Reflections humorous and serious on the British character
below freewheeling exchange between Philip M. and me which took place a week ago, Philip combines insightful commentary on such subjects as the English sense of superiority, English self-contempt, and the English taboo on taking things seriously, with his own unique brand of … I’m not sure what the British equivalent of “schtick” would be.
To set up what follows, our conversation began with a passing remark by me in this entry about the fact that I had been interested in astrology when I was in my twenties. Philip expressed his amazement at this, and I wrote back to him explaining that astrology is a substantial subject that an intelligent person could find of interest. I’ll pick up the conversation there.
You have made me wonder if there’s something in it. But I’ve already come round to your thinking in so many ways, that if I admit you’re right about this as well, I may as well camp outside your Manhattan penthouse, tonsure my hair and chant, “What is your bidding, master?” every time I see you. And I think you would have to concede, this is not the kind of publicity either of us need.
Anyway, even if it’s true, it doesn’t apply to the English. We practically invented the stars, for heavens sake. We built the planets out of balsa-wood and glue and launched them into space using our own sense of smug self-righteousness as fuel.
You’ve read the King James Bible, Lawrence. God used to speak Hebrew, until we invaded Heaven and forced Him to do the whole lot again in a language we could understand. As an unreconstructed pagan I will never get to see the pearly gates, but when you get there take some time to travel on the broad-gauge steam railways that criss-cross the kingdom like an intricate iron-age spider’s web. British engineers did that. God kicked up a right fuss when we had to cut down the Tree of Knowledge to lay the tracks, but He came round in the end, and now the Heaven Railways Company employs a third of the angels in heaven. We used migrant Islamic labour from Hell to build the dirtiest bits. But we learned our lessons from post-war history and made sure that we sent “em back afterwards. ;)
Please, please do not take offence at what I have just written. You’re smarter than me, have a cooler website than anything I could ever hope to have, and now it turns out that you can literally marshal the very planets to smite me, as a divine instrument of God’s wrath. Dammit, you Jews are so clever you’ve even got the spheres of the cosmos conspiring to do my aryan arse in. My insane sense of humour is the one way this David can ever hope to slay the mighty Austerian Goliath, armed only with the slingshot of his wit.
I like to think God has a sense of humour and will take what I’ve written in the spirit it was intended, but if he doesn’t, I just know you can talk Him round.:)
I was chuffed to bits about Hannon’s and Laura W.’s praise for my right-wing polemic. Getting praise from people you admire is just about the best feeling in the world that you can get for free. I have to admit, my own genius leaves me speechless myself sometimes. But then I remember that if I am speechless I can’t make any more speeches, so I have to slap myself out of it.
I particularly admire Laura W. I go on her website, sometimes. If all the women of America would only heed her call, your nation would once again be the most impressive, awe-inspiring testament to God’s goodness that you once were. And then I may very well convert to Mormonism, move to America and marry the lot of “em.
Who am I kidding? Your yankee women are so far out of my league it may as well be another sport. Laura W is the finest of American woman-hood, Lawrence, in my humble opinion. I hold her in the very highest esteem.
I admire you too, as it happens. But now this post is getting more schmaltzy than an Oscar acceptance speech, so I’ll just quit now, assume the crash position and wait for the apocalypse.
Sorry if anything I’ve written was out of order.
You have a unique talent/voice. What’s the market for right-wing comics in Britain, sort of a BNP Rodney Dangerfield? The right needs humor.
But I wonder how many BNP types would get your rueful, self-down-putting style of humor? Also, your humor carries a double edge. You put down your own Anglo-Saxon characteristics, even as you assert the English character, since putting themselves down is part of the English national character. So this type of humor could be seen as consistent with BNP’s mission.
Also, BNP has expanded to include college types like yourself. As I said once, it’s not your mother’s BNP any more.
Your comments about my Englishness and the BNP are very perceptive, and well observed. You understand us better than almost any other Yank I can think of. Some of my BNP compadres think I am quite funny when we go down the pub, but generally this is not a college-educated party and my humour goes over their heads. Sadly, there is not much of a market for right-wing humour in this country. I have reluctantly had to accept that a comedy-prophet is seldom recognised in his own country. So it’s mostly just for the benefit of a few friends—and your good self, whom I count as a cyber-friend.
