The Last Time I Saw London
The first time I ever laid eyes on the Albert Memorial—the monument erected by Queen Victoria to her beloved consort Prince Albert after his death in 1861—was in the fall of 1950, almost exactly a half-century ago. Not quite having reached my 21st birthday, I was in London thanks to a couple of fellowships that would be sending me to study at Cambridge University. Except for a brief trip to Canada, I had never before been outside the United States, and even though I had majored in English literature at Columbia and knew a lot about the country to which I had just come, I was flabbergasted by how foreign it seemed. Naively I had thought that reading scads of Victorian novels would have familiarized me thoroughly with England in general and London in particular. But the look of the place, the smells, the sounds: all were unexpectedly as strange to my senses as they might have been to anyone who had never read a word of Dickens or George Eliot or Trollope.
The Albert Memorial, however, did seem familiar. Except for the Church of St.-Martin’s-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, which bowled me over (as would all the buildings of the 18th-century architect James Gibbs, including the two in Cambridge itself), I had not yet been exposed to the greatest specimens of old European architecture. But I was well acquainted with 19th- and 20th-century imitations of medieval Gothic churches like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 110th Street in Manhattan, which I saw almost every day during my four years at Columbia (not to mention the hundreds of such churches strewn all over the city).
At that period of my life, I was mostly ignorant when it came to Gothic or Romanesque or Baroque architecture, hardly being able to remember the difference between a transept and a clerestory. The little that I did know was what I had gleaned from a few lectures by Professor Meyer Schapiro and from reading Henry Adams’s book, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Nevertheless, I knew enough to be snooty about faux-Gothic structures, and in this respect the Albert Memorial in London was no different from St. John the Divine in New York.
Nor was my snootiness entirely a borrowed attitude. The truth is that these structures seemed neither beautiful nor impressive to me, and I secretly worried that I would fail to appreciate the originals they had striven so diligently to reproduce, thereby exposing myself to myself as lacking good taste and reliable aesthetic judgment. But such anxieties were put to rest forever on my arrival in Cambridge a week or so later, when King’s College Chapel—the great 16th-century masterpiece of the subspecies of Gothic known as English Perpendicular—smacked me in the eyes, and nearly struck me blind with its glory.
Then, during Christmas vacation, I went on the first of what would become several tours of the major medieval cathedrals, beginning with England and France. By this point I had grown intimately acquainted with King’s College Chapel, which I passed every single day on my rounds (as I had so recently done with St. John the Divine). Yet, partly because it was relatively small, not even its sublimity prepared me for these much larger and unutterably magnificent creations, which far surpassed anything I had imagined. Now my only secret worry about the possible deficiency of my own taste and judgment was that I thought the best English cathedrals were on the whole better than their counterparts in France; and, where the latter were concerned, that I preferred Notre Dame in Paris to Chartres, which the cognoscenti considered superior.
Returning to London after all that, I came again upon the Albert Memorial on my way to a concert at the Albert Hall, to my eyes an even uglier Victorian pile, across the street. There the famous monument was, standing 175 feet high in Kensington Gardens—“one of the great sculptural achievements of the Victorian era,” as the Encyclopedia Britannica today unequivocally describes it in an article that adds a sober factual description to the rhapsodic aesthetic judgment with which it begins:
The architect was George Gilbert Scott, and he was much inspired by miniature medieval shrines, and also by the medieval Eleanor Crosses, set up by King Edward I in memory of his dead Queen, Eleanor, wherever the funeral procession went. . . . The composition has a large statue of Albert seated in a vast Gothic shrine, and includes a frieze with 169 carved figures, angels, and virtues higher up, and separate groups representing the Continents, Industrial Arts, and Sciences.
Seeing this shrine with eyes that had by now been bedazzled by the real thing over and over and over, I was filled with even greater snootiness than before, and my disdain was buttressed by more authority than I had earned the right to feel the first time around.
