Cool Britannia

In fashion, music and film, British style rules the day

BRUCE WALLACE April 28 1997

Cool Britannia

In fashion, music and film, British style rules the day

BRUCE WALLACE April 28 1997

Cool Britannia



In fashion, music and film, British style rules the day



There is no better pedigree in pop culture than the name McCartney. So allowing an unproven 25-year-old Brit to wield the scissors at a leading French fashion house is not as risky as it might seem when the designer is Stella McCartney, daughter of ex-Beatle Paul. There are still those for whom the term British fashion conjures images of musty tweeds dating from the Battle of Britain, or safety pins stabbed through a cheek. Get over it. “Britishness” is the flavor of cool this year. There exists no more stylish a couture house than Dior, but the French company’s hot new designer is London’s John Galliano, whose pencil-thin moustache makes him look as if he should be swinging in on a chandelier in a 1930s swashbuckler. Givenchy has trusted its reputation to tubby Alexander McQueen from London’s east end. For the Chloe line, it was just a question of hopping aboard a trend. Last week, they hired McCartney as head designer, who quickly vowed to bring a “sense of Englishness” to Chloe’s design.

Call it Cool Britannia, the cocktail of pop-

ular culture blending fashion, music, movies, food and football that has made British style sexy again and sparked a burst of national self-satisfaction. It is a country in transition. Age-old traditions and institutions are under siege, while voters seem set to throw out the scandal-ridden Conservatives after 18 years in power. Yet the overall mood is anything but sour.

London is awash in cash, led by the money-gushing City of London financial district and a property market that has yet to bump its head on the ceiling.

All that money dripping from the pockets of young brokers and twentysomething heirs of the landed gentry underwrites a London scene that invokes comparisons to the swinging London of the 1960s. New music abounds. The British film industry is on one of its periodic rolls. Celebrity chefs spend more time in front of the TV cameras than behind the grill. “There is this buzz in London now,” says Edmonton-born shoe designer Patrick Cox, who has lived in London

since 1983 and has seen “some dark days when England was down the toilet.” Now, he bumps into Italians who have come to London to shop for clothes. “Some of the stuff is even made in Milan,” says Cox. “I say, ‘Why are you spending all this extra money to fly here to shop?’ And they say, We just want that London experience.’ ”

In the boom or gloom cycle that so characterizes its national life, Britain is now enjoying another intoxicating high. Even English soccer, famous for its lager-laced hooligans, is an object of national pride again. Living near a football stadium once meant putting masking tape over the windows and keeping the cat indoors on game days. Then along came media merchant Rupert Murdoch, who poured hundreds of millions of pounds into televising the English Premier League. Riches took the football environment upscale. Deathtrap standing-room-only terraces have come down, replaced by corporate boxes. More women are watching. And foreign stars now clamor to don jerseys in England, where the style of play is more entertaining and the salaries are Planet Basketball. The Chelsea club, which once harbored England’s most notorious white supremacist thugs among its fans, has become an exotic collage of international players led by Ruud Gullit (pronounced Rude Hullit), its black Dutch player-manager. The dreadlocked Gullit is one of London’s most popular celebrities.

The king and queen of the British celebrity castle, however, are Liam Gallagher, one of the country’s top rock stars, and his new wife, Patsy Kensit, who has now married three of them. Gallagher is a professional

delinquent and otherwise lead singer of Oasis, the mega-hit Manchester band whose songs became the sound track to 1996. Kensit is a once-in-a-while actress. Although few North Americans have heard of Liam and Patsy, that does not bother their British fans, who cringe at the dismal fate of Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley, the last British star couple Americans momentarily fawned over.

Unlike past waves of British pop music, the current rush of new bands seems less intent on lapping at the American shores, aiming instead at homegrown tastes. British music essentially divides into two categories. There is Britpop, an amalgamation of 30 years of pop music styles best defined by Oasis, which Phill Savage, publicity guru for some of the movement’s most successful bands, describes as “a celebration of our

own culture.” And there is the electronic thunder of dance music, which dominates Britain’s huge club following. “The real creativity is in the dance music, though I confess I don’t understand it,” says novelist Nick Hornby, 39, who has written best-sellers on soccer (Fever Pitch) and pop music (High Fidelity). “But I think it’s about time there was music I didn’t understand.”

Only the Spice Girls, a boppy five-woman song-and-dance combo put together by marketers last year, seem positioned to crack the American market. Their “girl power” image is cleverly aimed at teenage mall-goers, and shows signs of crossing the ocean. In

Britain, naming all five Spice Girls has become the test of hipness that interviewers like to toss at unsuspecting politicians and church leaders. But despite four number 1 singles already, nobody expects the Spice Girls to rewrite the musical canon.

Still, the British cachet is paying off for everyone from the film-makers who raided Hollywood’s Oscar cabinet this year (The English Patient was their movie) to nightclub owners who can’t pour the champagne into the party-till-you-drop crowd fast enough. “It’s obscene how much money goes through here in a night,” says former Torontonian Paul Brams, floor manager of the exclusive Café de Paris nightclub on Piccadilly Circus, where those who can’t afford to rent the $2,200-a-night private Jacuzzi must struggle through sweat-slippery bodies for space on the dance floor. The good times are not paying dividends, however, for the man who likes to think his policies are responsible for throwing the party in the first place: Conservative Prime Minister John Major.

