The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain, Ian Jack, Vintage, 320pp, £9.99 (paperback)
Being British: What’s Wrong with It?, Peter Whittle, Biteback Publishing, 197pp, £12.99 (hardback)
Once the England football team tired of Euro 2012 and found themselves unable to resist an early bath, pre-game fever turned to funereal evaluation in pubs all round the country. Didn’t I say that X should have been played in more? Didn’t I say that we need to do something about the mid-field? Didn’t I say ‘at the end of the day’ ever such a lot? In time the World Cup will likewise summon pundits to their speculative duties, with the Olympics and a couple of Wimbledons in between. Durable, seductive, these debates have a life apart. Human intervention is not strictly necessary. When required, columnists and the public alike step into the flow, let it speak through them and step out again till the next time. Content with itself, the river rolls on.
So it is with Britishness. Op-eds meditate upon or bark about it. Academics use it as a peg on which to hang conferences. Tests of Britishness greet hopeful immigrants (‘And what, in Miss Austen’s view, is a truth universally acknowledged …? Sorry, have to hurry you’). Part of the fascination with the subject stems from the seeming impossibility of pinning Britishness down. George Orwell noted that the nation often sails under several flags at once: Britain, Great Britain, England, the United Kingdom – ‘even, in exalted moments, Albion’. Ian Jack and Peter Whittle are two of the latest writers to try and discover what those flags might signify.
In terms of structure, development and prime interests, the two books are unalike. Jack, co-founder of The Independent on Sunday and former editor of Granta, has gathered together essays on subjects as diverse as the 7/7 bombings and the fate of Ango-Indians after 1947. Whittle, columnist, panellist on such BBC programmes as The Moral Maze and founder and director of the New Culture Forum, offers a single-focus study on why the concept of Britishness has been mislaid and how best to recover it. From essence to detail, their approaches are fundamentally different: bottom-up in Jack’s case, top-down in Whittle’s.
In Jack’s view, whatever can be defined as Britishness is best teased out from particulars: behaviour under pressure, discrete events, even happenstance. The temper of the nation – any nation, his essays imply – is best assessed through what happens to individuals and how they respond. What emerges is likely to be complex, contradictory, even noble or ignoble. As such, it resists any prior concept of Britishness. At any given moment, Jack argues, there is a convergence of behaviour, assumption and imponderables (vested interest, neglect, courage, incompetence) which creates and shadows a series of events that emerges as a part of British history. In consequence, some of his strongest essays consider what could be called the ‘ticking bomb’ factor in such events.
‘The 12.10 to Leeds’ traces the Hatfield train crash of 17 October 2000 through the origins of rail usage, post- and pre-locomotion, to the determinants of the preferred gauge-width in Britain (including the fact that, as Harry Mount has recently explored in How England Made the English, the structure of the first train carriages was based, via their horse-drawn predecessors, on the ruts made by Roman chariots). Through George Stephenson’s refinements of the 1820s, ‘the width between the rails became four feet, eight and a half inches’, which Jack calls ‘this awkward result of conservatism, happenstance and artisanship’. It is an apt phrase, which echoes through the subsequent account of developments in rail, of the tensile properties of straight and curved tracks and of the effects of privatisation between 1979 and 1997. (Jack recognises that ‘Mrs. Thatcher had little personal enthusiasm’ for privatisation but was won round by successive Ministers for Transport). Jack is not, of course, suggesting that the Hatfield accident can be laid at the feet of a charioteer. But here, as elsewhere in the collection, he demonstrates that the devil, or a legion of such, can lurk in a disregarded detail which, gathering other details around it, can work itself through with terrible consequences.
He employs a similar approach in ‘Women and Children First’, an essay which triangulates the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, the disaster that befell the liner and a visit to the memorial in Colne, Lancashire, to Wallace Henry Hartley, violinist and bandmaster who, as legend has it, led his musicians in ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ as the ship-to-end-all-ships sank. The essay begins with Jack’s watching ‘a great human tragedy [which] was unfolding on our living-room carpet’: his children playing accident-and-rescue with toy boats, on the Titanic theme:
‘Bang! Crash!’ my son said, tilting his toy up and turning it over. ‘Glug, glug, glug.’
‘Let’s get the passengers into the lifeboats,’ his more humanitarian sister said. ‘Look at all the people in the sea.’
(The latter remark did not pass the lips of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon when the Titanic was sinking.) No more than a game of innocents, this scene nonetheless suggests how the Titanic story has, over time, been smoothed into legend and thus, despite the tragedy at its heart, found a strangely comfortable place in the Story of Britain. Even now, accounts offer a stand-off between, on the one hand, hubris and self-interest and, on the other, pride in Britain’s engineering know-how. Again, Jack finds the truth of such British episodes in how details interlock, how ‘happenstance’ bloody-mindedly challenges any sweeping grand narrative of nation and achievement.
