Bolshie Brits in History

This is an article by Boyd Tonkin in the i paper last week, titled ‘Ballsy Britain is the envy of the world’

In 1782 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart scored his first big hit as a writer of comic opera. In fact, with its spoken dialogue punctured by formal numbers, Die Entfuerhrung aus dem Serail is more of what we call a musical. It has, in addition to its corny Orientalist plot a plum supporting role in the shape of the heroine’s maidservant Blonde.

Feisty, witty, mischievous, Blonde refuses to be shackled by any master or husband whatever their religion. “Girls are bot goods that can be given away as presents… I am an Englishwoman, born to be fee and defy anyone who would attempt to coerce me!” Before the temporary swerve fo he Victorian era, and its often-exaggerated reputation for prudishness polite Continental society had firm ideas about the English – and especially their womenfolk. Rough, vulgar, boozy even barbarous, they nonetheless enjoyed – and exploited – a degree of freedom that either thrilled or horrified cross-Channel observers. In this nation of slatterns and trollops, even the conduct of gentlewomen showed alarming latitude. In his terrific book The English and their History, Robert Tombs reports that compared with 18th century Italy or France, “in England women were more independently active in social and cultural life – so at least was the usual shocked opinion of foreign visitors.”

In the long view of history, during the past few decades the English have reverted to traditional type for many of their neighbours Victorian rectitude vanished long ago. In its stead returned the raucous, drunken wild tribe that travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries either deplored or praised. This bad-taste Britain (to be fair, only England generally fits the description) has had a splendid week.

Sacha Baron Cohen has launched his new film Grimsby with its Hogarthian depiction of he Lincolnshire fishing port as a sump of squalor inhabited by gurning, grotesque inebriates ad hooligans. Over in Paris, meanwhile, the actress Kristin Scott Thomas chose to play the role of a bewigged saloniere from the age of Louis XVI when she scorned the calamities of the British female on both the fashion – and implicitly – the moral front. “French women would never get drunk on a Saturday night in a miniskirt in November.” In London, publishers can still hope to make a small fortune with books that tell you why French women don’t get fat, why French children never misbehave and how a night out in France invariably consists of a small, refined apertif followed by a Michelin starred meal. Evidence plays no part in the rules, so your slightly befuddled memories of that weekend in Marseille don’t apply.

Rich but raucous, the English began to exult in their reputation for rule-busting crudity and savagery. Continental malcontents who chafed against the formality and finesse of their own elite culture could celebrate English wildness as the apogee of freedom. For every Scott Thomas, dismayed by a fake high-street tan, France and many other countries bred a romantic Anglophile who looked across the Channel to find heroes of unfettered creativity. The Shakespeare-worshipping composer Hector Berlioz fell in love with and married Harriet Smithson (Irish born bt of English parentage) after he saw her play Ophelia in Paris. From Lord Byron to David Bowie, many English icons of a pan-European culture have taken the expat path. Bur they remained products of a country often thought to exhibit a blatant disregard for the civilised niceties of social life. Geopolitics alone will not explain English exceptionalism. Foreign accusations of blunt manners and lousy taste, often customised into badges of distinction have helped it cascade down the centuries.

This Byron-to-Bowie notion of a country that breeds freedom-minded pioneers is the upside of the story that shows Bad-Taste Britain as the indigenous habitat of the chav and slob, the yob and the oik. Of course these phantom battles fought among spectres and symbols may have the slenderest of links to material conditions. For peoples colonised and plundered by the British or the French in their imperial pomp, cross-Channel spats about fashion or food would surely epitomise Freud’s idea of “the narcissism of small differences”. Still, the shadow domain of stereotypes did, and does, have real-world effects. Those teenage punks that you may still encounter from Galicia to Greece looked to Britain, or rather their fantasy of it, when they chose to party like it’s 1979.

Subcultural seedbeds probably need to stay rough around the edges. We should worry if snooty leading ladies stop sneering at their plebeian compatriots or gross-out comedians no longer consider North Sea ports as the automatic butts of mirth For decades, the anxiously Francophile middle classes have lectured us that Britain would improve if Bristol resembled Bordeaux. All should stay true to themselves. In a world where cultural branding secures competitive advantage, distinctiveness attracts.

I’m intrigued by this as it seems to fit in with my  research on wife selling – the notion that the English have long been free thinking and at times out of control. I’m also intrigued as to how this fits with the English passion for good manners. I suspect the two bounce off each other. The presence of the anarchists created the need for manners.


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