Britons will cast ballots in a general election on May 1, and every opinion poll indicates that Major will be handing power over to the Tony Blair-led Labour Party. Few believe that Blair will reverse the Tories’ free-market policies that are helping Britain’s economy outperform her stagnant European partners. “People in the United Kingdom have become ambitious,” says 32-year-old trader Neil Davich, sipping a Guinness in a City pub after work. “I’m not saying that the past few years haven’t been painful for many people. But Brits now know that if you want something, you have to pay for it. Electing a Labour government may mean that we’ve collectively decided we want more hospitals, or more po£ lice. But we also know that this => time, we have to pay for it.” a In the past, switching from a ¿ Tory to a Labour government I meant a dramatic swing of the political pendulum. Now, the two parties are virtual clones of each other on major economic issues, a perception that has lowered voter interest in the campaign. Voters have looked in on this election and yawned. Unlike France or Germany, there is little opposition to shrinking the state’s role in the economy. And globalization has shown some benefits for Britain. The country that once ruled a global empire now welcomes investment from such onetime Third World countries as Taiwan and South Korea, whose mega-corporations have created jobs in depressed areas where British-owned mines and shipyards closed.

But Blair is benefiting from a nagging sense that all the conspicuous consumption underscores a widening gulf between the extremely rich and the middle and working classes for whom staying on the treadmill gets harder all the time. “We are a much less cohesive society,” says Ian Jack, 52, editor of the prestigious Granta magazine and a self-admitted “gloompot.” “By and large, we had a civil and polite society untarnished by petty corruption. But the global market has played its part in disturbing this sweet little country.”

He lists the British institutions under strain: a monarchy become a soap opera for the tabloids, a parliament cheapened by a slew of bribery scandals, even the nearly 300-year-old union between England and Scotland up for reconsideration. “This is not the place it used to be,” says Jack. “After the last war, we gave up an empire without losing the things and values at the centre of British life.” Now, he says, “the whole notion of Britain is up for grabs.”

“Ask me a question,” says the man who has done more than anyone else to stain British politicians with ignominy, sitting in one of his offices above the world’s most famous department store. Mohamed Al Fayed is wearing a jazzy silk shirt that

would tickle a credit card for about $400, though this particular bespoke cut is not available on the Harrods shop floors below. It is almost midway through an election that the Conservatives seem destined to lose, thanks in no small part to the allegations of corruption that AÍ Fayed has pinned to John Major’s government over the past two years—and he is enjoying the spectacle of a government about to be tossed out. AÍ Fayed does not really take questions. He just listens politely for a moment and attacks.

“It is organized crime, a mafia,” is how the Egyptian businessman describes the senior Tories and officials he blames for refusing him British citizenship and branding him a liar. “All the crooks infiltrated the system under Margaret Thatcher, and most of them have skeletons in their closet. It took me, an Egyptian, to flush them out. Hoo, hoo, hoo.”

So he did. Al Fayed’s battle with the Conservative government springs from his nasty mid1980s takeover of the House of Fraser, which owns Harrods. Since then, he claims to have encountered corruption in high circles that destroyed some of the allure of the country he calls his second home. He owns a castle in Scotland, and loves British symbols like Harrods (he plans to be mummified and buried in a pyramid being built into the roof of the store’s new Egyptian room). But after winning the Harrods takeover battle, he found himself attacked in the House of Commons and put under investigation over past business connections. ‘These people still won’t accept a foreigner like me,” he sneers. “It’s racism, hypocrisy.”

AÍ Fayed asked a lobbyist named Ian Greer how to defend himself, and was told to put a few senior

'The whole notion of Britain is up for grabs'

Tories in his pocket. The Harrods owner says he then began slipping a select group of ministers and MPs cash and gifts. But the government still rejected his citizenship application and issued a report calling him a liar. So AÍ Fayed went to the media with stories of ministers showing up at his Harrods office to collect brown envelopes stuffed with cash. Newspapers then set up stings to show that MPs could be bought to ask questions in Parliament on behalf of clients. And a harsh light was suddenly shone on the fact that most MPs were holding down lucrative outside business interests, without even having to declare who they were working for. The whole issue became lumped under the label “cash for questions,” or just “sleaze,” and it haunts the Conservatives still.

“It’s a crusade, you know,” says AÍ Fayed on this unseasonably hot afternoon, angry at the Tories one minute, chuckling at their troubles the next. His public affairs director intervenes. “But it’s not about revenge, Mohamed,” he corrects. “It’s justice.”

“Absolutely,” says AÍ Fayed, sitting up straight. “When you pay someone for something and then

you get nothing____” He pauses. “Major, he’s the

son of a clown, right? He left school at 16. Now

he’s Henry VIII, sitting there, forgetting about where he came from and people’s problems with the hospitals and the schools. Instead, he defends all those crooks. People like that have to be flushed out.” AÍ Fayed shakes his head. “Anything else you want to ask?”