“You put down your own Anglo-Saxon characteristics, even as you assert the English character, since putting themselves down is part of the English national character.”
In trying to understand the self hatred of today’s Britain, or rather the anti-British hatred of the British elite, do you have thoughts on the sources of that? Have we discussed this before? Could one possibility be that the self-hatred is an extreme form of the self-putting down which is a normal part of the English character?
Well, this is a very big question. I will answer it now, although there may be other things that spring to mine later.
You are quite right about self-hatred being part of the middle-class national character. But there is a sense of superiority, even in this. Why waste time hating other nations that are obviously inferior anyway? It’s beneath us. We are so superior we can only bothered to hate ourselves. And then we loathe ourselves for loathing ourselves. All very post-modern. Delving a little deeper there are all kinds of class hatreds at work here—the upper-middle classes get the kudos for hating themselves, but they don’t really. When they mock the English, they really mean the working classes.
As with so many things, the roots of the problem lie in the First World War. The establishment, and the Anglican church (which was essentially the English worshipping themselves, hence my joke about making God speak English) threw their entire ideological lot into the war, and their credibility with it. Many of the most articulate defenders of patriotism, the commonwealth and Christianity died in the trenches, the men that remained were left bitter and cynical about the whole business of being British. I feel so ashamed at what we put our Australian and New Zealand brothers through, for no obvious reason
The Second World War was the second blow. I don’t think you Americans realise the utter humiliation we felt at having to be essentially colonised by the Americans to save us from invasion. This was such a traumatic realisation of our reduced status in the world that this has largely been erased from public consciousness, but remains in our knee-jerk anti-Americanism. You compounded the offence with your response to the Suez crisis after the war. I hadn’t really thought of this episode until I read a book by Peter Hitchens, who illuminated this story very well.
This reason is more speculative: I think the elites hold it against the lower classes for losing the Empire. I sometimes think that the whole multi-cultural enterprise is a way that the elites can rule over a mini world empire, in reduced form, in the British isles. When I used to see Tony Blair talking about Muslim bombs and riots it used to strike me that he was enjoying the role of vice-consul in his pint-sized empire, thinking up strategies to quell the restless natives. To him, the white working-classes were just another quarrelsome tribe to subdue or buy-off. [LA replies: that’s a fascinating thought, that Third World immigration is a substitute for empire. The British couldn’t afford an overseas empire any longer, so they brought the Third Worlders to Britain, imagining they could continue benignly leading them at home just as the had done in the former empire.]
Another factor in England is that so many English people have Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestry. They hate us for what we did to their people, understandably. In truth, they feel the whole concept of Britain is an English imperialist invention, and they are largely right. The last four leaders of the Labour party are: Gordon Brown (Scottish), Tony Blair (Scottish ancestry, his wife is Irish), John Smith (Scottish) and Neil Kinnock (Welsh). A quarter of English people have Irish parents of grandparents. I have noticed a correlation in English people’s attitudes to England and Britain depending upon their lack of, or surfeit of, Irish genes.
Like I say, there are many other reasons, but these are my first impressions.
This is very interesting and you’re making points that are new to me.
Just got back from work, where I have had a good chance to mull over what I wrote to you. To add a bit of weight to my point about the ruling classes hating us for the loss of Empire, I’m sure you are aware of the English poet Philip Larkin. Larkin was the authentic voice of sardonic post-War Tory reaction. Very fine poet, too. In one of his poems (afraid I can’t remember the title or give exact quotes), Larkin bemoans the landslide Labour election victory after the War. The poem bitterly reflects Larkin’s view that we had chosen to focus our resources on creating a welfare state and an NHS at the expense of our commitment to Empire. I have no reason to disbelieve that if Larkin was thinking this, he must have been speaking for a wider constituency within Tory Britain.
Just found the Larkin poem I mentioned on my bookshelf. It’s from a little later than I thought (1969) but the main point is still the same. Here’s the poem, in case you don’t know it—
Homage to a Government
Very damning last line, isn’t it? In a few years, this poem may have a lot more resonance to an American audience.
Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.
It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.
Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
[The below takes off from a earlier part of the exchange, when I said that Philip could be a right-wing British Rodney Dangerfield.]
I’m sat here with my Irish anarchist friend (think Ken Hechtman with hazel eyes and blarney-stone charm). I read out your first e-mail, and when I got to the bit about Rodney Dangerfield, he practically gagged. I’ve never heard of him, but if this reaction is anything to go by, there must be something to him. My friend says he is like Andrew Dice-Clay, whatever this means. I haven’t heard of him, either.
[A later note from Philip: “My anarchist friend feels I misrepresented him when I said he gagged at the Dangerfield comparison, he says he just didn’t think my humour was anything like his. I know this isn’t a very interesting thing to tell you, but II just wanted to clear it up in the interest of fairness.”
Dangerfield’s signature line was, “I can’t get no respect!” He was very funny,
However, I see zero resemblance between him and Andrew Dice Clay, who is a brutal, vulgar ruffian. Dangerfield’s schtick was as the put-upon, somewhat desperate, middle class man.
I think my friend thinks all right-wing people are brutal, vulgar ruffians. If you’d ever been to a BNP meeting, you’d have to reluctantly agree:)
So then Jeff in England is right in his constant warnings to me about BNP?
No, I’m just kidding. The BNP represents what is left of the respectable white working-class. I enjoy being around them. They are decent, honourable, tolerant people.
Jeff in England doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
I’m glad to hear it. I didn’t realize you were kidding. Your smile emoticon suggested that you found it sadly amusing that in fact BNP people are thuggish after all, and that I needed to recognize this. The character of BNP members is a big issue, with BNP critics often saying BNP members are thuggish.
Sorry Lawrence, but that really is the English way. I guarantee you that at least half the people on the Titanic died saying, “Did someone ask for water?” or some such thing, and I have no doubt Captain Scott, as he and his party were expiring in the Antarctic, was jesting about how mild it was for the time of year right up ‘til the end. The biggest sin over here is to be seen to be taking anything seriously, or to admit to trying hard or caring. If I weren’t able to laugh about myself and my politics I’d have few friends … but I apologise for the misunderstanding.
“The biggest sin over here is to be seen to be taking anything seriously, or to admit to trying hard or caring.”
It seems to me that one of the superior qualities of the English is their economy in action. There’s no wasted gesture or wasted emotion. They put enough energy into something to do it well, and no more than that. “Taking things seriously” would be an example of adding something unnecessary onto an action, something that detracts from its economy and efficiency.
Consider English driving. English drivers are frighteningly efficient. The way they handle those roundabouts!
Or consider love, English style. When you see English movies in which a marriage or relationship breaks up, the man and woman typically say to each other something like this:
“I don’t love you any more.”
And that’s it. Nothing wasted!
“So that’s it then?”
Frighteningly efficient, and then you go to an English country estate, and you find a mock Greek temple, a folly, that has been built in the grounds, for absolutely no reason. Would the Germans do that?
You must have seen the film Chariots Of Fire. My favourite character was the English Lord played by Nigel Havers, who trained for the hurdles by placing glasses of champagne on the hurdles. He lets Eric Liddell take his place in the final with no fuss, as if it were just some school egg-and-spoon race.
The amateur ethos in sport (now long gone) was an upper-class ideal. They did not have to pollute their actions with money, and didn’t want to be that most base of creatures, the professional. Of course, those were the days when morals and attitudes filtered down from the Upper Class. Today they have been replaced by celebrities as people to aspire to, and attitudes and morals come from the bottom-up. Even the royal family seem to want to be celebrities these days. At some point the Upper-Classes lost the self-belief to keep telling us what to think.
The novels of Aldous Huxley chart the post First World War moral and spiritual decline of the Upper Classes very well. I was shocked by the promiscuity and cynicism they contained. Like the goings-on on a modern council estate, but with more style. It’s like they’d just given up. Now I really am speculating, but maybe their self-loathing was the last thing they managed to pass on to us before the ceiling crashed in.
… So, is there a connection between the English taboo on taking things seriously, and English self-loathing?
