There’s a strange tension in the air as people don’t know whether to be more unsettled by the pandemic or by Brexit. Brexit got pushed to the back of the room for a while, because the coronavirus was a global threat and leaving Europe felt rather parochial by comparison. We would muddle through, because we Britons always somehow muddle through. But for a time, there were more important things to think about.
Then, all of a sudden, stuff got real, because there were deadlines and negotiations and the Prime Minister put on a mask and did or did not brush his hair and flew off to Brussels. The government started putting out bizarre advertisements saying there was no time to waste and that we must get ready. Ready for what? Nobody could say. A gaggle of ministers trooped into the socially distanced television studios and got that deer in the headlights look when they were asked the most ordinary questions. And all the old arguments started up again.
Everybody, except for a few disaster capitalists who were already decorating their end of the world compounds in New Zealand, seemed to agree that it was not looking good. It was not brexity enough for the Brexiteers and it was far too brexity for everyone else. And then, of course, there were the fish. Because, you know, fish.
As if everything was not complicated enough as we rolled into this strange, non-Christmas Christmas, poor old Blighty was going to be smashed on the rocks and I began to feel a horrid combination of fury and despair.
And then, I was noodling around the internet, trying to find some good news, when I stumbled upon the most charming German gentleman. The burden of his song was that Britain might be leaving, but it still had its greatnesses. He carolled his way through the greatest hits. They were such a wonderful gallimaufry – fish and chips, Monty Python, Miss Marple, Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, The Queen, Harry Potter, the idiosyncratic British sense of humour, and the hats at Ascot. (‘We really don’t have that in Germany,’ he said, in tones of faint awe and mild regret.)
I suddenly thought: yes, yes, that’s it. Let’s count our blessings and look on the bright side and remember all the things that nobody can take away from us beleaguered Britons. Yes, I thought: I am going to make a list. I’m going to make a cheering list and then I’ll feel better.
There are so many things I love about Britain and the British. Not in the chauvinistic, jingo sense of we are the best and we rule the waves (even when it comes to the fish), but in the mildly absurd, slightly muddly, always self-deprecating way of these rocky shores.
Britons, I think, were at their worst when they were indeed ruling the waves; conquest never brought out the best in this island nation. They were always at their finest when everything went wrong, when their backs were against the wall, when everyone counted them down and out. I love that we love our defeats, or that we turn those defeats into victories. In no other country would Dunkirk be a cherished part of national folklore and nowhere else would Eddie the Eagle have become a national treasure. I love that we still say sorry all the time. I love that for many, many years, one of the most famous sights on Oxford Street was the furious man who walked up and down with a sandwich board proclaiming ‘The End of the World is Nigh’.
I love that we do irony as if it were an Olympic sport. I love that we are very, very suspicious of anyone who does not have a sense of humour. I love that we poke fun at ourselves on a heroic scale.
I love our ridiculous foods – Marmite and crumpets and Jaffa cakes. I love that people here have serious arguments about the correct way to make the perfect cup of tea. I love that we love dressing up – from fancy dress parties to the oddity of panto to the extravagant drag artist dives I used to spend time in when I ran around Soho in my twenties.
I’m with that German gentleman – I love the Ascot hats. And in that week of dressing up, perhaps the most absurd of all since horses really don’t care what you look like, I love the moment when the Queen comes down the straight mile in her gleaming carriage, pulled by her matched Windsor greys, and the Welsh Guards play her in, and all the men take off their toppers and wave them in the air. You can’t find a single rational reason for any of that, and yet it has a kind of extraneous wonder of its very own and it always makes me a bit weepy.
I love the Lake District and the Peak District and the wild spaces of Scotland. I love the greasy spoons and the old-fashioned barbers that still have a red and white pole outside. I love the mighty roar that goes up before the first race on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. I love the Newmarket Heath and the Lambourn downs. I love that the larks sing on the wing. I love little robin redbreasts and the hopeful moment when that swallows arrive in the spring. I love that the entire thoroughbred breed was invented in Yorkshire, where Captain Byerley put his war horse to his native mares and changed the course of horsing history.
I love the jokes. I love the scything satire and the gallows humour and the absurdist streak. I love the Pythons, and Mrs Elton in Emma, and Dad’s Army.
I love the literature. I love that, no matter what happens, we will always have Shakespeare. I love Jane Austen and George Eliot and the Brontës and Jan Morris and Nancy Mitford and Isabel Colegate and Georgette Heyer. I love the Palliser series and the chronicles of Narnia. I love the poets, from Keats to Auden. I grew up on Beatrix Potter and The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden and those memories live in me still.
I love the dry stone walls of the Dales and the beach huts by the sea and the great stately piles with their Capability Brown sweeps of landscape. I love the sheep. I love the majestic Aberdeen Angus and the splendid Suffolk Punch.
I love the dandies and the punks and the kids who never fitted in and grew up to be troubadours.
I love The Shipping Forecast, with its iconic, euphonic names – Dogger, Fisher, German Bight; Fitzroy, Trafalgar, FitzRoy. I love listening to the soothing voices of the World Service when I’m driving through the night. I love the place names – Mucklestone, Ashford in the Water, Six Mile Bottom, Chaddesley Corbett, Crouch End, Faugh, Thurso and Wick.
I love the history. Not the Rule Britannia winning things, although some of the great fights have their own hectic fascination, but the people – Peel, battling the vested interests to push through the Repeal of the Corn Laws, Melbourne encouraging the shy young Queen Victoria, Gladstone madly cutting down trees whilst wrestling with the Irish question, Charles James Fox losing everything on the turn of a card.
Most of all, I love the people who are not taking sides on Twitter or shouting at each other on the news or writing purposely divisive newspaper columns, but who are out there in their villages and towns, their city streets and suburban settlements, getting on with it. They are the people who work on the wards of the NHS, who deliver the parcels, who fill in the potholes, who look after the old people, who work the land, who drive the trains, who stack the supermarket shelves. They are the ones who keep the show on the road and generally don’t make a fuss, the ones who get on with it, the ones who often say they mustn’t grumble when they actually have quite a lot to grumble about.
I don’t know how much you can generalise about a culture. Are we really a nation of self-deprecation and good manners? Do we still prize the stoicism and phlegmatism that became so famous in the Second World War? Does a woman who looks after livestock in the Welsh Marches have that much in common with a financial operative in Canary Wharf? We are being presented to ourselves just now as a fractured nation, shouting at each other across the void. Shouting past each other, as if we speak two different languages. It’s not just Brexit: it’s the urban elite vs the rest, it’s the Islington liberals who don’t understand the workers, it’s the Westminster bubble against the real people, doing the real jobs, in the real world.
Is there some pulling thread that still ties us together, an old, collective memory of cussedness, and mockery, and the ability to laugh when everything gets desperate? Is there honey still for tea? Is there still the collective love of understatement, the subversive streak of camp, the humming belief in the maverick? Is there still the pub, the pie and a pint, the disdain for ostentation, the adoration of the very silly? Is there still all that, to hold us together, as the tide goes out on its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, and we stand on Matthew Arnold’s darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night? I hope so. I do hope so. I choose to say yes, there is.