A Postcard From Airstrip One

In which The Author witnesses colonialism in reverse

In ‘Logorrhoea I wrote about some differences between UK and US English, and the insidious way in which the latter was infiltrating the former. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed another disturbing trend. All aspects of American popular culture are starting to take over the lives of our young people. I’m not just talking about the long-established hegemony of pop music, films, television, computer games, and other forms of mass entertainment. I’m talking about the way that British children’s lives have become totally dominated by American habits and lifestyles.
I’ve been pondering this for some time anyway, but the idea came into sharp focus on Saturday. My friend Rose (who has three young daughters) posted the following status on Facebook:
I’ve told the girls the Disney Channel no longer works (it’s bwoken sorrwy.) I hope they don’t check, but just can’t stick them speaking all day in annoying American accents any more… ‘Hey mom, pass me a soda, I’m just like so thirsty right now …’ WTF?!!
I made some notes yesterday, and now I’m ready to send this Postcard from Airstrip One. If that doesn’t mean anything to you yet, read on.
At the end of the 2012 school year, thirteen months or so ago, my Facebook friends with young children were filling their pages (and my News Feed) with talk of ‘proms.’ Initially I was impressed by the thought that young kids might be getting turned on to classical music. After all, it was Prom Season – the time of the annual festival of music which the BBC does so well. However, it didn’t take long for my illusions to be shattered; they were talking about what we used to call the ‘End of Term Disco.’ And thereby hangs a tale …
There used to be occasional ‘youth discos’ when I was a kid – mainly in the school hall, or occasionally in the Public Hall in the village. I never went to any of them. I hated pop music, and (as I told you, way back in ‘Skirting the Issue’) I didn’t know any girls anyway. Apart from a couple of momentary lapses under the influence of several pints, I’ve hardly ever danced with anyone either.
[A digression: I’ve got a running joke if I ever do find myself in a predicament where I’m expected to cut a rug with a woman. I always tell her that I was the subject of pioneering corrective surgery for fallen arches at Llandough Hospital when I was twelve years old. Unfortunately, the procedure went wrong, and I needed to have an emergency transplant. As a result I really do have two left feet.]
When I was a student the second time round, Freshers’ Week always featured a number of ‘theme nights’ in the Students’ Union. I never went to any of them, because I’d have stood out like a paedophile at a school outing. (Having said that, Helen R. and I were once tempted to go to a ‘Back to School’ themed disco in Cardiff. She was going to wear a PVC St Trinian’s-style outfit. I was going to buy a second-hand corduroy suit and go as a Geography teacher.)
Meanwhile, the university equivalent of the End of Term Disco was the Summer Ball. I ducked out of that as well: the tickets cost about £35; it was in Cardiff (which added another 20% to the cost); the main attraction was some bloody DJ whose ‘music ‘I wouldn’t listen to if my life depended upon it.
I was in my mid-forties, for Goddess’ sake! The kids in uni were young enough to be my children! Did you ever see Hugh Dennis’s ’embarrassing dad dancing’ comedy routine on The Mary Whitehouse Experience? Now picture him at the University of Glamorgan Summer Ball, tanked up and making a twat of himself. That’s me, that is …
The point is that, over the last few years, the End of Term Disco has been supplanted by something called the Prom. This is a purely American import, which I first encountered in US teen flicks like Grease. It always features massively in TV shows such as High School Musical and Glee, which British schoolkids lap up via our ubiquitous satellite TV channels.
My friends used to go to the End of Term Disco in a t-shirt and jeans. However, the current generation of parents are expected to fork out for smart suits or new dresses for their little ones’ big occasion.
It’s not just teenagers who have to go through this ritual, though. Some primary schools are also inflicting this humiliation on eleven year olds every year. I’m fairly sure the kids must have begged their teachers to let them go through this palaver. It couldn’t possibly be because the parents and teachers have decided that it’s a good idea, could it?
