O, to be in England….

May 30, 2012 at 11:41 pm (Anglophilia, Art, books, Music, Travel)

Last November, there appeared in Harper’s Magazine an article entitled “Broken Britain” by journalist Ed Vulliamy. Written partly in response to the rioting that occurred in August, the piece had virtually nothing good to say about the current state  of things in that beleaguered island nation:

On the worst day of street violence, stock values plunged to their lowest all year. A few days after the riots had  ended, it was revealed that one in five Britons between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four are unemployed, and that more applicants for university and college would be turned away than ever before. Cameron spoke of a “slow-motion moral collapse” of the country he used to call, when in opposition, “broken Britain.” He insisted on the need to confront “the attitudes and assumptions that have brought parts of our society to this shocking state,” including “irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices had no consequences.”He was as virtuous as he was four-square, despite his porcelain complexion and weak chin. But he himself has been tainted by scandal….

On it went, page after page of unrelentingly negative reportage. As well as government officials, members of the royal family were included in the smack down. I would say it was an almost gleeful piling on, were the tone not half so bitter:

Britain itself is a corporate mediocrity, a place where the customer is almost always wrong and people always seem to be working but not much gets done very well. Ineptitude is packaged with a wrapping of present participles, as though an advertising agency had taken over the government and the economy alike,which, in a way, it has: British Gas is“Looking after your world,” British Telecom is “Bringing it all together for London 2012,” while the Metropolitan Police are “Working together for a safer London.” But behind the silly slogans, a combination of greed, incompetence, and increasing authoritarianism is making Britain not only an inefficient but a disagreeable place in which to live—a country now characterized by lost good manners, opportunism and prying.

After reading this article, I was depressed for days. Did  this mean that as a visitor to Britain four times in the past eight years, I was merely a  starry-eyed, gulled tourist, one who’d come away with the impression of a people who were alive and vibrant, and a countryside whose beauty was almost unearthly?

Now here comes  Niall Ferguson, writing in a recent issue of Newsweek, to answer my question somewhat regretfully in the affirmative. Ferguson doesn’t come close to matching Vulliamy’s vituperative, excoriating tone. Nevertheless, he is anxious for, and bewildered by, his homeland, which he compares to fin-de-siècle Vienna in its last  throes of ‘nervous splendor:’

In particular, Ferguson declares himself astonished by the lavish plans for the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee:

Last week I watched an astonishing number of bandsmen in bearskin hats and bright red tunics rehearsing for the jubilee celebrations, which culminate next month. Stuck in the resulting traffic, I had time to ponder why, at a time of deep cuts in defense spending, Britain can still afford the world’s finest military bands.

“Austerity” has become the watchword of David Cameron’s premiership as he grapples with the huge deficits run up by his Labour predecessors. Yet there is nothing austere about the Diamond Jubilee. On June 3, according to the official website, “Up to a thousand boats will muster on the river as the Queen prepares to lead one of the largest flotillas ever seen on the River Thames.”

Ferguson does make this concession: “Like Vienna a century ago, London today is one of the world’s most creative cities.” He goes on to name Ian McEwan as his favorite novelist. Fair enough; I too am a McEwan fan, though Solar by and large did not work for me. At the moment, I’m trembling with anticipation at the prospect of reading Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to the harrowing and spectacular Wolf Hall. (In Slate, William Georgiades posted a review entitled “Hilary Mantel’s Heart of Stone;” the piece is subtitled: “A brilliant follow-up to Wolf Hall from an author whose anger would rip a roof off.'”)

Meanwhile I’m still working my way though The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Fiona MacCarthy’s  splendid biography of Edward Burne-Jones. At the same time, I’m happily immersed in Peter Robinson’s Before the Poison. Oh – and I am having the jolliest time with John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists – about which more, in a later post.

Fact is, I’ve  read so many fantastic books by and about British authors lately that I could not begin to enumerate them. How do I love the British writers? Let me count the ways:

Alexander McCall Smith

Ruth Rendell

Richard Holmes, author of the superb Age of Wonder

Peter Ackroyd

Dorothy L. Sayers

Agatha Christie

DH Lawrence, subject of my master’s thesis

John Donne, subject of my senior thesis

Jane Austen

Charles Dickens, by William Powell Frith

Of course, this is merely a modest selection from a prodigious list. A good source of information about British and Commonwealth authors can be found at the British Council’s Literature site. (I’d also like to suggest my post entitled Six Gifted Englishwomen.)

