I’ll come to British or English (I think we’ll find it’s important to get our terms right here) self-pity in a minute, but let me start by telling you that one of yesterday’s Sunday papers reported the “wave of Anglophilia” that’s been greeting Dame Judy Dench’s performance in David Hare’s new play Amy’s View. (In true Fleet Street style, the journalist noted that the great dame had, unlike Nicole Kidman, managed to achieve this feat “without getting her kit off.”) It’s nice to know that what we’re discussing is a live issue.
I note, by the way, that you use “Anglophilia” where Buruma’s eager to establish the phenomenon he’s describing as “Anglomania,” a rather different thing, I think, though not what Barnes is on about in England, England. But what they do have in common, besides a certain, slightly donnish elegance, is the fact that both writers were born just after the end of the Second World War, that European and Far East Asian cataclysm in which Britain (with some wily American assistance) bankrupted itself to defend the values and way of life that Voltaire (and Buruma’s bizarre cast of Anglomanes) admired so much. So, as an opener, I want to make the point that both these fascinating books are, to my way of thinking, profoundly shaped by the experience of growing up in Britain during the ‘50s and ‘60s, something that Buruma writes about explicitly (in some of his best passages) and which also, I’d guess, informs the mood and thinking behind Barnes’ satirical fantasy. I identify quite strongly with this because where Barnes and Buruma were born in, respectively, 1946 and 1950 or 1951 (it’s not clear from the text), I was born in 1953, and recognize much of the world that Buruma describes in his opening pages and which Barnes teasingly riffs on in his evocation of theme-park England.
So much for the personal context to my critical reaction. I enjoyed both books. I read England, England when it came out here last August, and also interviewed Mr Barnes, Q&A style, for The Observer. Reading it again in preparation for our cyber-colloquy, I was struck a) by how much I liked it on second acquaintance (a good test) and b) how much of a disservice was done to the novel’s deeper ideas by the publisher’s presentation of the book in the UK as a satire on the “theme-park” cliché. There is anger in this book, but none of the “saeva indignatio” that is traditionally deemed to be the essential rocket fuel for writers such as Dean Swift or Thomas More, to name the most obvious. I was also struck by the structural oddness of the book (on which I did not quiz Barnes properly when we met)–first, a short section about a woman’s damaged childhood, then a rather cartoonish central section dominated by the grotesque figure of Sir Jack Pitman, then a fantasy about England in post-industrial decline. Perhaps, as part of the service to would-be readers, we should discuss the substance of these sections in our later exchanges.
Structurally speaking, and as a neat parallel, Voltaire’s Coconuts (the UK title of Buruma’s volume), seemed to me in need of a good editor. Unlike you, I could not, for the most part, make head or tail of Buruma’s argument, which seemed to boil down to this: Some intelligent Europeans, arriving late to the pains/pleasures of liberalism and industrialization, could not resist idolizing (or demonizing) the nation that got there first. I loved (and was impressed by) the anecdotal range of Buruma’s research, which had a high gee-whiz quotient, but I couldn’t really get the hang of whether, au fond, this was an elegiac Buruma-family memoir, or an Anglomanes’ gallery of assorted French, German, Dutch, and Italian freaks with a taste for afternoon tea and buttered scones. Here, the missing dimension, to me, was the American one. If ever Anglomania took root anywhere and flourished like a mad weed–cf. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids–it was in the United States. I’m sure Buruma had no intention of tackling this vast (and amusing) subject–and perhaps he thought it was beneath him–but I did crave at least one dotty Yankee Anglophile. (Perhaps you can help me here!) And what–since you didn’t ask–about spanking ? The so-called “English vice” is notably missing from these pages, at least on my reading. Yet ask any contemporary European what they associate with Britain, and it’s never long before the conversation turns to sodomy and the lash.
On which note, I’ll go home to my wife and leave you until tomorrow. My analysis of Brit self-pity will follow shortly, with several well-chosen, and pithy, quotations from contemporary English literature. (Just kidding.)