Saturday, August 28, 2010

On the English Character

Linklater's wartime novel is a wonderful foray into both the English and Italian psyches (not to mention a truly entertaining read).

Much of what he learnt surprised him. He had always heard that the English were an arrogant, wealthy, and aggressive people; and he was astonished to find that they thought of themselves as very mild and easy-going creatures, chronically hard-up, and habitually deceived or over-ridden by their continental neighbors. They did, however, take pride in their sense of justice, and to Angelo this was quite incomprehensible; for he had often heard of the many millions of Indians, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Basutos, Zulus, Kikuyus, Scots, and Irish whom they held in slavery.

They were curiously heartless, he decided, for although they were far from home, he never saw them weeping and sighing for their distant wives, their deserted lovers, and their half-forgotten children. They wrote, indeed, innumerable letters, but said remarkably little in them. They ate enormously, and were continually making jokes that no adult European could understand: Angelo did his best, but was forced to conclude that their sense of humour, though deceptively robust, was quite elementary. The private soldiers grumbled prodigiously and professed a fearful cynicism about the intentions, practice, and good faith of their Government; yet strangely continued to serve it with zeal and do their duty with alacrity. They appeared to become dirty very easily, for they were always washing themselves. They talked a good deal about fornication, but looked askance at the Americans for their excessive indulgence in it. They all regarded football as a more exacting and therefore more praiseworthy art than making love, and many of them preferred it.

Angelo one day persuaded Simon to speak of English politics. Did Simon, he asked, truly believe in democracy?

'Yes, I think I do.' he answered. 'It doesn't work very well, of course, but what does?'

'Would not the ideal government,' asked Angelo, 'be that of an autocratic ruler who was also a philosopher?'

'Not in England,' said Simon. 'No one would admit that it was ideal, in the first place, and in the second we regard philosophy as a rarefied sort of entertainment, like chess or the more difficult crosswords.'

'You are a Conservative, I suppose?'

'Yes,' said Simon, 'I suppose I am. I have never actually voted, but then I am a member of the Church of England, and except for an occasional wedding I haven't in fact been in church since I left school. The Conservative Party and the Church of England are rather similar in that respect: you can belong to both of them without doing much about it. - I belong to two or three very good clubs, now that I think of it, that I never use though I still pay my subscriptions - But what I do believe in most devoutly is the party system, because when you get tired of the party in power you can always kick it out. You can kick it fairly hard, indeed, throughout its tenure of office. I should say that democracy is really represented by a party with a mind that knows how to act, a tender bottom that tells it when, and a well-shod electorate.'


'But there again I see the unfairness that rules the world!' cried Angelo . . . 'Life is war, and we who are virtuous may well lose every battle but the last one.'

'That,' said Simon's friend with noticeable stiffness, 'is the prerogative of the English.'

'Because you are good?' asked Angelo.

'It is an attractive hypothesis,' said Simon.

'There was a time when we aspired to goodness,' said his friend, 'and the world regarded us as hypocrites. Then we decided to pose as realists; and the world said we were effete.'

'But why do you win your last battles?' asked Angelo.

'We are amateurs,' said Simon's friend with a noisy yawn, 'and the amateur lasts longer than the professional.'

Eric Linklater, Private Angelo (London: Buchan and Enright, 1986; orig. pub. 1946), 90-91, 112-113.