Like many students of English literature in those far-off days, I had been much influenced by T.S. Eliot’s theory (which for us had the force of dogma to a pious Catholic) concerning the “dissociation of sensibility” that had supposedly taken place with the passing of such “metaphysical” poets of the 17th century as John Donne and Andrew Marvell. According to this view, the birth of modern science (what Donne had called “new Philosophy”), together with other disintegrative forces rising cockily out of the ruins of the Middle Ages, had split emotion off from intellect, turning what had been an integrated whole into two bleeding parts. The effects, Eliot argued (and amplifications of his brief and lapidary observations were soon added by his disciples), had been harmful to poetry, and most especially as they reached their full nefarious maturity among the Romantics of the 19th century.
I cannot recall who later pointed to the so-called Gothic revival in architecture and the cult of medievalism in general as vivid illustrations of how far the dissociation of sensibility had gone outside the sphere of literature no less than within it. That such a cult had arisen did at least testify to the felt need for what had been lost. But the coarseness of line and the heaviness of shape in Victorian Gothic, as compared with the inexplicably miraculous grace and lightness of the buildings being imitated, demonstrated the incapacity of the Romantics to recover what they hungered for, or even to understand what exactly it was. And something similar was reflected in the sentimentality and—the word is inescapable—the romanticization of the medieval age in, for example, the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the early poems of Lord Byron. At any rate, with a head full of such related notions, I had no trouble whatsoever in understanding why the Albert Memorial was an object of derision among people of refined sensibility.
I spent three years in England, mostly in Cambridge, but I also visited London whenever an opportunity presented itself, and when I did, if I chanced to pass by the Albert Memorial, I hardly deigned even to cast a glance in its direction. On my many subsequent trips to London in later decades my attitude toward the Albert Memorial remained what it had always been. During the 1990′s, I noticed that this sorry monument was under scaffolding and heard that very expensive work had been decided upon after a debate in which the forces calling for demolition were overcome by those in favor of restoration. This meant repairing the damage from pollution and weather and doing whatever else might be necessary to recapture the way the monument had originally looked.
By the time I saw it again, a few months ago, the work had been completed and the scaffolding was down. I was in London for only a few days, to attend a wedding, and my plans for a small amount of wandering about the city certainly did not include a trip to the Albert Memorial. But my hotel happened to be located a short walk away, and when I set out across Hyde Park toward Kensington Gardens on the morning of my arrival I realized too late (my sense of direction being almost nonexistent) that I was heading right toward it and it was now looming just a few steps ahead. Oh well, what the hell, I said to myself, it would be stupid to turn back just to avoid the damn thing, and so on I resignedly went.
A minute later, I came full upon it, and an amazing thing happened: the sight of this once despised monument nearly knocked me flat. There was no doubt that it had changed. It looked positively spiffy in its cleaned-up condition, and there was gilt all around the edges that I could not remember having been there before (or perhaps it had been there and I had either not noticed it or considered such ornamentation yet another mark of its vulgarity).
And there were other, nonphysical ways in which the Albert Memorial had changed. Someone once said (it may have been the critic Mary McCarthy and she may even have been talking about Victorian architecture) that ugly things turn beautiful as they grow older. For as they grow older, the period quality that had been repellent to the next generation takes on an appeal of its own. Hence Victorian Gothic no longer strikes the eye as a gross parody of medieval Gothic but as an artifact with an integrity of its own and a coherence indigenous to and evocative of its era.
There is an analogy here with the sociological “law” (richly confirmed in the ethnic and religious worlds around us today) that was propounded by Marcus Hanson in the 1950′s about immigrants to America: what the second generation wishes to forget, the third wishes to remember. Which means that the change in the Albert Memorial was not only in its appearance, and in the aging process it had undergone, but in us, or (since I cannot be sure that my response is typical) at least in me. I had never been among those who, in the spirit of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and of his Blooms-bury friends in the Edwardian era and later, derided the Victorian age. How could I, when so many of my literary heroes were Victorians themselves, and when I understood from reading them that Victorian England did not deserve the sneers that had been visited upon it by the generation immediately following? Nevertheless, as a child of my own time, how could I avoid being simultaneously influenced by those sneers (which were echoed in this country not only against England but also against the America of the late 19th century)?