Parliament is not the only British tradition taking a battering. The idyll of the English countryside has always been firmly fixed in the British psyche, like the heaths and streams and plow horses of early 19th-century Constable prints that still decorate the walls of inner-city flats. But rural England is under tremendous stress. Sixty million people live on an island that could be dropped into the Great Lakes, and expanding cities and roads are squeezing its gentle landscape.

The battle to preserve the countryside has made a media sensation out of 23-yearold Daniel Hooper, a roads protester who goes by the name Swampy. His tactic is to tunnel several metres under ground that contractors want cleared for new roads—and then refuse to come out (right now he is in Manchester, digging in to obstruct construction of a second airport runway). To his enemies, Swampy’s so-called direct action tactics are anti-democratic. Send ferrets into the tunnels to flush him out, was Lord Carnarvon’s suggestion. But the cult around him cuts across class lines. “I’m a fan of Swampy,” says Tim Gilling, a banker who is out for a Saturday fox hunt in the Cotswolds. “So much of this country is under concrete now that a whole way of life is disappearing.”

Gilling’s own subculture of hunting with the hounds also faces extinction. Animal rights groups have fought for years to ban fox and stag hunting, and they won a watershed victory this month when analysis of the blood of hunted stags proved the animals suffer stress while being chased. The study forced the National Trust, which holds huge tracts of public land, to end stag hunting on its property. Many expect a fox hunt ban to come next. “Father tore all the National Trust stickers off the Land Rover this morning,” says a smiling Elizabeth Clarke from astride her mount, before cantering off to join the Valley of the White Horse club’s last fox meet of the season.

On this hot Saturday morning, when they know the fox scent will not be strong and the hunting will be poor, some riders mill about on their horses discussing the future of their pastime. “Many people were shocked by the report,” said the personable Gilling, who says he won’t hunt stags again. But he will not yet give up the fox hunt. “It’s such a glorious thing to do,” he says with a sad smile. “It appeals to something deep inside you. Children play chase games. And this is the ultimate chase game.” Caroline Hill, eyes blazing out from under her cap, won’t stop either. “I’m sure the foxes would vote for us if they had a chance,” she says. “They know when they aren’t putting out a scent. This morning, I saw a fox and he didn’t even run. He said, ‘Bother you. I’m not moving. I’m sunbathing.’ Then in a while he’ll think, ‘Hmm, perhaps I’ll go kill something now.’ ” Hill

gets angry when she thinks about the fox. “They’re murderers, you know.”

What rankles the hunters is that they believe they are the ones preserving the countryside from the steady onslaught of developers. “The English landscape has been fashioned over the centuries, partly by hunting,” says William Marler, a soft-spoken fine art book publisher as he takes a swig from a stirrup cup filled with port and brandy. “But we’re losing it,” he says sadly. “There’s not much left to preserve.”

Major is getting a political lesson in how that way of life is disappearing. He is fond of harking back to English traditions, to warm beer and cricket on the village green. “I fell in love with cricket as a schoolboy, bewitched by its romance,” the Prime Minister wrote in a newspaper review of a cricket dictionary last year. “It seemed to me to be essentially English in character, a game for heroes.” But cricket is out of step with national life. England’s cricketers lose international matches at a scandalous rate, causing Wisden’s, the cricket bible, to write that the English team “resembles a bad-tempered grandmother at a teenage rave, barely comprehending what is going on.” Major’s sport is out of fashion.

The money is in football now, evident by the Jaguars and Range Rovers jockeying for parking spots outside spanking new stadiums before games. The culture follows the money. “We are not a literary nation any more,” says Iain Sinclair, author of well-received novels set in London’s east end. “Books are just units. It is a clubbing, pill-popping society aimed at instant satisfaction. People here once looked to America as an energizing principle. Now, it is only a place to sell yourself. Everything is about money, and we’ve become a nation of shopkeepers again.”

It is hard to argue with Sinclair as he leads the way out of the City of London through shoulderwidth passageways into the Spitalfields neighborhood, past the five-storey car park covering the spot where Jack the Ripper slit his last victim. Many of the buildings in Spitalfields are dilapidated or fire-damaged, and it seems far removed from the around-the-clock trading in equities and currencies in the nearby City. But the money is coming to Spitalfields, too. Tiny, rundown flats are selling for over $400,000—“it’s silliness, really,” confesses a local agent—as the brokers, artists and speculators look for new properties to develop. The Market Cafe menu board in Spitalfields still defiantly advertises boiled bacon and ham and onion pudding. But the wine bars are on their way.

Yet despite the flash of cash, British culture retains appeal: the freshness and optimism of its music, its lively newspapers, an ability to incorporate other cultures into its own, and a self-deprecation that takes some of the sting out of no longer being a global power. So what if this round of trendiness comes to an end. Soon the Europeans may be mocking British fashions and food again, but pop culture is meant to be short-lived. “I wish it wasn’t so boom and bust here, but we should enjoy this English renaissance while it lasts,” says designer Cox. “This is a great place to call home. I just never, never get tired of it.” Tired of Britain?

Tired of life.