Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

24 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Four): Privacy and the Problem of Nationhood

Last and final episode of Andrew Marr’s mini-series Unmasking the English aired on BBC Radio Four this morning (and again this evening). This one revolved around Dr. Johnson, the writer of the first dictionary of the English language. Not much discussion of his groundbreaking contribution to English philology and to lexicography in general, which disappointed me as a linguist. But then that wasn’t Marr’s remit.

Instead, he concentrated on Johnson as a type of the English curmudgeon: a bad-tempered, angry and yet eloquent and witty enemy of social climbing, pretension and insincerity. With the series’ customary linkage of a figure from the past – real or fictional – with contemporary manifestations of English culture, Dr. Johnson was compared to the likes of Richard Ingrams and the satirical magazine Private Eye, and to Tory newspaper columnists railing against the turpitudes of the chattering classes and the encroachments of political correctness.

Something in all of that, without a doubt. And yet, in keeping with the pattern of the series as a whole, Marr alluded only in passing to one of the central issues raised by his subject, which could have been used to bring out a deeper understanding of the whole problematic the series was supposed to be exploring: how to get behind the public mask of the English and understand their deeper motivations. Marr referred to Johnson’s use of religious language in his writings, which, according to Marr, presented a point of difference with contemporary England, where religion is strictly a private matter. Such a statement is probably more a reflection of Marr’s own opinion that religion should be confined to the private domain than the reality of all but the most recent past (and even so). For instance, Richard Ingrams has never made any secret of his Anglican faith, which he shares with Dr. Johnson. The same open acknowledgement of faith has also characterised many Conservative columnists over the years and today, as well as the traditional Tory Party as a whole (the Church of England being ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’) and Ann Widdecombe, whom Marr introduced as the best example of “Dr. Johnson in a skirt”.

In short, there has been no lack of defenders of England as a conservative (note the small ‘c’), Christian nation. If those voices are increasingly heard mainly in private, this is arguably because much of the public discourse as purveyed by the media (including the BBC) is dominated by the liberal (small ‘l’), pluralist agenda of which Andrew Marr is such an able spokesman. Christian faith in England has, then, in part been relegated to the private space partly because it has been banished from the public domain: ‘we’re a liberal, secular Britain – tolerant to a plurality of faiths and beliefs because none of them have any privileged claim or right to our adherence – not an England, one of whose defining characteristics is its millennial Christian tradition’.

But in a sense, the de-sacralising of the public space has accentuated what is in fact a defining characteristic of Englishness, which Marr connected with traditional Tory hostility towards governmental and regulatory interference with individual freedom: our love of privacy. If the private realm is for the English the natural home of religious faith, this is because the privacy of the home is a sacred realm. The Realm – the world of the State, of the Union and of politics – rarely engages the same passions and commitment as do our private concerns: our families, homes, communities, personal pursuits and dreams.

This is one of the defining characteristics of Englishness: the private lives behind the public masks. But Marr did not really delve. He merely concluded that, because the public realm appears so devalued to the English, we have always and always will feel that England is “going to the dogs”. Well, maybe. But some of us hold out the hope for an English nation that is re-connected with English people, not a British state for ever in pursuit of the alienating goals of modernisation, secularisation and progress for their own sake. But what hope is there for England, this nation of private persons?

There’s always hope for England. That, too, is a defining national trait. Our private genius can once again become nation-building – but only when the public domain is again allowed to be sacred to us and to be our home: to be England.

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17 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Three): Same Old Boring Theme

I apologise if I’m boring my readers by banging on about Andrew Marr’s Radio Four series, Unmasking the English, the third programme in which was aired this morning. If I am boring you, perhaps this is in part a reflection on the series itself, which is starting to get a bit predictable and repetitive on the boring theme itself.