While we’re talking about primary school: this summer some of my honorary nieces and nephews ‘graduated.’ Yes, that’s right: they graduated – at the age of eleven! What their parents and teachers meant to tell them was that they were just ‘changing school’ – but now, under the all-pervasive influence of American TV, they ‘graduate’ instead.
Other friends of mine graduated as well – they’re in their twenties, thirties or forties, and have spent up to five years at university. They’ve earned their degrees, and the big day with the cap and gown, and the champagne, and the photographs. They are qualified to put a couple of letters after their names. They certainly didn’t get a certificate simply for leaving primary school. It’s an insane situation.
When we were eleven, we left junior school, had six weeks’ holiday (as usual) and met up again in September. Apart from the End of Term Disco, nobody made any great fuss. At what point exactly did leaving junior school become ‘graduating’? If nothing else, it devalues the word entirely. My friends who’ve worked fucking hard to gain their qualifications and call themselves ‘graduates’ would be right to be perfectly pissed off with the situation.
In a fortnight or so, these eleven-year-old ‘graduates’ will embark on the next stage of their compulsory education. My schoolfriends and I all did that in 1977. Some of us went to Grammar School, others to the Secondary Modern School. A year later, we all ended up in the Comprehensive School.
That’s finished. Some 35 years later, the names have been changed again. I first became aware of this rebranding exercise when I was running the Account Sales Office in Dillons. Some of the secondary schools in Cardiff – Cathays, Fitzalan, Mary Immaculate, and quite a few others – had taken to calling themselves ‘high schools.’ Ten years on, of all the secondary schools in Cardiff, only Radyr Comprehensive School clings on to the old nomenclature. Even my old school has adopted the name Aberdare High School. You can’t get much more Americanised than that, can you?
Another Americanisation in the school system is the use of ‘Year so-and-so’ to describe the current stage of a child’s education. I must confess that I never got to grips with the whole ‘Year 8’ business. Customers would use this terminology to us, and I’d always have to ask them to convert it to old measurements.
We went through the four years of junior school and the five/six/seven years of secondary school, and they were numbered accordingly: Standard One to Standard Four, followed by Form One to Form Five (or Form Six.) The only time any pupil of Aberdare Boys’ Comprehensive School got to Year 8 was if he’d seriously fucked up his A Levels, and was re-sitting the following June. Now, by the time kids sit their A Levels, they’re in Year Twelve!
It’s obviously another attempt by the education system to try and emulate the American model, where kids go to ‘grade school’ and start counting from there. Twelfth Grade, oddly enough, is the age at which American kids leave high school. Mere coincidence?
I don’t think so, personally.
This Americanisation of our schools, from the renumbering of classes to the replacement of End of Term Discos by Proms, is just one aspect of life where the traditional British system is being slowly replaced by its American equivalent. Take our justice system. Now, I’m not a scholar of Constitutional Law, so forgive me if I’m vague (or totally wrong) on the exact details in this next paragraph …
As I understand it, the UK used to have a Department of Constitutional Affairs and a Home Office. Between them they were responsible for the courts, the police, and the whole criminal justice system. In May 2007, a Ministry of Justice was established. Two years later, the duties previously carried out by the ‘Law Lords’ were handed over to a new Supreme Court.
I’m not especially bothered by the technical details; what concerns me is the names given to these new setups. They’re almost identical to their equivalents across the pond – the US has a Department of Justice, rather than a Ministry.
What difference does a word make, I hear you ask? After all, the UK used to have the Ministry of Transport; now we’ve got the Department for Transport. We used to have the Ministry of Health; now we’ve got the Department of Health. We’ve got a Ministry of Justice, they’ve got a Department of Justice. You say potato …
This could just be another coincidence, of course. I expect most people think it’s no more than that. But anyone who’s been through a business ‘merger’ (in other words, a corporate takeover) will know that it’s much easier to amalgamate the functions of two different organizations if they already have more or less parallel structures.
I know this probably sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory to some of you. For now, I’ll just say that Airstrip One was the name used for the British Isles by the government of Oceania in George Orwell’s classic novel about the threat of totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four.