“For thousands of years Britain has ruled in a wonderful way.”
The verbatim utterance of a member of the Question Time audience in Torquay last week, spoken by a bespectacled woman with a pink face in justification of her assertion that, “…we’ll only get true democracy when we get out of the EU.”
Ever heard of Henry Thomas Buckle? I wouldn’t have either if I hadn’t come across a passing reference to him in The Way of All Flesh. And I wouldn’t have been reading Samuel Butler if I hadn’t spent the last six months attempting to plug the gaping holes in of my knowledge of Victorian thought and literature. And I wouldn’t have been attempting to plug the gaping holes in of my knowledge of Victorian thought and literature if I hadn’t woken up one morning to discover that I didn’t understand the English.
I thought I understood the English because I thought of myself as English.
I thought of myself as English because my mother was quintessentially English, and her mother and father were properly English, and my father’s great grandfather was an English cutler who fought under Lt Gen Sir David Baird in the Battle of Blaauwberg that wrested the Cape Colony from the Batavian Republic 1806, and my father fought in Field Marshall “Monty” Montgomery’s Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy for Harry, England and St George, which is about as English as it gets even if you discount the possibly apocryphal family legend that our bloodline could be traced back directly to Sir Francis Drake, the most English Englishman in English history.
We lived on a farm in the rolling green foothills of the Drakensberg in a province of South Africa now known as Kwa-Zulu Natal. But as far as my mother was concerned we lived in a pleasant Tory shire in the late 19th century in a manor house not dissimilar to Downton Abbey. My siblings and I grew up on Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Rider Haggard. She read us Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit, Just William, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and the expurgated Tom Brown’s Schooldays. She considered Jane Austen unsuitable for young minds, and thought Thomas Hardy was a dangerously modern radical.
For the answers to such questions that arose from time to time concerning the facts of life, politics and the world beyond Mooi River, we were directed to consult the omniscient wisdom of Arthur Mee whose 1923 edition of The Children’s Encyclopaedia in ten volumes was among her most cherished possessions. A Baptist from Stapleford and a supporter of the temperance movement, Arthur Mee is said to have had no special affinity for children, but wrote his encyclopaedia rather in the hope of raising a generation of patriotic and moral English citizens, of which happy cohort I naturally aspired one day to be a member. His philosophical musings on subjects such as “Where Colour Comes From” and “The Wonderful Ant” may have been less than scientific, but he was excellent on practical matters like how to keep a hedgehog as a pet, how to clean a slimy sponge, and how to make a lasso, though, sadly, far less explicit about the facts of life, politics and the world beyond Mooi River. In these rare cases where Arthur Mee could not provide satisfaction, we were referred upwards to the four daunting volumes of Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the ornament of instruction and enlightenment.
My father was a farmer because he’d grown up on a farm in the Eastern Cape, and farming was the only thing he knew apart from Morse code. After the war he married my mother and bought New Dell, the farm where we grew up. He started out with precious little in the way of livestock and capital, and by the time he died he had less of both. He told us that he had never been bored, not for a day, nor an hour, nor a minute, nor a second of his life. I believe he was the happiest man who ever walked the earth.
My mother was a teacher who specialised in early childhood education, specifically the years between three and five, which some countries call kindergarten, others call nursery school, and the English charmingly call ‘Reception’. So passionate was she about the importance of early learning that she devoted a full year of home schooling to all six of us children, each in turn upon reaching the age of five, as a kind of inoculation against the educational horrors she justifiably feared would lie ahead.
When I used to think of 1959, that blissful year when, apart from the importunate wails and mewls of my younger sister and brother, I was the sole focus of her loving attention, I would see the two of us, just my mother and I, sitting at the magnificent dining table of Victorian teak with my books spread out before me, and I’d be annotating my pencil drawing of the Panama Canal, and she, with that beautiful profile outlined by the golden light of the summer afternoon, would be saying, “Anopheles, with a PH in the middle, not an F, silly!”
But now, thanks to yet another attempt to plug a yet another gaping hole in my knowledge of Victorian thought and literature, I see instead the picture of Education that H.G. Wells once saw painted on the wall of a public building, “…in Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow”, which showed, “…a glorious woman with a wise and fearless face stooping over her children and pointing them to far horizons. The sky displayed the pearly warmth of a summer dawn, and all the painting was marvellously bright as if with the youth and hope of the delicately beautiful children in the foreground. She was telling them, one felt, of the great prospect of life that opened before them, of the spectacle of the world, the splendours of sea and mountain they might travel and see, the joys of skill they might acquire, of effort and the pride of effort and the devotions and nobilities it was theirs to achieve. Perhaps even she whispered of the warm triumphant mystery of love that comes at last to those who have patience and unblemished hearts…
“She was reminding them of their great heritage as English children, rulers of more than one-fifth of mankind, of the obligation to do and be the best that such a pride of empire entails, of their essential nobility and knighthood and the restraints and the charities and the disciplined strength that is becoming in knights and rulers…”
In that imagined mural I recognise my mother’s wise and fearless face, and I see that I was one of those children, the boy with the wispy blonde hair and the faraway look in his pale blue eyes, and that I really did feel an obligation to do and be the best that a pride of empire entails, and I longed and hoped to be a noble knight, preferably Sir Galahad, or Sir Percival at worst, if push came to shove, and I’d have their restraint and charity and disciplined strength, but only when I’d finished being Christopher Robin.
I assume I knew that I didn’t live in England. But at the age of five geography is circumscribed by the distance you’re allowed to wander before someone yells at you to come back, that universally understood length of the radius of a circle that has a responsible adult or older sibling at its centre.
But if I knew it, I’m certain I didn’t understand it. In the world of a child culture always trumps geography, and family culture trumps national culture, and the values of the family — spoken and unspoken, explicit and tacit, for better or for worse — trump logic, judgement and common sense. For me they were what I assumed to be the old-fashioned values of the polite, decent, considerate, mild-mannered, well-meaning, fair-minded, good-natured, even-handed, softly-spoken, slightly eccentric English.
It was too good to last, of course. Sooner or later the circumference of my circle of blissful ignorance would widen until I was out of earshot of the responsible adult or older sibling calling me to come right back.
If I had the vaguest notion of the slightest possibility of the remotest chance of the haziest of shadows obtruding upon my perfect sphere of sweetness and light I imagined it would appear in the form of one of the creatures depicted on a souvenir saucer from John O’Groats, which my mother kept on her dressing table as a repository for her earrings, brooches and cameos. A family heirloom of negligible intrinsic value, it was redolent to us children of all the magic and mystery of our ancient provenance, less for the delicacy of its fabrication than for an eerily illustrated inscription which read, “From googlies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, May the Good Lord deliver us.”
But it didn’t go bump in the night. It went bump on the bright autumn afternoon of the 31st of May, 1961. I was seven years old.
To be continued…