Cultural Unity and Common Humanity

Front row of the Tyneside cinema.  Adverts and trailers over.  The curtains pull back wider.  I look left and right, my wife, my sons.  I find I’m gripping the arm rests.  It’s 36 years since the 1986 original.  We feel the need, the need for speed. 

Top Gun: Maverick did not disappoint. 

Now, I’m no film critic; Maverick may not be your cup of tea.  But there’s something about a cinema blockbuster that you just can’t experience at home. 

Your seat rumbles as the fighter jets roar past.  Almost ducking because the big screen fills your vision.  The magic of a shared experience when the audience laugh at the same jokes and gasp at the same stunts. 

Critics have described Top Gun: Maverick as the last stand against streaming.  A film conceived to be watched in cinemas.  The footage of the pilots was filmed inside actual F-18 fighter jets.  No CGI, no green screens.  When Maverick is launched from an aircraft carrier, Tom Cruise’s head jolts forwards in a way that can’t be acted.  The film and the character share the same defining quality: they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.  It’s nostalgia done beautifully. 

Dennis Waterman’s death a couple of weeks ago led to a conversation around the Driscoll dinner table.  In 1984, at a time when the UK population was just over 56 million, over 16 million of us tuned in to watch a single episode of Minder.  That’s more than one in four of the entire population doing exactly the same thing at the same time.  And then talking about it the next day.  The boys were amazed. 

Caroline and I tried to explain to the boys – now 16 and 14 – what watching telly was like in the 80’s.  There were adverts, and you couldn’t fast forward through them.  The whole family watched it in the living room at the same time.  We thought remote controls were flash – before that if you wanted to change the volume, you had to get up and press a button the TV set.  The idea of watching on your phone?  The phone was a big clunky device that lived in the hall and needed its own table.  When you answered it you introduced yourself and possibly recited your number. 

What are our shared experiences in an era of internet shopping, working from home and streaming TV?

Perhaps that’s behind the centrifugal force weakening the UK’s identity.  Scotland may leave.  Northern Ireland may follow.  For the first time since the middle ages, self-determination for England’s regions is on the agenda. 

The English word “patriot” derives from “compatriot” – fellow countryman.  George Orwell contrasted patriotism with nationalism.  “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.”  Nationalism, Orwell said, was about one group subjugating another.   

Patriotism is about making your homeland a better place to live.  Serving in our armed forces to protect us.  Working in our public services, keeping us safe on a double bank holiday weekend.  Volunteering for charities.  Or serving as a local councillor, not for recognition or reward, but from civic duty. 

Our nostalgic, rose-coloured view of Britain ‘pulling together’ overlooks what it feels like to be excluded from the community.  Whether through poverty or bigotry, our government is a past master at that.  Ask any of the Windrush generation.

There’s a map of Britain’s foodbanks trending on social media.  You know the kind of Google Map where a pin represents a location.  The UK is submerged in food banks.  I’m simultaneously proud that Britons are stepping up to help their fellows.  And ashamed that we need to. 

That’s another change since I was my sons’ age.  Despite growing in Teesside in an era of mass unemployment, there were no foodbanks, no homeless people sleeping in subways.   

Some newspapers and politicians stoke culture wars to distract and divide.  Dr Johnson said “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  He was wrong.  It’s usually the first. 

The challenge we face is to find cultural unity based on our common humanity. 

*Originally printed in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 6 June 22