To the extent that this influence took root in my thinking (or rather in my unthinking and reflexive responses), I, too, looked down upon “Victorianism” as a shorthand for the moral and spiritual oppressions of the puritanism, philistinism, hypocrisy, and middle-class stuffiness supposedly characteristic of the era, both in England and America. Against all this I was on the side of the rebels who set out to liberate us from it.
Not any more. And so, if in the year 2000 the Albert Memorial was not what it had been 50 years earlier, neither was I. Unlike that monument, alas, I had not grown more beautiful with age, nor (except for losing a lot of weight) had I undergone any kind of restoration. But having lived through the concrete consequences, I have no doubt that the wholesale repudiation of “Victorianism” in the moral sphere has resulted in damage broader in scope and more destructive than Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility.” As Gertrude Himmelfarb, the most distinguished student of the Victorian period in America, has taught us, both in long and detailed scholarly works and in shorter polemical volumes, the virtues of the Victorians far outweighed their deficiencies. She has also shown us, with an authority few if any can match, how the consummation of the rebellion against the Victorians, which started early in this century and culminated in the 1960′s, has led to a “de-moralization of society.”
Still, it was not primarily this change in my moral attitudes that accounted for the wholly surprising impression the Albert Memorial now made on me. What overwhelmed me was the enormous confidence in England, and in its benevolence and power, that emanated from those stones. Prince Albert sits there looking like a Roman emperor transformed into a god on whom the angels and the virtues in the surrounding frieze dance attendance, while the sculptures around and below him, depicting the continents and the four branches of industry, suggest that he presides over a vast empire and over a great economy based on the newest forms of knowledge and enterprise.
The arts are there, too, belying the charge of philistinism that the progeny of the Victorians so delighted in hurling against their immediate ancestors (though very little in post-Victorian British literature could hold its head up high in the presence of the best work of these “philistines”). Many of the artists represented—Homer, Dante, Michelangelo, etc.—are not British, but they have in a sense been imperially conscripted into the English pantheon. It reminded me of the exam paper on “The English Moralists” I had to take for my degree at Cambridge, among whom Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and a few other thinkers not exactly indigenous to the British Isles were serenely placed. Similarly, in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Henry Higgins declares at one point that English is the language of Shakespeare and the Bible.
Well, English is certainly the language of Shakespeare, and it is an allusion from one of his plays that might best have served as a description of Prince Albert as he is depicted in his Memorial. The lines I have in mind are spoken by Cassius to Brutus of Julius Caesar: “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus.”
By the 19th century, the world was much wider than it had been to the Romans, but Great Britain, personified here by Prince Albert, most assuredly did bestride it with a reach extending to four continents and a mastery of all the practical, moral, and spiritual means needed to maintain so colossal a position. If anyone possessed the Confucian “Mandate of Heaven,” it was the English of the Victorian period, and the Albert Memorial is only one of many signs that they knew it.
Like “the glory that was Greece/And the grandeur that was Rome,”1 all this is gone. I knew that, of course, before my latest visit to London, but the full extent of the fall had never before been borne in upon me. Nor was it only the Albert Memorial that raised my consciousness. Shortly after seeing it, I returned to my beloved Trafalgar Square, where the huge pillar with Lord Nelson at the top seemed not to have changed at all one way or the other. St.-Mar-tin’s-in-the-Fields was still there, too, as beautiful as ever, and still (like Sainte Chapelle in Paris, another of my favorite small churches) looking so light and airy that I imagined it could levitate at any moment and float into the sky.
But there was also something in Trafalgar Square that had not been there before: a new wing of the National Portrait Gallery. The old wing, dating back to 1856 and hence another product of the Victorian age, bespeaking its great pride in the country’s history and the confidence such pride added to its own sense of accomplishment, houses paintings and sculptures of the leading figures of the English past; the new one is dedicated to paintings (and also photographs) of their putative counterparts or successors in the English present.
