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An Imaginary Sense of Lost Britishness

November 21, 2014

I discussed recently about the value of lost cultures, and how we ought to lament for the loss of traditional Western Cultures too. I also said that I’d follow up with a post on British culture. Lastly, I noted how perhaps the value of the past lay in the memories of the past, and its imagined values, because those in the past were no better than us.

Today, I’d like to tackle these points, or what has been aptly called “the lens through which a lost of never fulfilled Britishness is perceived”. Read the quote I provide from a review of the Professor Layton series of games. [1,2]. It shall inform our discussion; the emphasis is all mine:

“This, the sixth and touted to be the last Professor Layton title, is no different, and gives a grand and affectionate send-off to a series dedicated to a fictional Britishness that even Downton Abbey would be jealous of…

What is remarkable to me about this series is the lens through which a lost or never-fulfilled Britishness is perceived. Just like the west orientalises Japan as a technology pop culture mecca of neon lights, robots and manga – and as a one-time resident of Japan, I learned this is mostly a perception the west has cultivated – occidentalism pops up in Layton as invented coat-and-tails Oxbridge English refinement.

To me, Layton’s Britain is a place that sits in the imagination of most of the Japanese friends I made whilst living in Japan. Being Scottish, it was hard to explain that though I came from Igirisu (Britain) “English culture” was not something I’d ever taken part in. Generous Japanese friends, thinking it would make me feel at home, took me out to English-style cream teas with scones in dainty Japanese cafes, which were on reflection far better than the expensive cream teas I have paid for in London since. And although it pleased me to try to live up to their starry-eyed vision of the English rose they assumed I was (they were shocked at how I knocked back whiskey, for example), occasionally it worried me that one day they would visit London, be rained on getting the open-top to Madame Tussauds, or be served soggy fish and chips by a rude waiter.

I have since learned that this is exactly what happened. I have sent Earl Grey tea as an apology.

In comparison, the idealised Kensington High Street of Professor Layton is exactly the English rose, cream tea Britain I’d rather my Japanese friends could visit. In the genteel professor’s London it hardly ever rains, people still wear top hats, and no one is ever rude to each other, all of which are things that are alien to the modern day Londoner.

I will miss Professor Layton’s surreal British adventures… There’s also perhaps a little hidden lament in there, as the game comes to a satisfying and yet melancholy conclusion, a lingering feeling that perhaps the puzzlemaker himself, Akira Tago, might be sad to leave the imagined Britishness of the unique series behind.

Let me sum this up really briefly:

  1. This re-imagining of the past presents a positive ideal
  2. It was (and still is) better than reality
  3. This re-imagining is in effect fictional
  4. Yet, we lament to leave it behind

And my own additions:

  1. We lament to leave it behind because there are ideals that we long to realise
  2. Even a false ideal can be helpful and enable us to realise lost ideals.

Time to deconstruct.

An Imagined Sense of Lost Britishness is Good!

Charming young ladies, elegant gentleman. The prim and proper manners of an English gentleman, the good hearted enthusiasm of the young boy eager to help. Wit, levity, adventure and altruistic giving of alms. Stylish teas, scones, lakes beside gardens. Walks through parks.

How wondrous a world! To be a part of such a world! Professor Layton, as the embodiment of the English Gentleman in this world, is a role model for us all. Intelligent, kind, gentlemanly, charismatic, altruistic. A shining beacon to us all.

And not just the Professor, but think of how stylish the world is. The verve and yet also the unwavering politeness is a sight to behold.

The ideal of the English Gentleman holds a strong pull on me. Here, here is a world to want to live in, to aim for. But we do not live in such a world. So, to realise such a world we must act our part. We must live up to these ideals.

But… Shouldn’t We Ignore It Because Its False?

No doubt, the Victorians had ideals. But we also shouldn’t doubt that these ideals weren’t realised to the fullest extent. They dress well, and had their manners. But they had their faults. Let us not pretend that the 20th century somehow invented affront or impious behaviour. In fact, I think most of us would argue that the expansion of the rule of law, liberalism and human rights could mean we are more righteous. (my view? As usual, what age is better is irrelevant; what counts is what we can take from each)

The point is, should we really be learning from fiction?

Yes.

Eric Hobsbawn once wrote about the invention of tradition. Many ‘traditions’ are invented to create stability, unity etc. My modern history teacher, when he studied Japanese history at university, covered this concept heavily in the Meiji Restoration era of Japan. The idea was that for all the rituals and processes that occurred in this era that were called “tradition” most of them werw broadly speaking invented.[3] And Hobsbawn was probably right [3]. Tradition, ritual… is often a lie.

But, it’s a lie that can create stability and unity. Its a lie that can impart a sense of meaning to one’s life. It’s a lie that can create camaraderie between neighbours, and strengthen social ties. Rituals, traditions count.

And on the personal level, a ‘tradition’ of politeness even if invented is helpful. What if the tradition does compel people to be more polite? What if a tradition arises that compels people to be altruistic? If you are atheistic, would not some religious ‘traditions’ still be a powerful symbol of alms giving?

Whether the tradition and memories are fictional does not matter – it helps propel society to noble ends. Furthermore, I’d argue that the memory of this fictional, yet idealised past is one that in our daily lives we should be aiming towards. Wit for the gentleman, charm for the lady, unfailing good manners. These are good goals even if we can’t achieve them! Even if we don’t reach our goal, we shall be closer to it for trying.

Conclusions

To me the imagined tradition of the English Gentleman has a strong pull. It is a compelling ideal. Perhaps it exaggerates the past, yet it can act to make us do good now. Use the tradition and your lament for its non-existence to drive your own self-improvement. Take what is good from the past, and add it to the present.

 

————

1 – http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/nov/12/professor-layton-and-the-azran-legacy-nintendo-review

2- Somebody is probably wondering how I possibly found this review. You might be asking ‘does this writer spend so much time on games that he reads every review?’ Though I do think a review can deepen one’s understanding of entertainment, I typically only read movie reviews as a postscript. Other reviews I read if I 100% love something. This was true of Professor Layton, yet not the reason behind my remembering it. No, the idea of a lost Britishness came up when writing an English major work, and I found this as a result of school work.

3- In my view, only part would be conscious invention. Japan had lacked any supposedly real rule by the emperor for a long time, and this meant the revival of tradition was in part blurred by an inability to determine what the past traditions actually were. I would agree that invented tradition existed in Meiji Japan, though my expertise in this area is less than in some other specialist areas of Japan.

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