The Book Club

Island Boys


I’m not going to be so rash as to lecture a native about his country, so I’ll confine my remarks about the United States (vis-à-vis the UK) to the observation that, to my way of thinking, the reason it doesn’t “fall to pieces,” as you put it, is that:

  1. It has a remarkable Constitution (largely written by my hero, Thomas Jefferson).
  2. It is incredibly rich.
  3. It’s a world power.

Of course, none of these things would, in themselves, prevent a “falling to pieces,” but the combination of the above makes for an odd stability. I’ll leave it to finer and deeper minds to analyze the nature of this. Besides, I want to move on to our topic, “Englishness.” (Don’t think you’re going to get away from this Barnes-Buruma business by sneakily filing short copy in the middle of the night !)

Anyway, in re Englishness, I remember years ago, during a meeting with Günter Grass, the conversation turned to the differences between Germany and Britain. A lot of what we covered was a broken-English/pidgin-German version of the stuff you and I’ve been hashing over these past few days. But then suddenly the old fighter stirred in his chair (we were sitting outside, in the spring sunshine, in his orchard, surrounded by several thousand of his grandchildren). Wine had been taken. “You have to understand,” he said, with grand Teutonic emphasis, “The point about England is that it is … an island.”

Well, yes, I know this is not exactly Hegelian metaphysics, but the old boy was onto something, I think. The obvious point is often the fundamental one, isn’t it ? England, the island invaded by the ferocious Angles and Saxons from the northern coast of Germany, has had a continuous and separate settlement, virtually uninterrupted by foreign interference, for nearly 1,000 years. That’s why, to use your word, the English are “stolid,” insular (natch), and, frankly, indifferent to outsiders. The far-flung British Empire was largely the product of footloose or exiled (and dispossessed) Scots and Irish. And when the English did venture abroad, they made it as much like “home” as possible–as you’ll know from your study of 19th-century Indian culture and society (cf. Macaulay).

Back in Blighty, this insular stolidness has contributed greatly to our social stability, and if you want to explore this during your lunch hour, take a look at almost any of Daniel Defoe’s journalism. Very sharp; very much on the money; extraordinarily apposite. People like Blair can attach labels to Britannia to attract credulous foreign investment and to dazzle credulous foreign commentators, but as you suggest, most people here think it’s a bit of a joke. For reasons that are beyond me, the English have always been a deeply historical people. It’s well documented that we were the first nation in Europe, by several hundred years, to compile a record of local events (the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), and as a historically minded people, I think we understand the way history works. We understand its processes. So, we are not, as my dear wife never stops pointing out to me, as optimistic about the future as Americans are. We don’t believe that Happiness is a right. After a very long winning streak, we expect the dice to roll the wrong way. Yes, perhaps we almost relish the onset of decline in the way some elderly people boast about their retirement. (From our brief epistolary acquaintance, I don’t see you, Michael, doing that, though I guess for you “retirement” is still a fairly distant prospect.)

And apropos of the end-of-empire elegy you find so troublesome, let me draw to your attention an important, and much quoted, speech in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which popped into mind as I brooded on Barnes-Buruma. I hesitate, in your company, to go slumming into the terra incognita of the humble English thriller, but here goes. In search of his “mole,” George Smiley goes to see a decrepit put-out-to-grass Oxbridge “Circus” hand, Connie Sachs. She, naturally, gives him the one piece of the jigsaw he needs to prosecute his inquiry. As he’s leaving, and after a lot of scotch, Connie Sachs starts musing on the “boys” (Le Carré is all about “boys”) who found themselves drawn into the bonkers, twilight world of British intelligence. “Poor loves,” she says. “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye, world.”


P.S.: I never saw Velvet Goldmine, though I did meet Sid Vicious before he was a Sex Pistol. I hope that makes me reasonably “cool.”

P.P.S.: Who is Ealing Road?