11 AUGUST 1961, Page 25


Second Best

By KATHARINE WHITEHORN CFIESTERTON once 'wrote an essay in which he In the main hall of 'this display there are large suits of armour, and Jacobean chairs round manorial tables set with cut glass; and, each working away behind a curly gold frame, genuine British craftsmen dug up from the Harrods workrooms to paint roses on silk scarves, engrave silver or gouge salad bowls in a spray of wood chips (salad bowls presuma- bly to be used with Cardinal Richelieu's invention —mayonnaise—Mr. Heinz' invention--Heinz mayonnaise--or the substance known as French Dressing). It could fairly be said that this display is dated in a double sense, since it was in the Thirties that all this manorial stuff was fashion- able: even an up-to-date archaism would go for Victorian or Georgian.

But in fact, of course, this is not the best of Britain or anything like it. Harrods is a shop Whose strong suit has always been comprehen- siveness, not far-out design : you arc .far more likely to be able to find the spare parts of for- gotten corsets or twenty-three types of garden shears than the latest fantasy in stainless steel or glass. And the comprehensiveness ensures that When you are choosing something, it stands as good a chance of being Swiss or German or American as of being British.

It is probably the fact that we do import already so many more things than we realise that blurs our consciousness of what Britain can and cannot do—that, and our inevitable tendency to Compare ourselves with the countries we know best, which are the places we go on holiday, Which arc those with a climate warm enough to be bad for the character, rather than cold enough to be like our own. We are constantly comparing our political system favourably with the French instead of unfavourably with the Swedes; we do the same thing with Italians and social services; We console ourselves with the thought that our children look pinker and fatter than the French, and are less unruly than the Americans (who visit us) while ignoring the bursting health of banish children who bow when, spoken to.

My own personal list of things I like best about Britain includes, now I come to think of it, 4 surprising number of things that are not export- able--even in the 'come and get it' sense in which Italians export sun, cypresses and the Sistine Chapel. It is a place made agreeable to live in by such things as our taxis (the only ones I have come across, in twelve capitals, that are useful for carting parcels, getting in and out of without crushing skirts or even, as Gulbenkian is reported to have said about his taxi, 'turning on a sixpence—whatever that may be'). We get milk delivered; our local politics are relatively uncor- rupt; nobody asks for money or argues about jobs without a comforting deviousness. We have the tutorial system of university teaching, We have cats' eyes in the roads at night—and even ' Americans don't. Our Health Service is some- thing of which we could be overweeningly proud, though Britons do nothing but complain about it : and it is left to visiting Americans to praise it.

But when it comes to things you can export, it is harder to lay a finger on any one thing and say 'In this we are pre-eminent.' I rang up the FBI and asked them, and they read me passages from a speech their President often makes on the subject, and it included aircraft engines, radar, chemicals, electronic equipment, and turbo-alternators. Now I am not complaining because you cannot find these things on display on every counter at Harrods; but one thing strikes me at once. None of them involve visual design.. The one exception seemed to be tweeds and woollens, but they'd still be making only twin sets if Italian design hadn't overtaken them.

The whole tendency of British visual design makes one feel that someoke has lined the manu- facturers up like gangsters off to a funeral and said, 'Now look, boys, don't start anything.' And even a short trot round the Design Centre (where you do get something. like Best of Britain) poses a problem: most of the best furni- ture looked Danish, most of the best glass Swedish. It is the same problem that besets exporting manufacturers of clothes; if it looks like Paris, is it British? If it doesn't look like Paris, is it up to date? Obviously the perfect answer is to get the other man into this position, wondering whether to be with it and British, or local and without But, odd as it sounds, the tendency of the Common Market may be to make it less impor- tant to be the mile begetter of a class of goods. When tariffs bump up prices, it only makes sense to import from a country whose very name will reconcile people to the price tag, like the word 'Italian' on overpriced sweaters. But given more equability of prices, it may be quite good enough to make someone else's ideas a bit more cheaply or effectively than they do, and never mind who started it. As the Japanese do. The perfect example of this is in fashion, where Paris starts the trends but we, the British, whip out some of the best mass-produced adaptations in the world, and can sell them not only to America but back to France. But that takes an agility of mind, a willingness to learn from one's competi- tors, that is emphatically not going to be gained by gazing reverently back at the great figures of the past. No doubt we have produced kings of design in our time, but even . . . the world's first huge white bearded kings In dim glades sleeping murmur in their sleep And closer round their breasts the ivy clings Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep. .

which went, you will remember, with . the great markets by the sea shut fast All that calm Sunday that goes on and on..

And Sundays are not things the British do well.