Same olde story for Britainland

Turning Britain into one huge museum is the cunning plan to provide our sunny island with a glimmer of hope for the future

Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley, icily self-assured and radiating the kind of sexuality that stalks the memories of clubland’s slumbering octogenarians, stood among the wax effigies at Madame Tussaud’s last week and announced that Britain was a “brilliant product”.

She was promoting tourism as the “industry of the future”, so it was perhaps just as well that no one asked her what Britain was a product of. For the answer is that we are a nation reduced to depending for all our tomorrows on all our yesterdays.

The nation that foreigners come to see today is the product of 1,000 years of history; of kings and queens and myths and legends; of seafaring voyages of discovery and valiant, empire-building armies; of industrial might and creative ingenuity; of giants of literature and pioneers of science. But all that remains is the memory. The nation of shopkeepers and the workshop of the world is today the oldest museum on Earth.

It is a consummation that gratifies Mrs Bottomley. Rejoicing in tourism’s status as one of the “mainstream economic drivers of the country”, she urged that it should attract the highest calibre of employees. “I don’t know what you do with a PhD in botany except become environment manager for Center Parcs,” she added.

True. When Britainland offers the only employment to be had, there is not much practical use for a doctorate in psychology other than to test the brains of Butlin’s redcoats. Similarly, anyone with a PhD in mechanical engineering would apply his learning to the task of building the most scary white-knuckle ride ever seen in Bronté Country.

When challenged about the closure of St Bartholomew’s, London’s oldest hospital, Mrs Bottomley, in her previous role as Health Secretary, famously offered the scornful reply that she was not at the Department of National Heritage. Well, she is now. If Bart’s is no longer fit to treat the sick, it should be adapted to entertain the visitor.

Once through the turnstiles, tourists could inspect a colourful cavalcade of medicine down the ages. They could live again the dark days of the resurrectionists when Burke and Hare pillaged the fog-shrouded graveyards to supply experimenting surgeons with fresh cadavers; they could hear the screams of amputees rendered limbless without benefit of anaesthetic; they could creep through darkened wards and smell the simulated horror of cholera; they could have their polaroid pictures taken beside blood-soaked effigies of blitz victims; and they could marvel at the jewel of the show, a mysterious artefact of lore and fable, the hospital bed that’s never there.

Since it is permissible to embellish for the entertainment of the gawping hordes, there is no harm in adding that St Bartholomew, a direct descendant of St Peter, built the first hospital on the site in 903 AD using wattle and daub, remnants of which survive to this day and are available, price 5, in the souvenir shop to the rear of the building, together with many other items of interest including original recordings of the saint’s early speeches.

Mrs Bottomley is herself adept at creativity of this sort. When, at the height of her hospital-closing powers, she requested – and was granted – permission to shop behind the closed doors of Marks & Spencer, she explained that this was to prevent her from being mobbed by admirers.

She is at present having difficulty in appointing a special adviser, the last incumbent, John Bercow, having vacated the hot seat weeks ago. Despite the best efforts of her department, no one has come forward to fill the normally coveted position of ministerial adviser. Expect an announcement soon that many hundreds of applicants have expressed interest but are holding back because they would find the pain of rejection too great.

It is fitting that tourism should come under the same department as the National Lottery, since the odds against deriving enjoyment or enlightenment from tourism are as long as those against winning the jackpot. That is partly because there is truth in the ancient saying that it is better to travel than to arrive, but also because tourists have such peculiar expectations.

For instance, a survey of Sassenachs by the Scottish Tourist Board reveals a belief that Scotland lacks night life and is plagued by midges. Graeme Clark, manager of the board’s London office, says he regularly receives calls from people who believe they need a passport to travel to Scotland. “A teacher asked whether pets needed to be put in quarantine,” he adds incredulously.

Mr Clark cannot have been in England long, since he believes that south of the border the teaching profession requires its members to be intelligent and well-informed.

In Olde England, the one the tourists come to see, no village was complete without its idiot. Through misguided Government policy these unfortunate people were torn from their rustic roots and herded into teaching, where they have remained. Under Mrs Bottomley’s ministry, they are to be relieved of their front teeth, issued with straws, and stationed behind five-bar gates the length and breadth of the land.

It is only through imaginative policies such as that that the Britain of today can come to terms with its past.

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