Just listened to the second instalment of Andrew Marr’s BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English, focusing this time on a ‘real-life’ – though larger than life – ‘character’, the Elizabethan adventurer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh.
I thought the focus was a bit better than that of the last programme, discussing the Miss Marples ‘type’ of Englishness. Although again the exemplar of Englishness chosen was, to say the least, somewhat antiquated, Mr Marr suggested that Raleigh reveals most about the English in the reaction towards him on the part of English people today. Mr Marr correctly identified the fact that we admire exceptional, flamboyant, fearless individuals – especially those that give ‘Johnny Foreigner’ a run for his euros: people who override our self-imposed rules of restraint and self-effacement. And, at the same time, as and when such personalities ‘overstep the mark’ or ‘go too far’, we love to do them down, even to the extent of dragging them to their ruin – and then we regret doing so ever after.
In this respect, Andrew Marr’s main point in this programme was that Raleigh is a character in whom we live out vicariously an image of ourselves as freed from the constraints of conventional English society and modern living, and setting out to conquer the world.
But is this just a fantasy or, to use Marr’s metaphor, a mask? As in the first programme in the series, the presenter appeared to want to have it both ways: while Sir Raleigh was seen as merely a fantasy projection of English greatness, Mr Marr also described him as an example of a double-sided (or two-faced?) aspect of real English people and civilisation. On the one hand, we like to think of ourselves as noble, cultured and debonair; but this is a mask that conceals common aggression and violence when it comes to promoting our own self-interest and that of the country. Raleigh was compared to ambitious City traders, seen as the real swashbucklers and world beaters of today.
Hence, the tantalising ambiguity of Mr Marr’s concluding phrase: Raleigh was a symbol of how the English would “like to think we are and are not, and never were”. Are we / were we really never like Sir Walter Raleigh; or is this something that we’d merely like to think we’re not like and never were – but in fact, we are and have been in the past aggressive and violent in that way? The emphasis of most of the programme seemed to suggest that the latter interpretation of this question was more in line with Mr Marr’s own view. Either way, we lose: we’re either aggressive Black Adder-type bastards, at heart; or Middle-English, plodding City accountants dreaming, Monty Python-like, of being lion tamers.