It’s cool to be cynical in the UK, says Boris

In the Daily Telegraph today, Boris Johnson points out how typical it is for the Brits to slag off the entrereneurs who strive to build up their own businesses. Here, the negative always wins out over the positive.tacitus


Peter Hichen

Peter Hichen







Boris begins:  “Ah, the great figures of the ancient Roman world. I know it is a hopeless anachronism, but I can’t help wondering what they would do if they were alive today. Where would they fit into modern Britain?

Julius Caesar, for instance: I can see him as the Italian dictator-manager of some Premier League football club. Cleopatra – she would be transfixing daytime TV with tales of her nose-job. Catullus would have a rock star’s grave, attended daily by weeping groupies.

What about the philosophers and the historians and the poets, all those whose genres of writing now look slightly old-fashioned? How would they be earning their crust? I am thinking in particular of the two brilliant contemporaries, Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. They knew each other; they wrote to each other; they were both avid for literary fame.

For that last reason, I am sure that they would have gravitated towards the glories of the modern media – and towards the most effective way of getting their names and indeed their faces before the public. Yes, I think we can be fairly certain that both of them would have been TV news reporters.

So let’s imagine that you have the privilege of being their editor. You are the boss of Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, the two thrusting hounds of the newsroom. And then let’s imagine it’s a slow news day, and the pair of them are prowling around – looking hungrily through the plate glass of your corner office, wondering whether you will send them on a story. Then something comes in. It’s about some new café in Shoreditch, in East London, called Cereal Killer – a place where they seem to be selling any kind of cereal you want, 120 varieties and 13 types of milk. Hmm, you say to yourself, as both Tacitus and Pliny leer through the glass, trying to catch your eye. Which shall you send on this one?

Now, Pliny the Younger (you think to yourself): he is definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy. He is gossipy, lively, and he has done some terrific eyewitness stuff, most notably his sensational scoop about the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. He can definitely do the human interest piece, and he can do it with compassion and humour – and above all he will do it pretty straight. This is a man who has already composed an almost emetically enthusiastic panegyric in honour of the Emperor Trajan. When the sun comes up in the morning, Pliny the Younger basically believes that Jove is in his heaven and all is right with the Roman world. Yup – whatever is going on with this Shoreditch café, Pliny can be counted on to be fairly positive.

Then you see his rival scowling at you sardonically, daring you to give him thejob. Tacitus is a completely different kettle of fish. (see picture above). Cornelius Tacitus prides himself on being able to see through everything. He thinks that almost everyone in government is weak, hopeless and vacillating – or else they are debauched, murderous and corrupt. Sometimes they are all of these things at once. He makes fun of the poor deluded British subjects for deciding to imitate Roman dinner parties – without realising that it is really part of their slavery. Where Pliny the Younger takes an upbeat view of the empire, Tacitus puts some famously withering words into the mouth of the rebel Calgacus – they make a desert, and call it peace! Tacitus is cynical, mordant. He is definitely a glass-half-empty sort of reporter.

You look at the story again, and you see it is going to be all in the telling. Pliny would probably make it into a light but heart-warming tailpiece for the news. Tacitus would almost certainly go for the jugular, and find some way of attacking not just the café but the entire dietary habits of the people of Tower Hamlets, perhaps for failing to eat enough vegetables. (“They make a dessert and call it peas!”)

Who gets the story? The equable Pliny or the vicious Tacitus? I think the answer depends on whether you are in Britain or America. A distinguished Roman historian told me the other day that she had taught both Pliny and Tacitus in universities on both sides of the Atlantic. She was fascinated to discover that the students had exactly the opposite preferences. The British students loved Tacitus, and thought Pliny was on the whole less exciting. The American students were very keen on Pliny, and rather appalled by Tacitus.

At the risk of vast generalisation, that tells us something about continuing differences in attitude and temperament between the two countries. The Americans like stuff that is broadly positive; the British love to be cynical. Of course, there is scope for both. It would be a sad day if we British stopped being cynical, but you sometimes wonder whether we overdo it.

As it happened, Channel Four indeed sent a reporter to cover the story of the Cereal Killer Café in Shoreditch – and he generally monstered the poor entrepreneurs. He was scathing about charging £2.50 minimum for a bowl of cereal; he mocked the proprietors – a gentle pair of bearded hipsters – for their pretensions to gentrify the area, and suggested that local people would not be able to eat there. He put the boot in, and I am not at all sure he was right to do so.

We should be hailing anyone who starts a business in this country; we should acclaim them for overcoming all the obstacles that government puts in their path – the rates, the employment law, the health and safety. It is a great thing to want to open a place of work in one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. We don’t need taxpayer-funded journalists endlessly bashing the wealth-creators of this country, and sometimes we need to be a little less cynical and a bit more encouraging.

Boris concludes: “Tacitean scorn is all very well; but there are times when we should be boosting our enterprise culture. When someone has come up with a wacky business proposition that will create jobs and bring in tax revenue and boost the neighbourhood – send Pliny to cover it.

2 responses to “It’s cool to be cynical in the UK, says Boris

  1. It seemed a weird idea to me, starting a cereal shop. However, as Boris says they have put up their own money and good luck to them. The location is probably the most problematic, but the Tower Hamlets are probably due for a bit of gentrification.

  2. £2.50 is not a lot! They have staff to employ, overheads, as well as the ingredients, all have to be factored in! Very wrong to criticicise these people, who are showing an entrepreneurial spirit!

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