Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Being English is about being tolerant"

I've been giving a small amount of help to this project that my mates Mark and Hugh are doing:

About five-and-a-half minutes in, there's a line about how being English is about being tolerant. It's a tough case to argue, but I think I would defend it, with Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn playing around in the back of my head.

"The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement.

And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as ‘decadence’ or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class. Successive wars have shaken it but not destroyed it.

Well within living memory it was common for ‘the redcoats’ to be booed at in the streets and for the landlords of respectable public houses to refuse to allow soldiers on the premises. In peace time, even when there are two million unemployed, it is difficult to fill the ranks of the tiny standing army, which is officered by the country gentry and a specialized stratum of the middle class, and manned by farm labourers and slum proletarians.

The mass of the people are without military knowledge or tradition, and their attitude towards war is invariably defensive. No politician could rise to power by promising them conquests or military ‘glory’, no Hymn of Hate has ever made any appeal to them. In the last war the songs which the soldiers made up and sang of their own accord were not vengeful but humorous and mock-defeatist. The only enemy they ever named was the sergeant-major.

In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious. They do not retain among their historical memories the name of a single military victory.

English literature, like other literatures, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. There is no popular poem about Trafalgar or Waterloo, for instance. Sir John Moore's army at Corunna, fighting a desperate rearguard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory.

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction. And of the last war, the four names which have really engraved themselves on the popular memory are Mons, Ypres, Gallipoli and Passchendaele, every time a disaster. The names of the great battles that finally broke the German armies are simply unknown to the general public."


Mil said...

Would definitely prefer to subscribe to the idea. But maybe it's more that we feel for losers - and suspect that winners only exist at the expense of the rest of us.

john b said...

As a Brit, it's weird - and probably something to do with being a country more at ease with its army's past than the UK's - that you commonly see soldiers and sailors in uniform on public transport and walking around in Sydney. Don't think I've ever seen a military type on the Tube...

john b said...

sorry, "uniformed military type". I've seen plenty of people who were, in fact, military types on public transport in the UK, but only in civvies.