English daily life is just a little bit (or perhaps a lot) boring; so we need to spice it up by going just a little bit (or a lot) wild in our leisure time – for instance, by such mad pursuits as quad-biking in Northumberland, racing souped-up Volkswagens (good-old English make, that!) in Surrey, hunting foxes (er, before they banned it) or binging on stag weekends in Amsterdam. The historical-fictional exemplar for this type of Englishness: R S Surtees’ 170-year-old character Mr Jorrocks; contemporary avatar, the motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson.

Same idea about the fundamental antinomies of English culture and personalities, too: orderliness, indeed fastidiousness, in real urban working life offset by living out a fantasy of aristocratic, reckless abandon in the country. And also, the same thematic and logical contradictions in the programme:

  1. Are the English still – or were they ever, really – like the (apparently) out-of-date Mr Jorrocks; or is that template dying out? Mr Marr provided as many examples of how the mundane, ‘degenerate’ character of modern English life has led to our losing the Jorrocks spirit as examples of its survival: founder of the ‘lads’ mag’ Loaded lamenting that the only outlandish pursuits vaunted by the genre today are those that involve exercising the right arm, rather than the ‘crazy’ Jorrocks-like danger sports that originally filled Loaded‘s pages; anecdote of the adrenaline junky Jeremy Clarkson and friend ‘madly’ hiring an Amsterdam prostitute’s shop window for the night, in true Jorrocks spirit, to make fun of all the pissed English stag-night celebrants as they, indeed, staggered past in search of more decadent sport (degeneracy).
  2. The above ambiguity being linked to the fact that Jorrocks is a fictional character of the past; and therefore, looking for his traces in the present is always going to be something of a quixotic quest for fantastical splendours only dimly reflected in present realities – but then a quest that reflects back on those realities as if showing what a sad lot we English are, dwelling on the past almost in the very act of trying to reinvent it against the drab backdrop of our daily toil. We seem to be stuck in the same old mould, us boring English.

But then, isn’t the reality of life always just a little bit more (or less?) boring than our fantasies – including the reality of our ‘hobbies’ through which we try to alleviate the monotony and narrow regularity (indeed, regulated-ness) of daily life? Even those examples of apparent disorderly behaviour with which Mr Marr contrasted the general tedium vitae exemplify a very English concern for orderliness, rules and rituals: the regular routines of Friday-night car racing, and the de rigueur immaculate presentation and maintenance of the souped-up VWs; the rituals, ceremony and protocols of the hunt; and even Clarkson can’t tear round a circuit or hurl himself down a hillside without turning it into a competition involving tightly (if somewhat randomly) defined rules.

Maybe that’s the real madness and genius of the English that Jorrocks exemplifies: not a wild, aggressive, untamed zest for life that stands in contrast to our tamed and boring modern lives; but a will to push things to the limits while at the same time expressing one’s mastery and domination by imposing and maintaining rules and order even on and at the edges of madness and mayhem. The two together – order and chaos – in manic, eccentric (dis)harmony; never at the extremes of either but the one tempering the other and infusing it with self-mocking humour.

In other words, taking the piss even while getting pissed; and getting pissed off if the rules of binging (stag nights and all) are not respected.

10 September 2007

Unmasking the English (Part Two): Sir Walter Raleigh

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.

4 September 2007

Unmasking the English: Another Catalogue Of England’s Terminal Decline?

Listened to the first programme in Andrew Marr’s new BBC Radio Four series Unmasking the English yesterday (as I write, still available as a podcast). Moderately interesting, with one or two insightful comments. I liked the one where he said that the English were the only nation on earth where ‘understated’ and ‘patriotic fervour’ went hand in hand. But on the whole, despite the title, I found it pretty unrevealing fare, in fact.

The series is attempting to get to grips with hidden, less immediately obvious aspects of Englishness from the avowed perspective of an ‘outsider’ – Andrew Marr being completely up front about his Scottish origins and standpoint. The series aims to achieve this by looking at fictional characters that appear to typify English characteristics. Yesterday’s programme focused on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marples. She was presented as an exemplar of English upper-class understatement, self-deprecation and muddling that tactically conceals a steely intellect and purpose determined to see through to the end whatever it has undertaken. Interestingly, and topically, Boris Johnson was offered as an illustration of a modern version of these traits.