Elsewhere, Jack reverses this approach. Not all details have malign intent. Rather, those elements which any nation would like to claim as representing it at its best can be located in disregarded lives and actions: symbols of purpose, durability and (in the Buddhist phrase) ‘loving- kindness’. The essay ‘Two Sheds’ recounts his excavation of his father’s garden shed after the death of his mother. What could, in other hands, have been a sentimental wander down the years – an Antiques Roadshow of the mind – becomes here an examination of how those who need a grand narrative of Britishness would do well to consider what is, paradoxically, its superior: the micro-narrative. Both coal-shed and garden-shed were, notes Jack,
arranged and ruled by my father in his role as gardener, repairer of domestic goods, coal-drawer, shoe-mender and, long ago, hen-keeper to the family and toymaker to his children.
Jack offers the family as nation – a web of love and practicality. Although, sadly, not part of everyone’s experience, this ideal is more realisable, more necessary, than anything signified by bunting or raids on a dressing-up trunk. (The echo of ‘By Royal Appointment’ in the passage above is, perhaps, playfully intended.) In the end, The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain suggests that, beyond matters of social organisation – adherence to law, driving on the left – there are arguably as many Britains as there are people to experience them.
Peter Whittle dissents from this. British society, he acknowledges, comprises individuals and their experiences, but these gain lustre through a shared identity – a rich seam running unbroken near, and sometimes over, the surface of everyday life. That identity, Britishness, is guaranteed by particular beliefs, attitudes and modes of behaviour. Such qualities, however, have been allowed to languish, or have been laughed away by those who wish, for whatever reason, to fracture any sense of nationhood. The reader will readily recognise the picture of archetypal Britishness that Whittle offers: steadiness, an instinctive knowledge of proper behaviour, and decency, again instinctive. Concerned that Britishness has become an object of scorn, Whittle musters these and other qualities to show that he is not alone in feeling embattled:
This is reflected in many ordinary, social conversations, where reticence, restraint, pragmatism, a belief that our institutions were probably the best in an imperfect world, a wariness of new-fangled ideologies – things that once went towards defining British culture – can now only be referred to ironically, with a set of silent quote marks around them.
Meanwhile, the enemy plays a double game, operating within and without the gates. Europe, specifically the EU, is a prime cause of anxiety. This is not so much because of the institution itself – although, as Flanders and Swann observed, it is populated by the sort of people who ‘argue with umpires and cheer when they’ve won’ – as because of the way Europe as a concept has been embraced, in this country, by those who mock Britishness. These Europhiles function in elites, as do many throughout this book who wish Britain to the devil. Organising themselves thus, they helpfully ease Whittle’s investigations:
So much of the Europhiles’ disdain was born partly of a kind of snobbery, partly as something as superficial as style. It echoed a similar hostility which had been felt towards Ulster Unionists: they were mostly men, they wore suits, they weren’t heavily into irony, and fads and trends seemed to pass them by. These things would condemn them in fashionable, liberal, politically correct eyes just as much as their strongly held political convictions.
Scurrying behind Europe, Peter Lorre to its Sidney Greenstreet, come multiculturalism and cultural relativism. With both of these there is indeed a rich debate to be had about the benefits and disadvantages. One should be allowed to assert that, while laudable in many ways, multiculturalism also carries the risk of creating pockets of identities which do not readily interact with each other. In Whittle’s view, however, multiculturalism is an undifferentiated concept, a mass of otherness which draws off nourishment and respectability from its host country’s characteristics. As for cultural relativism,
[a]t its centre was a belief that there was no such thing as absolute truth, that all cultures were of equal worth, and that right and wrong existed only within the boundaries of any one specific society and should in no way be judged.
There is possibly more to cultural relativism than this, but it is true that it has been on the rise since those systems which professed absolute truth – religion, the tactics of deference – began to lose purchase. As one of Philip Larkin’s speakers observed as long ago as 1974, in ‘Vers de Société’, ‘No one now/Believes the hermit with his gown and dish/Talking to God (who’s gone too)’. That said, one of the notions that Whittle ascribes to cultural relativism – right and wrong as judged within a specific society – is also, it would seem, a key building-block in imperial expansion. Tested on home ground, it is then thoughtfully shared further afield, administrators and missionaries its conduits.
The fly-leaf of Being British speaks of Whittle’s ‘trademark wit and insight’. These are managed with becoming restraint, to which he adds a talent for mimicry. Considering attitudes to the royal family when Princess Diana died, he contrasts the supposed ‘end-of-monarchy’ trends in the media with the enduring fidelity of the nation:
But didn’t you think that the monarchy was finished? Of course you did, because isn’t that what everyone’s sort of saying?
This is accomplished ventriloquism: Rev. A. R. P. Blair, Vicar of St. Albion’s, lives again before the reader’s eyes, presumably enlisted to remind the reader what a liberal elitist sounds like when warming to his theme.
There is, after all, one factor uniting these titles: they shine a light on the different starting points that a search for Britishness can have and the kinds of journey that ensue. Jack’s Britain-in-the-now contrasts sharply with Whittle’s Britain-in-the-head. ‘Heavy Fog in Channel: Continent Cut Off’ – an October 1957 headline in The Times but also ascribed to a Punch cartoon and pre-war British weathermen – evokes the kind of Britain to which, if we gave the matter rational, pragmatic thought, we could supposedly return. Happenstance and accident are no respecters of boundaries, however. Intruding, they work against the composure, the sense of rightness, of a national image. Flags and crests can arrest the eye, but the quiddity of individual life, behaviour by good example, acts of compassion – these need no imposed identity to stand as guarantor.