THE IDEA OF English or, rather different, British identity is currently an urgent matter. Europe threatens our political and economic dissolution and America our cultural. The first offers a regulated superstate; the second a deregulated globalisation. Neither offers the land we once knew and loved, nor the one we now know and love slightly less. New Labour burbles inconclusively and the New Tories say nothing coherent. Who, in the midst of these crushing, babbling and yet apparently irresistible forces, are we?
The asking of the question, of course, makes it clear that there is no answer. If we do not know, nobody else can tell us. Either we are what we are or we are baffled. There is no intermediate state in which we have both an identity and can express it lucidly. Questions like these arise because we have forgotten the answer.
But we can examine the evidence, as Ian Buruma clearly and earnestly does in this highly topical book. He is well qualified, possessed as he is of what Vladimir Nabokov would have called ‘a salad of racial genes’. The blood of the Dutch, the Jews and the English courses through his veins and he has lived for some time in the Far East. He retains the sensitive eye of the immigrant to this country and yet he is English enough to feel his way beyond appearance to the inner meaning of our peculiar national habits.
So, for example, there is a wryly observed passage about his time working for the Spectator when Charles Moore was editor. These were the days when the new fogeydom was in its first flush. There is young Moore, still in his twenties yet speaking ‘like a man from a vanished world’, and there is his deputy editor (inexplicably unidentified but clearly Simon Heffer), ‘sprawled in a pose of exaggerated ease, with his head denting a thick cushion, his heavy legs stretched out, and a large stomach straining the buttons of his striped shirt’. They are discussing how to cover the death of Rajiv Gandru. Buruma suggests a few earnest Indians, but carrot-top simply bellows: ‘Enoch! Enoch’s always frightfully good on India.’ But Enoch wasn’t, and, soon after, Buruma left the Speccie.
Buruma saw what was going on: a kind of elaborate Edwardian charade, deliberately constructed to exclude certain aspects of contemporary reality. It was – that very English thing – a game. But he was ambivalent, possibly confused, about its meaning. Moore at one point asked him: ‘Ian, tell me, which Bible do you use?’ Buruma notes that the word ‘use’ was ‘especially fine’ and says the incident confirmed James Fenton’s description of the Spectator as ‘camp’. And yet he also says that Moore spoke ‘with absolute seriousness’. He seems unclear about where the game stopped and seriousness began. Perhaps that is the point.
That and a number of other autobiographical accounts punctuate this book. But the main body of the work is a quirky cultural history of the European obsession with England. This is a good subject, and we hear little about it except when we are made to squirm by civilised Continentals, observing with dismay our hooligans, our food or the more xenophobic extremes of our politics.
And it is a subject with a distinguished history. Voltaire, says Buruma, was ‘the father of Anglophilia’. England to him was the universal model of reason and the home of liberty. It was, after all, the land of Newton and Locke, of the elevation of reason both in the cosmos and in human affairs. Voltaire wanted the world to be more like England.
It was, Buruma observes, an illusion based upon a caricature. But the potent idea of a free England confronting ‘a dark, despotic Continent’ still fires the Europhobes today. Voltaire, however, moved on somewhat. Asked in grand old age to bless the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, he pronounced in English, his hand over the boy’s head, the words, ‘God and liberty’. The Voltairian endorsement had shifted across the Atlantic.
Then came the extraordinary annexation of Shakespeare by the German Romantics, led by Goethe. Voltaire’s classicism had led him to despise the excesses of English theatre. But to Goethe and the Romantics it was the real thing. Warbling ‘his native wood-notes wild’, Shakespeare was the true voice of humanity. At one level this promoted German Anglophilia, a respect for the balance of nature and civilisation believed to be represented by English culture and, specifically, by the English gentleman. But this was not quite enough for the German nationalists and in the end, through some sleight of hand, Shakespeare became an honorary German – he was performed more often during the Third Reich than Goethe or Schiller.
It was another potent, Anglophile illusion. The same theme runs through Buruma’s account of the cult of the English gentleman, of the way Germany seemed to embark on a project to save Englishness from the English, of the way nineteenth-century revolutionaries like Mazzini and Marx established themselves in London society with a curious mixture of resentment and admiration. And finally, in the twentieth century, we see only England’s – or rather Britain’s – liberties surviving intact against the twin onslaughts of communism and fascism.
The first striking thing about this history is how distant much of it now feels. Illusions aside, many of these people were right about much that they saw in England. There was a time when our trains were the envy of the world, and when Theodor Herzl, the man who first propagated the idea of a modern Jewish state, had lunch at a large London restaurant called Spiers and Pond and was fired by ‘the speed, efficiency and sheer scale of the enterprise’. Indeed, I remember growing up with the unquestioned assumption that the word ‘English’ was a synonym for efficiency, solidity and quality. But from the Seventies onwards it all fell apart, a failure symbolically represented by the collapse of the British car industry. Once we built carriages for gentlemen; in the Seventies and Eighties we built tat for the masses, barely distinguishable from East German Trabants.
The second point is a question: where does this leave us? Buruma concludes with a scene at Sir Isaiah Berlin’s funeral. Berlin was a dislocated Jew who embraced the gentlemanly paraphernalia of England. Buruma says he ‘salutes the grandeur’ of that myth and admits he would like to live in that mythical land for ever. But he can’t really believe in it, any more than he can accept the superstatist dreams of the Europhiles. Couldn’t we, instead, have a union of free states? Such an idea is, of course, English, primarily because we are the only European country with a good reason to believe in the continuance of the nation state.
Stylistically this book does not quite work, the autobiographical fragments sitting uncomfortably next to the history. And Buruma’s prose is too flat and languid. One finds oneself interested but not engrossed. He seems to be recording rather than writing; he needs more poetry. Yet it is a thoughtful work and one that, as we descend, babbling, into dissolution, it would be as well to read.