However, the danger of basing a programme like this on fictional characters is that you end up with clich├ęs and outdated caricatures of Englishness rather than something of contemporary relevance. Of course, we do all recognise that there is something ‘quintessentially English’ about Miss Marples, a character for whom there is a great deal of popular affection. But our understanding of what constitutes quintessential Englishness has itself to a large extent been formed by fictional characters such as Miss Marples.

A more interesting approach would have been to take ‘typically English’ detective fiction itself as the mask that in turn conceals and reveals something about the English – not to view Miss Marples as if she was a ‘real’ type of Englishness, of which Boris Johnson was a modern manifestation. Andrew Marr’s programme did touch upon these issues in a round-about way; for instance, when he described the typical scenario of a Miss Marples drama: where the spinster sleuth just happens to be around as a gruesome murder is committed, usually in an ‘idyllic’ English village setting; and pursues her investigations in a self-deprecating, unobtrusive but ruthless fashion until she unmasks the villain.

This sort of scenario is indeed typical of a form of English fiction – a particular manifestation of English culture – and there are many modern English dramas that take up the baton from Agatha Christie’s heroine, e.g. Midsomer Murders, Morse or Parsley & Thyme. But the more potentially revealing question would be to ask why the English have such an enduring fascination for such tales, and why do we like to present such an image of ourselves (rural, traditional idyll with underlying current of homicidal violence) to the rest of the world? And why are murder dramas – whether of this traditional variety or the more modern forensic kind – invariably screened either on Friday or Sunday evening: the times of the week when we’re most likely to let off steam and vent our frustrations about the working week? If our daily lives of drudgery are ‘murder’, then the murder mystery is where the disappointments and disaffections of ‘real’ English life are acted out in a surrogate way on an idealised stage matching how we’d like our experience of England to be, but which it mostly isn’t.

But because Andrew Marr ended up considering Miss Marples as a real type of Englishness (despite her fictional status), and an outdated one at that, the programme ended up in a logical paradox that it failed to acknowledge: Miss Marples was an example of quintessential English character traits but at the same time, these were seen as increasingly on the wane in modern Britain with its supposedly more thrusting, self-assertive culture, particularly in the world of work (which is opposed, as I have argued, to the idealised world of the murder mystery). As if to imply that Englishness itself – as defined by the programme – is on the decline and is no longer relevant to the real world of contemporary Britain?

On top of this, I felt uneasy about the series’ title: Unmasking the English. Is the implication that the amiable, bumbling image of a Miss Marples or Boris Johnson is, precisely, a fiction concealing real ‘new English’ characteristics that are in fact more adjusted to the modern world that the English have done so much to shape: tactical shrewdness, ruthless determination, ambition, cold calculation and aggression – precisely the kind of negative traits of which the English are so often accused by foreigners and outsiders, such as Mr Marr? Just as Miss Marples eventually unmasks the murderous villain beneath his or her villagey respectability, are these characteristics the reality of modern English society concealed beneath the mask of a Miss Marples?

Or should that be Miss Marr-ples? For it seems to me that it’s Andrew Marr who is playing the detective here, attempting to strip the English of one layer of our deceptive self-image of harmless amiability and revealing the brute beneath. But is not the whole polarity – murderous class-less reality of the mercenary modern world versus upper-class effortless, toil-less, sophistication – not itself the fiction? The reality of the English is not going to be revealed – at least, not directly – through such myths, which Andrew Marr seems to buy into. Perhaps in so doing, he has succumbed to the real deception that such fictions represent: appearing to reveal the English while concealing the realities of modern English life – and, at the same time, making excellent business from it!

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