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Cardboard Britain: the UK at Mexico's Festival of Cultural Friendship

Mexico City's historic avenue Paseo de la Reforma  is hosting its annual Festival of Cultural Friendship. Far from a proud display, the UK's booth shows a national identity in very bad health.

Jeremy Fox
20 May 2012

Between 12 - 27 May, Mexico City’s stately Paseo de la Reforma is hosting what is now an annual Festival of Cultural Friendship . Pavilions line both sides of the avenue, each representing a different nation. On display as usual are handicrafts, books, disks, icons, clothing, and other specialities; and above all national foods and beverages.

Spain’s pavilion is split into two with a bookshop on one side and a little café on the other serving such delights as jamón serrano, tortilla española and paella, washed down if one so wishes with good Spanish wine or horchata. Morocco and Algeria offer a riot of colourful drapes and delicious sweetmeats. The Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani pavilions are arrayed with traditional clothing and bangles, and suffused with the enticing odours of korma, jalfrezi, massala and biryani. Germany chooses to represent herself through beer, sausages and strudel, France goes for wine, quiche and tartes, Belgium for chocolate, while Russia opts for fur hats, matryoshka dolls, and pastries. Among the most appealing pavilions are those from Latin America. Uruguay cooks up a barbecue storm, Ecuador furnishes live music and Panama hats (which, despite the name, are of Ecuadorian not Panamanian origin), while Bolivia - now renamed the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia - displays not only some of the most beautiful handicrafts but serves real coca tea and even coca leaves.

What of the UK? Our national pavilion is divided into two. One half is occupied by life-size cardboard cutouts, one of the Queen, the other of Kate and William, a London bus stop (also cardboard) and a mock-up of a red telephone kiosk of the kind that has long since disappeared from our streets. Food consists of cup-cakes the like of which I have never seen anywhere in the UK, and a repellent dish of “coronation” chicken garlanded with slices of mango and in its congealing state looking like a sickly effusion from the mad hatter’s tea party.

The UK’s second booth is given over entirely to London 2012 with posters that will be familiar to Londoners but probably to few other UK citizens. Nowhere in either booth is there any evidence of our magnificent cultural and scientific heritage. No Shakespeare or Pinter or Dylan Thomas or Seamus Heaney or A.L. Kennedy, no Newton, or John Logie Baird, or Tim Berners-Lee, or Adam Smith; no Constable or Turner, no Vaughan Williams or Walton or Britten; no BBC; not even the Beatles despite the fact that last week Paul McCartney and his band gave a free concert to an estimated 150,000 people in the zócalo, Mexico City’s great central square - an event described by commentators as one of the best pop concerts they had ever seen or heard. I was there - and yes it was fabulous.

As for a sense that the UK consists of four nations, there is none. No wondrous Scottish or Welsh mountains, no English fells, no Northern Irish seacapes; no haggis or leeks or oatcakes or apple pie or drop scones or soda bread; not even a bottle of good highland malt. No wonder the Scots and possibly others are questioning if its all worth while. Nor, sadly, is there an acknowledgement that the UK (not just London) is a multinational country - a place where people from all over the world have found a home. Our national offering, in short, is a backward-looking embarrassment.

Standing before it, I have the impression of gazing at an ancient ruin, a kind of modern-day Caesarea, now reduced to a few columns and artefacts faintly suggestive of something that might once have been grand and noble but whose energies and spirit are lost in the mists of time. I do Caesarea an injustice, of course, for its ruins remain awe-inspiring, while the ersatz offerings on display at the UK pavilion evoke only a melancholy shake of the head and a desire to walk on. Has the UK really come to this?

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