Comparing what is contained in the old to what the new has to offer turned out to be one of the more depressing exercises I have ever undertaken: no more blaring announcement of cultural decline could possibly have been sounded by all the sour trumpets in the world. Pop stars and rock stars and the likes of the radical feminist writer Germaine Greer and the perverse historian A.J.P. Taylor dominate the walls of this new wing of a museum built to display icons of giants like Shakespeare and Handel and Newton and Gibbon.
What could one conclude from this experience but that the forces at work in the culture and politics of England in the second half of the 20th century had left a sorry—nay, tragic—wreckage behind? The bomb craters remaining from the blitz that dotted the streets of London when I first got there in 1950 have long since been filled up, but to eyes that can see, there are bomb craters of a different kind gaping from the walls of the National Portrait Gallery’s shiny new wing. These are the ones left over from a series of internal wars: from the relentless assault on the old class system by the “Angry Young Men” of the 50′s; from the undermining of the old morality in the “Swinging London” of the 60′s; from the erosion and stagnation of the economy under successive Labor governments; from the failure of John Major to carry on the counterrevolution against these forces begun by his predecessor as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (a counterrevolution that, ironically, was itself in certain of its aspects subversive of the old order); from the eagerness of the current Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair (who once described himself “as part of the rock ‘n’ roll generation”) and his supporters to deepen the craters in the educational system and the entire national culture as a way of assuaging the resentments of newer immigrant groups.
I fear that I may have begun sounding like the immigrant Jewish Londoner from the East End in a joke that was circulating during my student years in England. Having become rich, he goes to Savile Row to be outfitted by a first-class tailor. Arriving for the last fitting and examining his transformed image in the mirror, he bursts into tears. The tailor, astonished at this response to a suit of which he himself is very proud in every detail, asks his customer what could possibly be wrong. “A pity we lost India!” cries the client.
But India was indeed lost, and so much more with it that the joke may be not on its Jewish subject but on its teller. On top of the depredations I have already listed, the old maxim that culture follows the flag has been amply borne out in the case of Britain, whose leading periodicals many of us once felt obligated to read regularly but no longer do. Nor do we feel the need to keep up with what is going on in the English literary world. Many English writers themselves feel the same way, to judge from the number who have emigrated to America.
Then, too, there is the sociological or demographic sphere to consider. When I lived in England, it was still a homogeneous society. One could see a few “blacks” (a term that for the English included Indians and Pakistanis as well as Negroes from Africa and the Caribbean), most of them students. But except for the occasional tourist speaking French or Italian, the only language one heard while walking the streets was English, and the faces one saw were almost entirely white.
Coming from New York, and having grown up in Brooklyn as the child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe living side-by-side both with Italian immigrants from Sicily and Naples and with blacks newly arrived from the American South, I was struck very forcibly by this demographic feature of the country in which I found myself as a student. And, in common with all Americans in Europe during that period, I was also struck by how smug was the attack on us from Europeans both Left and Right over our society’s treatment of blacks (though this theme soon gave way in popularity to the imminence of fascism that the English were sure Senator Joe McCarthy heralded).
I never wished or tried to defend the dismal state of civil rights in America against such assaults. Yet I could also never resist pointing out to my English interlocutors that, so little conception did they have of what a heterogeneous society was like, they were still going around saying (on the Left, admittedly, in jest) that “the wogs begin at Calais.” In later years, long after I had left, England was flooded with immigrants from India and Pakistan, many of them Muslims, and a goodly number of blacks from former colonies. Trouble inevitably ensued of a kind well-known to any American, including race riots and crime statistics that have lately come to resemble New York’s before the advent of Mayor Giuliani. Then followed much the same effort to resolve this trouble through such measures as reverse discrimination and the lowering of educational standards, which have only served to exacerbate the tensions they were meant to dissipate. Remembering what I had been put through on this issue in the early 1950′s by my complacent English friends and acquaintances, I could not deny myself the vindictive pleasures of Schadenfreude.
