Like many foreigners who observed the Blitz, my father spent much of the Second World War struggling to understand the English. The result of his efforts, in his 1944 book Los ingleses en su isla (‘The English on Their Island’), was disappointingly conventional: the English to him, as to everybody else, were reserved, repressed people, with minds as tightly rolled as their umbrellas. The stereotype endured all the facts history threw at it; the Sixties hardly modified it – the umbrellas just seemed to swing a little more jauntily. It only collapsed, I think, with the display of mawkishness that followed the death of Diana. The English, it seemed, were as sentimental and ill-disciplined as other Europeans. The stiff upper lip had gone wobbly.
I observed a similar sagging of supposed ‘national character’ over much the same period among the other people I knew well: the Spanish. The consumerism that set in late in the Franco era diluted the traditional virtues of austerity, sobriety and prickly dignity that made Spain ‘different’. The lesson of these and analogous cases seems plain: national character does not exist. There is nothing immutable in blood or soil. Like other forms of culture, in other kinds of community, any consistent features of the way people of common nationality behave change constantly, reflecting the mutual conflicts of successive generations and their historical circumstances. Yet people believe in national character; in the