‘Cuckoo’ Englishness(deleted from Heavy Years, 2018)
I felt I was jumping to conclusions about English people based on a family prejudice (‘The Englishman knows his place and the place of others’, my mother), and so I spoke to Joab Comfort who is of Ulster Protestant stock, and officially British. He quoted John Ruskin:
‘Contrast the Englishman’s silently conscious pride in what he is with the vexed restlessness and wretchedness of the Frenchman in his thirst for ‘gloire’ to be gained by agonised effort to become something he is not’ is hardly fair to the French Revolution, but is right for the English. Although, the common view is the Englishman’s pride is not in ‘what he is’, but what he is ‘against’. The European Union is a good example of this. Au contraire, De Gaulle’s ‘Non, non’ to their entry, concurs with Ruskin. While recognising the innate repulsion to joining in an institution which could compromise sovereignty, he attributed it to bulldog pride, ‘That’s how the English are. It’s existential’.
However, England as a nation of existentialists didn’t seem quite right. I dug out my Ruskin compendium, and discovered Joab was fogging his sources. In order not to spoil his argument, no doubt, he left out a sentence that appeared in a concurrent letter. Ruskin qualifies the ‘what he is’ with a corrective. ‘While the Frenchman is content to be just himself until something better is conferred on him, the Englishman more sees himself by what his peers think him to be’. In other words, Ruskin was in two minds, and so was I, though more inclined to his second thoughts. They approximated with what my mother told me.
Englishness cannot be separated from its colonial past. Educated people from Commonwealth countries often appear to be more English than the English themselves. Indeed, the most recognisable form of Englishness is often the reserve of foreigners who assume it. These ‘cuckoo’ Englishmen become what they want to be seen to be. And can even fool the natives when wearing the right clothes. Hitchcock knew this, and it’s no accident that in Hollywood the most convincing international conmen were butlers and barons in an English guise.
A remarkable example of a ‘cuckoo’ was Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s sidekick and fixer during the Second World War. He arrived in England in 1919, presenting himself to the headmaster of Sedbergh College in Cumbria as a fifteen-year old orphan from a bush-fire in Australia, and a distant relative of Montagu Rendall, the English educationist. He played the colonial son returning home with such insouciance that further investigation into his background was deemed superfluous. The nineteen-year old Brendan was accepted as a charity pupil, thus profiting from a Public-School education, a passport to the Established Order.
His ancestry could hardly be disguised: an Irish long head with red hair, and broth-of-a-boy physique. Not to be mistaken for convict stock, Brendan claimed that he was Anglo-Irish gentry whose Big House had razed by the Fenians, and forced to emigrate. In fact, he was the son of J.K. Bracken, one of the founders of the Gaelic League, the cultural wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (subsequently the IRA). His Australian background was based on a short sojourn there. A troublesome adolescent, his widowed mother had sent him down under to be straightened out by her cousin, a priest.
A decade later at an Anglo-Irish conference, Emmet Dalton, an American-born ex-British soldier who, like Bracken with Churchill, was one of Michael Collins’s free-floating adjuncts, recognised him as a fellow pupil at a Christian Brothers school in Dublin. Buttonholing Brendan, he reminded him of their friendship, adding, ‘I can still recall the smell of your corduroys’. Emmet’s Proustian moment met with a blank stare.
But who was fooling who? It’s difficult to believe Churchill and the Foreign Office hadn’t an inkling of the truth. As the Minister of Information, he attended meetings with King George. That surely would have called for security clearance. However, nothing was said. Just before Bracken’s death in the 1950s Churchill had made him a Viscount. Whispers were that he was Winston’s illegitimate son. It wasn’t enough that he was an honorary Englishman. The Established Order wanted the real thing.
On balance, Ruskin’s second thoughts, and my mother’s view, were more convincing than blue-blood pride. English mores were more about placing oneself and others. But with an existential twist. The most popular comedies on television mocked the quintessence of Englishness. ‘What one is’ parodied as what your next-door neighbour thinks himself to be.
Or your guests, as in Fawlty Towers.
I resolved, if I was to be put in my place, it was one I would choose for myself. I wasn’t going to throw myself into the English melting plot, and become a good citizen. True, I worked hard in the interests of the country, and paid my taxes when Inland Revenue caught up with my freelancing. I didn’t vote, or join a club. I saw what happened to the identity of Bob Geldof, the Boomtown Rat. Speaking on behalf of English youth with an Irish brogue struck me as foolhardy. Still they seemed to listen. ‘Maybe because outside the Home Counties standard English isn’t spoken’ Joab said. ‘And his promotion of global good causes is up your political street. You might be able to interest him in Virchowism. I can hear him drone, ‘Putting health before power politics. That’s cool’.’ I perished the thought. Sir Bob became part of the Established Order by accepting the honorary gong. ‘Cuddle him, and you’ll never play the guitar again’, said Basil Fawlty to Manuel, his Spanish waiter, who had made a pet of a desert rat.
who and what was I here in England? I wouldn’t have minded being a London-based
Leopold Bloom. I could be as Irish, or not, as the mood takes, as he was
neither/nor Jewish in Dublin. However, I lacked the Wandering Jew’s sense of
belonging everywhere and nowhere. AE’s belief that the Irish had the same pull
on the heart-strings as the Jews was stretching it. I was content to be
outsider looking in.
What I saw in London was a cosmopolitism that put history in its place. The city had a future, but burdened with baggage that had to be lost. The year I arrived fogs were not unknown, but that all changed. The air may not have been pure but it was relativity clear. But the fogs persisted elsewhere for me, not physical ones. Dispossessed mine and factory workers disappeared into an unemployment haze of clubs and pubs. The middle-class nestled in the fog and did as little as possible in a comfortable way. At conferences I attended, leading lights from the provinces wore suits and talked amongst themselves. In the 1980s with the Falkland adventure I began to hear them. Union Jacks as underpants in Carnaby Street were replaced by flags and slightly embarrassed shibboleths. What was to come was already there and it had the sort of foggy past that eventually settled with Brexit. The poor and little old England found their democratic voice. And the opportunist ‘cuckoos’ were hatching eggs that were not theirs’.
I am not waiting for the worst to happen. Somewhere out there is a formidable cultureand pragmatic history that surely, with the help of the young and migrants, a second referendum will result in ‘let’s call the whole thing off’. The will to burn their boats is not how Britannica ruled the waves…