It was with this very sense of Schadenfreude that I recently read pieces in the British press by American observers like Charles Murray and Myron Magnet, both of whom have compiled data showing that an underclass very much like our own has been metastasizing in England, and that it has been giving rise to the usual social pathologies associated with this phenomenon (including the politically correct apologetics, especially involving race, that have followed it as the night the day). A similar indictment has been drawn up in the National Interest by its editor, Owen Harries (who was born in Wales and educated in England before emigrating first to Australia and then to the United States). Infected by a dose of Schadenfreude himself, Harries writes:
Until quite recently, it used to be the case that Britain was a decent, civilized country with very good public services but an absolutely lousy economy. Now it has changed to a country with a brilliant economy that is seriously and progressively sick in other respects.
Harries, like Murray and Magnet before him, goes on to report that “in every category of crime except murder . . . Britain now has a worse record than any other developed country.” Furthermore, as a “consequence of a deliberate policy of treating equality and anti-elitism as the most important ends of education, and subordinating intellectual performance to them,” Britain has plunged “close to the bottom of the table of developed countries . . . in terms of both literacy and numeracy.” Nor are these the only pathological symptoms that Harries so depressingly catalogues: the National Health Service, he says, is in “crisis”; the BBC’s embrace of an “ideological philistinism” has turned it into a shadow of its former self; and “the country that invented the railway now has a public transport system that is a joke.” Still another author, David Pryce-Jones, has gone so far as to suggest in a furious essay in National Review that Tony Blair is on the way to destroying every last vestige of what historically has made Great Britain great.
It is important, though, to recognize that there may be another side to this story. In the early 50′s, when I first arrived, I was amazed not only by the foreignness of England but by its drabness. With the wartime regime of rationing still in force, the food, even in a sanctuary of “young gentlemen” like the colleges of Cambridge University, was as terrible as it was scarce. Hardly anyone had central heating, and the amount of coal doled out was never enough to keep one warm in the winter, even when it was supplemented by cheap electric fires whose meager glow could only be summoned forth by the deposit of coins.
The notorious London fog still existed (a consequence, as it turned out, of burning soft coal in millions of fireplaces, which meant that the condition could and would eventually be cured by the simple expedient of banning the practice). Onerous and frightening though the fog could be, especially if one were trying to drive, there was admittedly something romantic about it that made for popular ballads like “A foggy day in London town/Had me low and had me down.” But the fog also seemed to symbolize the depressive spiritual climate of the first postwar decade, which was definitely having the English both low and down.
In the year 2000, however, the English certainly appeared to me to be more up than down. Strolling down one of my old haunts, the Edgware Road, I sensed a new bounce and vitality. I also marveled at the sound of foreign tongues that seemed to dominate the air, drowning out the only occasional words of English. On the Edgware Road, I think it was mainly Hindi, but in other parts of London it was French (spoken not by tourists but by the “wogs” from Calais and other parts of France who, I learned, have been settling in England by the hundreds of thousands).
Even in my day, the only decent restaurants either in London or Cambridge were Indian (with an occasional Italian trattoria where the only dish on the menu seemed to be spaghetti bolognese), and though the country now boasts many posh establishments serving exquisite cuisine of a kind that had not existed in 1950, there seem to be even more Indian eateries than before. Meanwhile, the dismal Lyons Corner Houses have given way to Starbucks cafés—a huge improvement—and even McDonald’s is to my mind (as, evidently, the English of today agree) better than the flyblown fast-food establishments serving fish-and-chips or inedible meat pies it has displaced.
Much of the bounce in the London streets is connected with prosperity, and owes a great deal (every thing?) to the changes wrought by Margaret Thatcher’s long reign as prime minister. But the new heterogeneity of the society, despite the inevitable tensions and problems it has brought with it, has given an added lift of its own to that bounce. Which is to say that, for better or worse, the country is livelier and more colorful than it used to be, in more ways than one.