Hmm … we certainly use humour as a way of exorcising our demons and discussing things that we are otherwise to repressed to discuss. We are overwhelmed by the scale of the problems in this country, and by not taking anything seriously we never have to own the problem. Both are, in their own ways, extravagances, both are luxuries. When the Upper Classes exhibited these traits they knew that the rest of us could keep the country ticking over so it didn’t matter, like fiddling whilst Rome burned. Perhaps both are a defence mechanism against caring. Because if we looked at Britain through serious, caring eyes … imagine the horror. I think there are probably other connections I haven’t seen yet. Watch this space.
When I made the comment about the Americans in WW2 and the Suez crisis I did not sufficiently demonstrate how this linked to self-loathing. It’s about our reduced status in the world and our lack of direction.
—end of initial entry—
My comment about the Suez crisis later got me thinking about a play I once heard one insomnia-filled morning on the BBC World Service called “The Entertainer” by John Osborne. It’s a stunning play. It didn’t really occur to me that the play was set in the Suez crisis. I’ve been searching for a copy, sadly I don’t have one. There is much to be observed about the kind of stuff we have been talking about. Now I can see that the bitter, self-loathing character Billy Rice is an anachronism, his music-hall act about to be consigned to the dustbin of history, and as such he is an obvious metaphor for the state of Britain generally, post-Suez.
Here are a couple of quotes from the Wiki article about the play:
It is, if you like, the final irony that John’s governing love was for a country which is, to say the least, distrustful of those who seem to be both clever and passionate. There is in English public life an implicit assumption that the head and the heart are in some sort of opposition. If someone is clever, they get labeled cold. If they are emotional, they get labeled stupid. Nothing bewilders the English more than someone who exhibits great feeling and great intelligence. When, as in John’s case, a person is abundant in both, the English response is to take in the washing and bolt the back door. (David Hare, at a memorial service for J.O)
In the light of David Hare’s remarks, maybe if as I early mentioned I am ever beheaded by Al Qaeda I should thank them for finally solving my great English heart/head dilemma. I doubt they’d have the wit, that’s for sure.
In a music hall, Archie opens the show with a short would-be comic patter and a brief song and dance routine. The song is called “Why should I care?” and ends, “If they see that you’re blue, they’ll look down on you, So why should I bother to care?”
There are so many different sides of the British that Philip has brought out in this discussion, and even their causes, such as the effect of the First World War, that it would be interesting at some point (probably not right now) to try to piece these insights into a coherent picture that might help us understand better, among other things, why the British have turned against themselves and are letting their country be destroyed.
LA writes to Philip:
“The establishment, and the Anglican church (which was essentially the English worshipping themselves, hence my joke about making God speak English)…”
I’ve had a somewhat similar thought for years. In wondering about the predominance of atheism in today’s Britain, it came to me that the reason the English tend to be atheistic is that they are so well put together as people, in their way of doing things, and are so satisfied with themselves, that they don’t feel they need anything else.
M. Mason writes:
Sometimes I just shake my head in bewilderment, convinced that I’ll never really understand the British.
Also, I think my idea of a BNP Rodney Dangerfield fits. What’ the BNP’s main problem? It can’t get respect.
By the way, Rodney Dangerfield’s original name was Jacob Cohen, which he changed to Jack Roy. “Rodney Dangerfield” was purely a stage name. See Wikipedia.
Thanks for printing the exchange, it’s such a pleasure to see something I’ve written on your site.
I’ve had a similar thought for years. In thinking about the predominance of atheism in today’s Britain, it came to me that the reason the English tend to be atheistic is that they are so well put together as people, in their way of doing things, and are so satisfied with themselves, they they feel they don’t need anything else.
Hmm, that’s an interesting idea. I hadn’t thought of that. It would seem almost arrogant of me to agree to such a statement!
M. Mason writes:
Sometimes I just shake my head in bewilderment, convinced that I’ll never really understand the British.
Oh dear! Not really the reaction I was hoping for, I was rather hoping to illuminate, not to obfuscate. Oh well. I hope there were elements that your readers could find useful.
Mark P. writes:
There is a show on BBC America called “Top Gear” that reviews automobiles. The kind of British snarkiness you write about really comes out in this show.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 06, 2009 03:05 PM | Send