrote them.

I was reminded how this year, Andy Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon (Sunday 7th) has also been used for nationalist propaganda. His achievements as an individual are being discussed by politicians and columnists as if they were secondary to something he had no choice over – his nationality, whether as a Scot or as a Briton. Still, as an outlet for ‘country branding’, which seems to be always with us, sport is at least preferable to war.

At the exhibition, there’s an example of propaganda applied to the late Diana which was new to me. It is in a video featuring Zoe Fairbairns, feminist writer and author of the dystopian novel Benefits. I am not familiar with the book, which is from 1979, but the blurb doesn’t seem to be out of place in 2013:

‘It is summer… a heat wave… tense, uneasy days in the city. There are ominous signs of political turbulence… Welfare benefits are under attack…’

Ms Fairbairns was involved in a campaign against the 1981 Royal Wedding, which she saw as promoting the ‘distasteful symbolism’ of the marriage ceremony. The campaign had its own badges. They bore the slogan ‘DON’T DO IT, DI.’

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The First Thing You Unpack

Am looking after a kitten in a Golders Green house for one night. The owners are a US couple, a detail borne out by one notable omission in the kitchen. There is no electric kettle. Just a coffee machine.

Neither person is a tea drinker. When visitors have asked for a cup they use the microwave oven to boil a cupful of water. Asking around the modern hive mind that is Twitter and Facebook, I learn that this substitute method is quite common for US households entertaining British guests.

In fact, I now know that in the US electric kettles are a distinctly rare kitchen appliance. Stove top kettles are a more likely choice for the mere 4 per cent of Americans who drink tea. One reason is the difference in mains voltage – 120v in the US, compared to the UK’s 240v – doubling the boiling time for electric kettles in the States. But there’s the whole ritualistic connotations of boiling an electric kettle that the US doesn’t have: it’s what you’re meant to do during a TV advertising break (fewer of those in the UK per hour of TV, making it more of a big deal). It’s something you can easily set up in a room without a cooker: offices, student rooms, hotel rooms.

Suddenly fascinated by this subject, I chat to people online and find that one US store, Target, does stock affordable electric kettles on their website, though they’re not always in the physical shops.

From a Brit who lived in LA: “After months of no joy at even Target I finally bought a new one in a Persian market on the westside of LA. Ridiculous.”

From a Brit in Arizona: “Been here 4 yrs and only spotted electric kettles within the last six months, at Target. In Arizona you make ‘Sun Tea’, teabags in water and leave it outside to brew.”

Target’s item description has one sentence that would never appear on a UK listing:

“- Boils faster than a microwave”

And by way of a counterpart appliance, I had this from an American in the UK:

“It took me nearly a decade to find a reasonably-priced decent waffle iron in Britain, which is standard kit in any US kitchen shop.”

But for me the most defining aspect of the electric kettle is its importance during one of the most stressful and defining experiences in life: moving house.

As one Brit reminds me:

“When you hire boxes from a moving company, the ‘how to pack’ instructions tell you to leave the kettle till last.”

And from another Brit:

“That’s exactly how it is: electric kettle packed last, and first item to be plugged-in. That first cup makes it feel you’ve arrived.”

Thanks to everyone on Twitter and Facebook for the enlightenment. Quotes from Stuart Nathan, Sophie Heawood, Caroline Corbett, @eighths, @cybermango.

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