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Archives for July 2010

The authenticity of the special relationship

Mark Easton | 11:29 UK time, Wednesday, 21 July 2010


For the prime minister and representatives of Team Dave trying to stay cool in the Washington heat, the carefully manicured narrative they have been in town to polish is all about the deep, warm, "special" relationship between the Brits and the Yanks that stretches back generations.

David Cameron and Barack Obama

It is a story built upon common respect and mutual trust founded on shared adversity. Having stood shoulder to shoulder during days when bullets have flown and blood has flowed, the US and UK enjoy a profound friendship that can withstand the occasional squabble over spilled milk or oil. So the conventional narrative goes.

To political strategists, the conventional narrative is what matters. It can bear little relation to truth but contains a magic ingredient - authenticity.

I am on holiday with my family in Florida but cannot stop myself puzzling over this "special" bond. Flicking through the hundreds of TV channels, I have bumped into a number of portrayals of the British.

There was a dumpy woman in a hat and two-piece suit endorsing a local car dealership who, it emerged, was supposed to be the Queen. A comedy show had two "frightfully-awfully" Englishmen playing croquet. A kids' programme featured a familiar British detective with deer-stalker and pipe apparently suffering from a comic overdose of etiquette.

They are quickly drawn caricatures which play to a popular narrative in which the English have blue blood while the Americans have red necks. (The Scots, Irish and Welsh are exotic in different ways.)

The screen-writers like to contrast the intense breeding and polished manners of their cousins from across the pond with the classless informality and artless sincerity of the locals. It celebrates US authenticity.

However, within the narrative there is also a sub-plot: that unpretentiousness might be mistaken for unsophistication; an anxiety that, even today, Americans might be seen by Europeans as arrivistes lacking cultural patina.

There is a concern that authenticity might be measured in centuries of natural weathering rather than the repro distress routinely applied to new blue jeans on the rack at Banana Republic. It is a contradiction that sits at the core of the relationship between the UK and the US.

When President Obama told David Cameron yesterday that British-American bonds were "truly special", he was saying the words that fitted neatly into a useful media story.

There are good reasons for both men to want to promote shared values and visions as their troops continue to fight and die together on distant battle-fields. But the special relationship is much more than a reflection of political expediency, as I discovered in the Three Broomsticks pub in Hogsmeade.

"I like to think we are bringing the British sensibility to life", my drinking companion told me. "It is about being authentic - being true to the fiction".

Mark Woodbury is the creative magician behind the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, an alchemist who searches for ways of manufacturing authenticity from fibre-glass and fireworks. "There are three essential ingredients" he revealed, "and JK Rowling provided all three."

The queue for the park's latest and very British attraction has stretched through the resort and out the front gates, such has been the power of the spell cast by the Harry Potter phenomenon.

People are wondering out loud if this can change the balance of power between the mighty Disney and its Universal rivals. So what are the three ingredients of theme park authenticity potion?

"Firstly, likeable characters that are not nostalgic, that are about today", Mr Woodbury confided over a Butterbeer. "It must also be about taking people to places they couldn't otherwise go to and there must be a great sense of adventure and action."

He explained how he had read the books to his younger daughter and realised after the first couple that "this was a theme park waiting to happen".

"But what makes this place authentic?" I asked. "We make it real" he replied, telling me how many guests are so overcome by the experience that they burst into tears as they step into the world.

JK Rowling's narrative speaks to people as powerfully as any of the political stories we read in the papers each day. The world of battling wizards and witches is no less "true" than the warring factions inside the Westminster or Washington bubbles.

It is a child of the special relationship: a British writer along with an Oscar-winning British set-designer in Stuart Craig have collaborated with some of the finest technical and creative talents in the United States to bring a very British literary series to life on the Florida swamp.

It would be easy to scoff, but Harry Potter is a multi-billion dollar global phenomenon that has inspired a world-wide fan-base structured around the traditions and manners of the English public school system.

The souvenir shops are selling uniforms, scarves and house robes to customers so desperate to purchase a slice of genuine Hogwarts that they queue for hours for the privilege of being allowed to enter the overcrowded store.

In the Harry Potter books there is a potion called Veritaserum which forces those who have drunk it to tell the truth. It takes a full moon-cycle to mature. But making truth from fiction requires a longer gestation.

"These are really, really difficult things to do" Mark Woodbury admitted. "We had a great collaboration over five years that helped us along every step of the way to ensure we made it the most authentic possible".

Manufacturing authenticity from fantasy - now that's a magic trick that the teams in the White House and Downing Street wish they could pull off every day.

Tension at heart of drug classification

Mark Easton | 11:49 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010


The Home Office has fought for three years to keep details of its review of the drug classification system secret. Now the campaigners who forced its publication think they know why: the document, they say, exposes the illogicality that undermines government drugs policy.

You will remember what happened to Professor David Nutt, the former head of the body which oversees the drug classification system, when he argued official policy should recognise that ecstasy and cannabis were less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. His controversial views cost him his job on the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. But, years earlier, the Home Office had come to the same conclusion.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, this weekend the pressure group Drug Equality Alliance finally got to see the 2006 advice given to ministers [361KB PDF] ahead of a planned public consultation into the legal controls on illicit drugs, a report initiated by the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

One section of the paper focuses on the dangers of treating cigarettes and booze differently from ecstasy and cannabis. The authors point out that "alcohol and tobacco account for more health problems and deaths than illicit drugs". They quote figures which suggest that "in terms of death, illegal drugs amounted to 1,388 in 2003 compared to about 20,000 for alcohol and 100,000 for tobacco."

So far, so familiar.

What makes this hitherto secret report such dynamite is the implication that this inconsistency in the way society treats "substances that alter mental functioning" might be making Britain's drugs crisis worse.

Screengrab of Home Office drug documents

Screengrab of Home Office drug documents

In other words, treating malt whisky differently from mephedrone makes it more likely young people will ignore the official advice.

The report appears to support the idea that alcohol and tobacco might be included in the classification system, although "in a way which would stop short of imposing comparable controls".

The tension at the heart of this debate is clear when the report goes on to point out that:

Screengrab of Home Office drug documents

However, the suggestion that "tradition and tolerance" should guide the legal framework surrounding recreational drugs will be seized upon by those who argue that the answer to the drugs dilemma is to end the "un-British" policy of prohibition and regulate all substances based on the harm they cause.

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