I would have to be very naive and oblivious not to acknowledge – especially given the riots of last August – that there is plenty of grief and anger in Britain today, for a variety of reasons. I just got upset all over again by several of the opinion pieces at the site What England Means To Me. It is heartbreaking to read articles like these; their authors are so nearly despairing. So I offer what I hope may act to some small degree as a counterweight to this pain. Here is a sampling of art, music, and film from the British Isles, a place I love deeply:

The Beguiling of Merlin, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Flaming June, by Frederick, Lord Leighton

Self portrait, by Frederick, Lord Leighton

Annunciation, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by John William Waterhouse

Coming from Evening Church, by Samuel Palmer

A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, by William Powell Frith

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, by Joseph Wright of Derby

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, by Allan Ramsay

Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews, by Thomas Gainsborough

Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway by JMW Turner

Boat Building Near Flatford Mill, by John Constable

Mares and Foals in a Landscape, by George Stubbs

The Book of Job: When the Morning Stars Sang Together, by William Blake

Finally, there’s some fascinating material in my post on The History of British Art by Andrew Graham-Dixon.

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Sir Laurence Olivier as Henry V, in Shakespeare’s history play:

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(The Yorkshire adventure was actually my adventure, in 2005 – my first trip to the UK in twenty years. The music is “The Lark Ascending,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.)

Whitby: Folk go about their shopping in the town, while the ruins of Whitby Abbey, founded in the seventh century AD, brood above them

Scenes from our recent trip to the Welsh borders, a place off incredibly, unspoiled beauty:

For Royal watchers, here are two sites you might enjoy visiting: The Monarchist, and the official website for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

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  In Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd is both informative and eloquent on the subject of the Arthurian legends, in a chapter entitled “He Is Not Dead:”

The sleep of Arthur in the unknown region of Avalon has…been related to Plutarch’s invocation of the old British belief that the great god Cronos still sleeps upon an island surrounded by waters. This in turn has been related to the myth of the original Albion, which has been associated with the legend of Atlantis; the Druids were supposed to believe that Albion, the spirit or embodiment of the English, was an original portion of the lost continent.

Ackroyd then cautions: “It is a very rich, not to say heady, brew. Any attempt to drink it will inevitably lead to numbness and disorientation.” This comes later in the same chapter:

The story of Arthur has always been striated with sensations of loss and transitoriness, which may well account for its central place within the English imagination; the native sensibility is touched with melancholy…and the sad fate of Arthur and his kingdom corresponds to that national mood. There is something, too, of determination and endurance within this dominant sensation….That combination of bravery and fatalism, endurance and understatement, is the defining mood of Arthurian legend.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

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Finally, on a lighter note: a clip from one of my favorite episodes of Chef!  – my favorite British comedy, and a short, gently satirical comedy entitled Duel at Blood Creek.

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5 Comments

  1. Anon said,

    Don’t take this too much to heart Rebecca – all countries have their problems, but it does not mean they are on the way out. What you have shown above is far more typical. We hear that the US has massive debt, a huge murder rate and cannot afford health care, but still, I believe most Americans have a good life. It is the same in Britain. Reporters seem to be a pessimistic bunch by and large!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I am very grateful to you for these observations. I will always love Britain and the British, and I hope to make a return trip next year.

  2. Susan said,

    Fabulous post, Roberta. I love that picture of Whitby, a place I and my husband visited often while we lived in York many years ago. That is a lovely photo.

    I agree with much of what you say: England is at the end of it’s height as a world power, and it is crumbling, in moral disarray more than decay (at least I’d like to think it hasn’t decayed yet). My husband is British, and his family rip into their country all the time. I was really angry the first few times I heard this, I couldn’t believe it. We complain in Canada, but we love it and we would never say the things that Britains say about their country. So those newspaper reports your read are just what everyone thinks over there, which is hard to stomach much of the timpe they don’t overspend when so many are jobless. We are going to watch the flotilla tomorrow, I think it will be spectacular.

    Oh, and I love the art you have posted here, Pre-Raphaelites are my favourite group of artists! England has so many fine creative artists and writers and singers and everything – it has deep problems, yet so much that is good about it too.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Susan, I thank you for your comment, although of course I am saddened to hear confirmation of the bad news about life in England today. Of course, I wish it were not so.

      Also thanks for your praise of the post. It took me forever to put it together, but I’m pleased with how it turned out. I guess the problem is, that present anguish can not be readily eased by past glories.

      I’ll be out all day tomorrow, but my obliging husband will be recording t least some part of the Jubilee festivities for me. I do think that they are right in honoring Queen Elizabeth in this way. She has been through some rough times but seems always to have upheld her sense of what her duty was to the people of Britain. Now they can thank her for that.

      By the way, I enjoy your blog very much. Keep up the good work!

  3. Lustful Crone said,

    Roberta – thank you so much for the duel film – had not seen it before, it is wonderful! And don’t take any notice of what journalists say – remember what they get paid for. Brits like a moan and things are dire, and I don’t know why we haven’t hung the bankers or stopped the current bunch of talentless overprivileged fat poshboys from dismantling our lovely welfare state, but it’s still a great place to be, but we don’t like to say so in case the gods snatch it away……well done on the blog.

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