Is it true that, having lost an empire, we reinvented ourselves as an island of entertainers? Do we channel the same rigour and vigour into film and music and literature as once went into conquering continents? Is there a residual colonialist bias in our arts, seen, for instance, in our cinematic penchant for creating patriotic period dramas such as Henry V or The King’s Speech?
How much of our cultural success depends on the US market and the accident of a shared language? To what extent does our cultural expression reflect not our idea of ourselves but an American distortion? Do international smash hits such as Julian Fellowes’s languid TV drama Downton Abbey reflect our national identity better than, say, Martin Amis’s lurid 1980s novel Money — a critically acclaimed and unashamedly non-nostalgic satire on capitalist gluttony?
Are we, as a nation, more nostalgic than other nations such as Italy or Austria? Isn’t it also the case that, for every Brideshead Revisited, we can think of a Leopard or Radetzky March? And if so, might it be that some of the arts lend themselves to the rueful mood (that et in Arcadia ache) more readily than others? Is literature, perhaps, an inherently nostalgic medium? Was language created, first and foremost, with the aim of recapturing the past? Is the very structure of the English language, with its precise subclauses and stately linear progression through each sentence (the bows of its parentheses; the heel-clicks of its semi-colons), particularly suited to the task of describing a more formal, ritualistic, bygone age?
These are all questions that the historian Dominic Sandbrook either fails to raise, or raises but fails to answer, or at least fails to answer properly in his otherwise very pleasant and intelligent tour of recent popular culture, The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination.