It’s the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne. I was born a republican and I suspect I’ll die a republican, but I’ve always admired and loved HRH. Through all the awful things that have happened to Britain in the past 60 years, she alone has survived with her dignity intact. Stanley Baxter (a Scottish comedian) used to do a wicked parody of her icy protocol, asking “Did you come far?” to anyone and everyone she met. A girl presents her with a bunch of flowers – “Did you come far?” A man streaks across the pitch – “Did you come far?” Prince Philip wakes her up with a cup of tea – “Did you come far?” We must be a sea of faces to Her Majesty; unfamiliar and ubiquitous.
Her success lies in her passivity, which is the English genius. Long after the bombs have fallen and the Caliph has triumphed, there will be a small group of English tourists at the feet of the Sphinx drinking tea in the midday sun. People scorn us for our lack of passion and complete indifference to events. But the Queen’s endurance is a testament to how far doing very little very well will get you.
If only Britain’s other institutions had shown her reluctance to change. We might now have a Church that believes in God, schools that teach, or a Parliament that debates. HRH understood – unlike her liberal counselors – that at the heart of a healthy institution is ritual. The moment one undoes one’s tie or lifts one’s hem, all is lost. The smallest concession to modernity will, in short order, become a flood of change. Her Majesty has never changed. She is indefatigable. I can’t imagine life without her. I don’t want to.
I am sad to be so far away from home during a rare moment of national unity. But even when I am home, I feel distant from it. Apologies to the English, but I probably don’t belong among them anymore. It’s only the idea of England that I love. The Queen embodies it because she is the last remaining ritual.
My views on England are summed up in a play by Dennis Potter called, A Blade on the Feather. In a pivotal scene an aged professor tries to explain to his daughter the importance of always serving jam roll with custard. This is all England is and ever was, he says: not an ideology or an ethnicity, but a tradition. Remove the tradition and you remove the identity. The professor’s daughter laughs and he begins to cry. “There isn't any sort of England someone of my generation would think he had inherited,” he says. “Take away the pudding and the baked jam roll and the custard and there isn't very much left.” I suppose to outsiders, the professor’s talk is hollow and even effeminate (redolent of so many Brideshead boys walking around with their teddy bears). But you guys have to understand something about us English and our jam roll and custard – we have nothing else left.
Of course, the thought of the Queen makes me nostalgic for certain things: Plymouth gin, Granchester, wet dogs, warm pubs, rain, women with horse whips, making love in July, boats, bowties, shortbread – even shorter tutorials – evensong, bookshops, and Barton Lake. But most of all it does make me miss the stability of the Windsors. The monarchy might still keep the English living at the status of serfs, but at least it has preserved us from the horror of the presidential primaries.
(Only joking – bring ‘em on!)
It’s a pity that the riots broke out when they did, because I was just starting to fall in love with England again. I stepped off the plane at Heathrow after three months in Los Angeles and noticed, for the first time in years, how pretty Albion is. England’s beauty is not like America’s (harsh and empty) or Europe’s (exciting and big), it is small and perfectly managed. Like our food, it is quite plain. We drove home past miles and miles of patchwork green and yellow fields. I lay on the backseat and watched the tops of the telephone polls and the cotton-wool clouds go by, and I was very happy to be home. Now it is a perfect Sunday, spent home alone at my parent’s place in West Kent. My father has a heart condition that this morning caused his lips to swell. He looks like Mick Jagger. My mother rushed him off to hospital and I had the house to myself. I opened all the windows, put on some Beethoven, and lit a cigar. I suppose I am lucky to have won the lottery of life and been born an Englishman. How other races survive without the comforts of Radio 4, shortbread, Marmite on toast, warm beer, Betjeman, and Viz, I cannot imagine. I don’t regard any of these things as a signifier of race or class. My own politics has changed, but my ideals have remained constant. I wish every Englishman could live like this: it is their inheritance, regardless of origin. I believe that beauty and ugliness are lived in balance, which is why last week’s riots were less of a shock to me than they might have been to others. I am angry, of course. I yearned to go to London with a baseball bat and dish out some justice of my own. There was a window last week when it was possible to guillotine thieving children in public and no one would have minded. That window has closed and the liberal backlash is upon us. We will now have to consider “what is wrong with our society?” The answers will range from “too little money” to “too much money”. But I don’t think there anything wrong with England that can be understood in material terms. We’re simply human beings, and human beings are not nice animals. The English think they are nice because they are obsessed with good manners and etiquette. But these are artificial things, not genetic dispositions. Throughout the centuries, we have used to them to suppress or hide our latent violence. The Japanese did the same, burying their brutality beneath ritual. In Blighty, we don’t talk, we don’t complain. We eye each other carefully over the kitchen table; take notes, record slights, plot revenge. Anecdotal evidence from football matches and Saturday night punch-ups testifies to our nasty nature. The English drink like they don’t want to live. Unleashed from good manners by booze, we are monkeys. I was very amused by this post written by an American on the nightmare that is contemporary England: “I accidentally broke into a queue once and thought I might die from a thousand umbrella pokes. I’ve felt under physical threat at Gatwick by a man who thought my concern about making my plane was an accusation of him of something. England is the only country in which I’ve been pursued by a man in a car saying “I am going to get you.” Where I’ve lost many packages on the train or in a crowd when I was pushed against, where a taxi driver has stolen from my bags when he got them out of the car, where I’ve had a friend brutally beaten by an intruder where all the undergraduates in her building ignored her screams because they didn’t want to get hurt … So the idea is that there are inexplicable little outbreaks that are almost wholly ignored, until they come together.” Et voila, the August riots. Don’t believe that a nation so anally obsessed about putting the milk in the cup first could kill indiscriminately? Why, the list of English atrocities in endless. In 1919, our fine military men gunned down roughly 1,000 Indians at the Amritsar Massacre. I’m sure we didn’t get a single drop of blood on our nice white collars. During the 18th and 19th centuries, we carried out a systematic genocide of the population of the Scottish highlands. Farms were burned down and thousands of people starved to death or driven abroad. In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell carried out a similar decimation against the Irish as part of our civilising process over there. In the 15th century, the revolt of Welsh prince Owen Glendower was put down with predictable brutality. I remember reading about it in school books and blanching at the stories of Welsh women killing wounded English soldiers by cutting off their genitalia and stuffing it in their mouths. Fanciful or not, the idea speaks to an innate brutality in the British population. The bourgeois cult of good manners that erupted in the 18th and 19th centuries – when erotica was re-classed as pornography, prisons replaced local jailhouses, debtors were isolated, and the unwashed masses deported wholesale to Australia – created the mythical reserve that still represses our passions today. This is a pessimistic message, but not without hope. Redemption from original sin is possible and we can all find it if we ask for it. But the first step towards redemption is admitting guilt. And the English myth of good manners prevents us from doing that: we just won’t admit that we are capable of violence. Our people, we insist, are the politest in the world – our soldiers the most orderly, our policemen the most courteous, our villains the most honest, our teachers the most hardworking. These precious fantasies cloud our vision. Meanwhile, the grip of good manners is slipping and bad behavior is on the march. We don’t even adhere to the cultural norms that we define ourselves by. The British are a dog unleashed. What we don’t need is reactionary state violence. The thirst for it is natural, but its actualization never is. In his play Marat/Sade (properly titled, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade), Peter Weiss explored two revolutionary prerogatives. The first, represented by de Sade, is the tendency to spontaneous popular violence. The second, taking its lead from the first, is Marat’s brand of social justice brutally enforced by the state. De Sade initially supported Marat’s Terror, when it was random and democratic. He lauded the looting of the rich. But when the state took the mob’s place and set up committees to process enemies of the revolution wholesale, de Sade was disgusted by the turn towards dispassion. The guillotine was swift, clean, inhuman. To quote de Sade, as interpreted by Weiss, the urge to destroy is natural but state terror is not: “Haven't we always crushed those weaker than ourselves? Haven't we thrown in the throats of the powerful with continuous villainy and lust? Haven't we experimented in our laboratories before applying the final solution? Man is a destroyer. But if he kills and takes no pleasure in it, he’s a machine. He should destroy with passion, like a man.” De Sade recounts a romantic death by torture, murder, and final absolution. Then he compares it with the ruthless banality of the modern, totalitarian state: “Now is all official; we condemn to death without emotion. There is no singular, personal death to be had. Only an anonymous, cheapened death that we could dole out to entire nations on a mathematic basis until the time comes for all life to be extinguished.” We don’t want this, but it’s what we’ll get if we cede public anger to the government. What we do need is to correct the imbalance between the reality of human nature and public policy. However that is done, it must involve a realization that we’ve grown apart from England as a place. Life lived close to the land is lived in sympathy with the cycle of birth, sex, death, and rebirth. Life lived away from the land has to be ordered by good manners because it is so unnatural and disturbing. Rats confined in a small space will tear each other apart. Living without myths doesn’t mean living without beauty. There is a real England beyond all that nonsense about stiff-upper-lips and Sunday best. It is the England of the patchwork of green and yellow that I observed from the car. It is England real and eternal for it exists in one’s hand when gripped as a lump of sod or a blown like a fart as a blade of grass betwixt finger and thumb. To quote Edward Thomas, on leave from the slaughter in France: “Often I had gone this way before:/ But now it seemed I never could be/ And never had been had been anywhere else;/ ‘Twas home; one nationality/ We had, I and the birds that sang,/ One Memory.”
August is leaving and Autumn will come. The leaves will fall, the green and yellow will become brown and red. Keep calm and carry on, Britons! For the England you have always known is still beneath your feet.PS: the picture is
a piece of Gin Lane by Hogarth, depicting a drunken Englishwoman cheerfully abandoning her child.