But is it, all things considered, for the better or for the worse? The most eloquent statement I have seen of the case for the better has been made by Ferdinand Mount, writing in the London Times Literary Supplement, of which he is the editor. Mount expresses wonder at the fact that so many of the younger English novelists have run off to America. “To go to America,” they believe (wrongly, in his estimation), “is to take on the great challenge, to open yourself to the future and to leave behind a smug, sclerotic, closed-in country gently sliding toward oblivion on a muggy tide of warm beer.” Or, in the complaint of the novelist Martin Amis, “We’re heading toward becoming a little efficiency state, like Switzerland. But the country is not exciting in the way a novelist wants it to be. America, for all its faults, is still exciting.”
This attitude represents a fascinating reversal. In his little book on Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1879, Henry James (who had of course left America for England) made a long list of the kind of material on which the novelist feeds but that his and Hawthorne’s native land lacked. Much quoted though this passage has been, it begs to be read yet again in the present context:
[O]ne might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot!
But if Henry James thought American society was too “thin” as compared with the thickly textured life of England, Amis and the others think America is at the center of everything, whereas England has degenerated into a dull “backwater.” It is over this judgment that Ferdinand Mount takes strong issue with them. Far from being “bland,” as Amis charges, England today is in Mount’s view “dynamic, . . . sharp and wide-awake, . . . optimistic, even, in a godless, bad-tempered way.” And most of all, it is “not like Switzerland.” And so there is, he maintains, plenty of material for the novelist to deal with. Yet not even Mount contends that England is still the great country it once was.
Aleksa Djilas, who lived in England for about a decade and has grown disillusioned with it, now writes from Belgrade in the British magazine Prospect that “The main source of England’s greatness was that it was an island, both geographically and in time. Its ideas, institutions, and way of life were either more traditional or more advanced than in Europe or the U. S. Sometimes, most admirably, they were both.”
In my opinion, Djilas is right. The Great Britain of the past was indeed great, and the more egalitarian and heterogeneous society that has risen in place of the hierarchical and homogeneous one of old is in critical respects inferior. The country’s culture has declined; its sense of itself and its purpose have descended from the heights they formerly occupied; it has pulled down the curtain on the demonstration it once put on of what a tiny island could accomplish by adhering religiously to a moral code of duty, honor, work, and national responsibility; and it looks not with pride but with shame at the power it once had.
From this sense of shame, one would never guess that Britain used its power to bestow precious gifts upon the rest of the world in the form of political ideas and institutions. And in speaking of the rest of the world, I very definitely mean to include the colonies of the much-maligned British empire. The critics of that empire, especially those of a Marxist persuasion, have succeeded in blackening its name to a point where only the bravest defenders make bold to dissent. One of the boldest of these defenders is the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle who, in a piece in the New Criterion, marshals strong evidence to back up his insistence that
British imperial rule in many parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, while it might not have been representative or democratic, was nonetheless orderly, largely benign, and usually fair. For all their faults, most British colonial officials delivered good government—or at least better government than any of the likely alternatives.
Windschuttle goes on to quote William Roger Louis, the editor-in-chief of the recently published five-volume Oxford History of the British Empire, who acknowledges the “orderly and efficient government as well as rule under law, the establishment of the courts, and the development of constitutions” that the British brought to their colonies. And none of this is to notice what the eminent economist P.T. Bauer never tires of hammering home in connection with the attack on the empire for exploiting the natural resources of the colonies: England did not take rubber out of Malaya, Bauer keeps on saying, but brought rubber to a place where no such plants had ever existed before. And so it was with other resources in other colonies.
There were, of course, former colonies in which the benign political effects spelled out by Windschuttle and Louis did not take hold, or at any rate did not last beyond independence. According to David Ormsby Gore (Lord Harlech), who was the British ambassador to Washington in the early 1960′s, “Britain will be honored by historians more for the way she disposed of an empire than for the way in which she acquired it.” Tell that to the late historian Elie Kedourie. In a scathing article in COMMENTARY,2 Kedourie insisted that Britain had brought dishonor upon itself precisely through the haste with which it “disposed of” the empire, leaving behind carnage and chaos and in some newly independent countries a despotism that might have been avoided by a more gradual withdrawal.
