A daily bulletin of news & opinion

14 June 2012

Yesterday, on the way to Basel, through the airports and in that Swiss town hosting its eponymous art fair, were signs about Great Britain. Or “Great” Britain. Or GREAT Britain. The signs say: “Countryside is Great. Britain.” “Creativity is Great. Britain.” “Shopping is Great. Britain.” That’s what they say, with pictures of hills, fashion, shoes. They’re to make people do business in Britain and come here on holiday.

And I know what they mean. They mean: “right, the Olympics are on – Toby (or someone like a Toby) knock up some posters with some English stuff on – views, football, a Dyson, not too many castles.”

“English stuff?” asks Toby, “or British stuff?”

“Yeah, exactly, whatever; British stuff – put in Loch Ness or something.” In fact, on the “Countryside is Great. Britain” poster, we get a picture of an aquaduct in what is, inevitably, some countryside. But it’s not the countryside that’s great, so much as the amazing piece of engineering. But hey, there’s a rub a-coming.

Great Britain. What is it with waggling a boastful adjectival prefix in people’s noses that always gets on the nerves? What is it with them? How do you know something’s going to be crap as soon as a big campaign tells you it’s good, or brilliant, or funny, or great?

Supermarkets aren’t, are they? They’re like actual markets, only you have to get everything yourself. And in real markets there are geezers, blokes shouting prices and boasting of freshness and quality, “Great Britain! Fresh in today! Go home without one and your wife’ll kick yer knackers off!”

The ideas meeting for supermarkets was probably similar to that for the “Great. Britain” campaign: “right, we’re gonna save money and open a shop where everyone has to get all their own stuff, rather than us get it for them. It’ll just be tins mostly.”

“Can we call it ‘super’ market, then, boss?”

“Yeah, exactly, whatever – we’re telling them it’s good in the name, see?”

Hypermarkets are the larger French version and they’re psychological experiments in mall-ish depression-management. Are there cameras recording the people that used to be butchers and bakers gawping like kicked goldfish at tins of peaches and peas and puddings? There could easily be.

“Super” was prefixed to Cannes when that bit of the town above the famous jamboree-ville with its Croisette and bad food became the terrifyingly modern-austere science and research park immortalised by JG Ballard’s novel, Super-Cannes. Best of all is the “super” bug. These are the sorts of illnesses you get in a Great British hospital, when you’re in for something cosily Edwardian like a dicky knee or a dodgy tummy or a gammy leg and you end up leaving looking thin, pale and interesting after contracting the super-est of all the bugs. Lucky old you.

The joke’s over but let’s say this: great means large, that’s what the Great in Great Britain means, it means the bit of the United Kingdom that doesn’t include Ireland. It can be and has been pretty good, too. But use it right, right?

Finally, the best bit about the “Great. Britain” campaign is the “Entrepreneurs are Great. Britain” poster, featuring a moody shot of Sir Richard Branson. And what does he look like? A Super Tramp.







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