2012 in the United Kingdom was a year of celebration for the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the Olympic Games so we saw a great deal of the royal family on television. Usually the royal personages (people is not a grand enough name for them) were shown meeting an ordinary person and I guess that the conversation went something like this:
Royalty: And what do you do?
Ordinary Person: I am an ordinary person
Royalty: and how long have you been doing this?
Ordinary Person: sixty years now.
Royalty: How extraordinary.
It seems that everyone that royalty meets is extraordinary, or fascinating. The theme of being extraordinary has been picked up by television commentators who talk about “our extraordinary nation”. But our nation is not, in truth, in any way extraordinary. Britain is a very ordinary nation. Its economy is not extraordinary, its justice system is not extraordinary, and neither are its armed forces or its people. We are all common people and institutions with flaws and imperfections just like the flaws and imperfections of very other nation. We are not especially good nor are we especially bad.
We are as all nations are, frightened of other nations and frightened of strange to us ideas and behaviours. We have many good points and also many bad points and that is not extraordinary, merely common to all peoples and nations. We seek refuge in being extraordinary, just as a mythical ostrich will seek refuge in burying its head in the sand.
There have been times when we were extraordinary in some way, but those times are few and far between. Forty three years ago I was walking in Oxford Road in Manchester with another student who was from Pakistan. I was studying law and he was studying engineering. As we walked we talked and suddenly he pointed out a building. “That is where Rutherford worked” he told me. I never knew that, and I found that for a while J. J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Hans Geiger, Ernest Marsden, John Cockcroft and James Chadwick all worked at Manchester University and by their genuinely extraordinary work changed the world.
But extraordinary moments in history are few and far between. It is not extraordinary to see how Britain carries on about its business today. It is commonplace and we lack the quality of being extraordinary, no matter what royalty may say and no matter what journalists may write. The lines of an extraordinary poet remind us that the divine countenance did not smile upon our hills and Jerusalem was built elsewhere.