As one of his illustrations, Kedourie chose Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), to which Lord Soames was dispatched in 1979 from London to arrange for “free and fair” elections that would “produce a government acceptable to the majority.” Kedourie then quotes Soames, who knew very well that the elections would be neither free nor fair:
I believed [Robert Mugabe] was going to win anyhow, and I used to say, you must remember this is Africa. This isn’t little Puddleton-in-the Marsh, and they behave differently. And they think nothing of sticking tent poles up each other’s whatnot you know and do filthy, beastly things to each other. It does happen, I’m afraid, and it’s a very wild thing, an election.
On which Kedourie’s comment was:
Quite so. On various occasions, from the Punjab in 1947 to Rhodesia in 1980, various tent poles were well and truly stuck up Asia’s and Africa’s whatnot, all with the best intentions, and with the benevolent assistance of the imperial power and its servants.
Windschuttle, further sabotaging Ormsby Gore’s prediction, follows Kedourie in stating that “the transition to independence of a sizable part of the empire was a badly handled mess.” He places much of the blame for this on
those critics of imperialism, in both the metropolis and the colonies, who were more concerned to end [Britain's] rule quickly rather than wisely, and who were even less concerned that the boundaries of several new states saddled them with problems that were unresolvable except by violence.
He even dares to declare that “The lives of millions of ordinary people in these countries would have been much happier had the British stayed longer, that is, until a more satisfactory path to independence and a more sensible map of territorial boundaries had been drawn up.”
But the British did not stay, which, as Ferdinand Mount reminds us, provoked former Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s jibe of 1963 that the British, having lost an empire, were now in search of a role. Mount, however, suggests that they have finally found one. He does not quite apply to the empire the quip made by the contemporary conservative politician Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) that the British “have the habit of acquiring their institutions by chance or inadvertence, and then shedding them in a fit of absent-mindedness.” But Mount does underline the degree to which acquiring an empire radically changed the national character in ways that were not foreseen and how shedding it brought equally unforeseen changes that took a long time to manifest themselves fully.
Up to the early 18th century, Mount notes, the English were thought of by foreign observers as “licentious, self-indulgent, bold, humorous, full of passion.” To Voltaire, for instance, they seemed (in Mount’s paraphrase) “independent, prickly, coarse, innovative, sentimental, patriotic, basically law-abiding, though corrupt.” What then, Mount asks, changed them? His answer is the empire: “It was the empire that taught our ancestors to keep their chins up and their upper lips stiff, and to put public duty before private satisfaction.” And it was the empire, he adds, that created the now universally derided idea propounded by Rudyard Kipling of “the white man’s burden”—a burden Mount calls “romanitas.” This “melancholy Latinism” was first used in English by the poet W.H. Auden in 1947; Mount stretches it to cover the code of conduct inculcated by the requirements of holding onto an empire: “discipline, sacrifice, self-denial, fortitude, and loyalty.”
But with the empire gone, the rule of the day, Mount says (this time adapting a phrase from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), is: “damn braces, bless relaxes.” Although there are those who may be alarmed by this change from a braced to a relaxed England, Mount is not among them. Perhaps, he suggests, all that has happened is that the English, freed of the romanitas they needed to cultivate in their imperial phase, have rediscovered their pre-imperial selves as “a coarse, freebooting people whose licentiousness is controlled by a certain underlying patriotic self-discipline. Or alternatively, we are all simply going to the dogs. Or again, perhaps a subtle hard-to-grasp mixture of both.”
Mount’s perspective is worth pondering. Yet when I think of what I heard the stones of the restored Albert Memorial whispering, and when I recall what I saw in the new wing of the National Portrait Gallery, I cannot help feeling that, whether England is “simply going to the dogs” or whether something complicated is happening that may in the end add up to a gain, much more—very much more—has been lost that was of enormous value not only to Great Britain itself but also to the world at large.
1 I suspect that, like me when I looked up this famous phrase, many people will be taken slightly aback to be reminded that it comes from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe (“To Helen”).
2 “Scuttling an Empire,” December 1985.