Friday, 1 July 2016

"Don't let's be beastly to the English .....": a post-Brexit lament from an incurable enthusiast for most things British

"Don't let's be beastly to the English ...."   As you may know, the title to this article is an homage to the title of Sir Noël Coward's humorous wartime song "Don't let's be beastly to the Germans".

In many ways, it's appropriate because, after the Brexit fiasco, many of us have been rather "beastly" to the English.  As a nation they've had an experience, in the past week, akin to waking up with a raging national hangover and an unwanted tattoo.  They're not really sure about the source of the empty pizza boxes in the kitchen, or the Masonic regalia hanging in the closet, or the stack of Watchtowers by the front door, but they suspect it's not going to be good when they find out.  The tattoo is the biggest concern, though.  Having the names of all your old girlfriends inked on your arm doesn't really make for a good look ... particularly if you're a priest.

This bizarre nightmare has been the national experience of most English people I know in the past few days, frantically looking up hangover cures on the 'Net while searching for emergency tattoo removal services in the Yellow Pages.

And then there are the jokes ....  Usually, the English enjoy feeling superior to everyone else, particularly the Irish, the Scots, the Americans, and particularly the Australians.  They tell jokes about these proud nations.  (And we all laugh, because Americans, Australians, and particularly Scots and Irish people have a sense of humour.) 

But now, everybody's telling English jokes!!!  Even the Canadians and the New Zealanders have someone other than their immediate neighbours to make fun of.  This is how serious it is.

Growing up in the States, I admired the English.  I tried to fake a British accent as a little kid.  (The problem was, it was Dick Van Dyke's atrociously bad fake Cockney accent but, as I said, I was a kid.)  I always spelled words like colour, odour, and centre in the British style unless I got marked down for it at school. 

For the most part, I preferred the British bands as a kid in the early '60s.  I liked the Beatles better than the Stones, but my real favourite was Herman's Hermits, which may give you an idea of just how uncool I was as a kid.

Even as a kid, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (initially in the Mr. Magoo version, later the book itself) helped shape my understanding of the potential impact of the Christmas celebration on our lives.   (And I even went and did a doctorate on stuff related to some of this.)  Since my childhood, I've always prided myself on celebrating a very English style of Christmas.

As my musical tastes matured, the first sign that I really liked classical music was courtesy of G.F. Handel and Messiah.  (OK, I know he was born in Germany, but he wrote his best stuff - including Messiah - in England, with English tastes in mind.)

As I discovered comedy in a big way, and developed a particular taste for witty, literate satire, of course I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan.

And then I discovered English television.  Now, with TV in the US, occasionally something great will happen.  Every few years or so, an American sitcom will come along that's another M*A*S*H, or a drama that's another The West Wing, or a cop show that's another Hill Street Blues, or a documentary series that's like ... well anything by Ken Burns, I guess. 

But with British TV (or, as they say, "telly"), every year brings something brilliant.  And people recognise this.  Here in Australia, where I've lived since I was 26, the class system reflects this.  The ultimate indicator of where you are on the social ladder is not your money, or your educational level, or your job title, or how fancy a high school you went to.  It's the percentage - out of your total TV viewing - of how much British TV you watch, compared to American programmes (other than reruns of those high quality American programmes ... such as M*A*S*H, The West Wing, Hill Street Blues, or anything by Ken Burns ... that qualify as being "almost British").  To be really upper middle class in Australia, you seriously have to be into your British telly.

And then, as a clergy-type myself, there is England's particular gift to the world of religion.  It's called, with typically English originality, the Church of England.  It has branches outside of England, called Episcopalian in the US and in Scotland, and Anglican almost everywhere else. 

Now the Church of England (sometimes called C of E), along with its overseas affiliates, is really cool in most places.  At its best, it combines stylishly traditional worship with good, classical-influenced music (similar to the Roman Catholics at their best) with intelligent and inclusive beliefs (similar to middle-of-the-road-to-liberal "Protestants" at their best).  In some places, the C of E / Episcopalians / Anglicans aren't at their best, but in those places where they are at their best , they are simply brilliant.

And one thing the C of E / Episcopalians / Anglicans do really well is called Choral Evensong.  It usually happens late on a Sunday afternoon (or, sometimes, in the early evening) in a church with a good choir.  If you can imagine a combination of a well-planned religious service with a quickly-paced classical music concert, with the creamy texture of a chocolate thickshake, and the "kick" of a strong gin-and-tonic, that's Choral Evensong.

Now, with all these factors, I know that the jokes will cease.  Any electorate will sometimes fall for a well-organised scare campaign by far-right extremists during a referendum.  Abe Lincoln was right.  "You can fool all of the people some of the time.  You can fool some of the people all of the time.  But you can't fool all of the people all of the time."  The English have just proven this.

However, I believe England is more than just Mississippi with rotten weather, warm beer, strange food, and some nice, medieval cathedrals.  The people who gave the world Handel's Messiah, A Christmas Carol, Choral Evensong, and Are You Being Served? will rise up from this.  Let's give them a chance.  "Don't let's be beastly to the English."

There was a sign, just the day after the Brexit fiasco, that England was returning to its traditional equilibrium.  In an international soccer match against (irony alert!) that traditional soccer powerhouse, Iceland, England lost.  Now, one of England's proudest national traditions is found in the ability of its national sporting teams to lose important international matches in an embarrassing way.  Directly on the heels of the referendum, England's international footballers showed their countrymen how to be really English once again.  "Don't let's be beastly to the English."

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