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Rule Britannia - not
Tom Utley in The Telegraph has a pop at the English, in particular Stephen Fry, and even compares us unfavourably with the Americans. That's "unfavourably" with a "u", Americans being, as Nancy Mitford would say, "non-u".
What funny ideas foreigners seem to have about the British. According to a survey of 26,000 people from 35 countries, published this week, Britons are seen as the politest, the best educated and most boring people in the world. I can understand the boring bit, but I can't imagine what they mean by the rest.
If foreigners think that we are polite, then they clearly haven't witnessed an altercation between a British motorist and a traffic warden, or visited a provincial town centre at chucking-out time. If they believe that we are well educated, they can't have watched many editions of The Weakest Link or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - still less can they have interviewed a British school-leaver or university graduate for a job.
The only possible explanation that I can think of for these international delusions about the British is that all 26,000 of those who took part in the internet poll had been watching Stephen Fry present the Bafta awards, beamed across the globe by satellite from Leicester Square on Sunday night. They think that Britons are polite, well educated and boring because they see Mr Fry as the quintessential Englishman.
In a very narrow sense, they have a point. Mr Fry is indeed a kind of parody of a certain sort of Englishman - the better sort, many would say. Nobody can deny that he is extremely polite and clever, and that he knows a great many more facts than most of us about history, philosophy, the arts and the sciences.
It is also true that he is a fantastically boring man - as he demonstrated again and again on Sunday night, when he kept making jokes about pregnant women, whose punchlines we could all see coming from a mile off.
You may think from that last sentence that I don't much like Mr Fry, but that is not quite true. I did go through a phase of loathing him, when he stood up at another awards ceremony a few years ago, with an Aids-awareness ribbon in his lapel, and cracked a joke about "freshly buttered choirboys".
I reckoned that you could either be pompous and preachy about Aids, or you could make lascivious remarks about young boys - but not both at the same time. On the one occasion when I met him, however, I found him utterly delightful, and apparently content to while away 15 minutes of his time at a cocktail party with a nobody whose fame has never extended an inch beyond this page.
But I do have a very strong objection to Mr Fry, which is that he is too damned English by half. Yes, he is polite, but he is so elaborately polite that his good manners sometimes seem to be almost a form of rudeness. To listen to him on Sunday night, introducing the next B-list American celebrity envelope-opener, with ever more flowery and extravagant praise, was rather like eating a whole tub full of clotted cream at one sitting.
Every word that he uttered seemed to proclaim the message: "Please realise that I don't mean any of this. I am being polite only because I am being paid to say how proud I am to be able to introduce a minor character from an American soap opera." He wanted us all to know that he was gently sending up the whole genre of the awards ceremony: "Welcome to this party of parties on this night of nights. All who are graceful, charming and talented are here…." Oh, do shut up, Stephen.
I found myself thinking what a very English vice it is to accept money for presenting an awards ceremony, while trying subtly to put across the idea that one is not at all the sort of person who approves of awards ceremonies.
Poor, cynical Mr Fry is absolutely riddled, from head to foot, with what Anthony Blanche, in Brideshead Revisited, called the English Disease. He dare not speak his true feelings because he is crippled by charm - and, as Blanche so acutely observed, charm is the mortal enemy of the arts.
Like so many Englishmen of his class, Mr Fry is so screwed up that he uses language to mask his feelings, rather than to express them. Oh, how much happier it would have been if the sponsors of the Baftas had roped in a starry-eyed American to present them - somebody who actually believed that these awards meant something; somebody who could speak from the heart.
All this is very painful for me to write, because I was brought up from infancy to believe that Britons - or, more specifically, Englishmen - were superior to Americans in almost every way. Americans were vulgar, naïve, sentimental and obese - all money and no taste. The English may have been poorer, but, by golly, they wrote better, painted better, built better… did everything better, really.
This idea was planted so firmly in my mind that it was not until last summer that I finally dislodged it. Packing for our family holiday, I threw into my suitcase the two nearest books to hand. One was F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, the other was something by Anthony Powell, whose title I can't even remember. I read the Powell first, and enjoyed his subtle observations of class and manners, as I always do.
Then I read Tender is the Night, and it blew my socks off. Suddenly the Powell seemed insipid, pathetic, utterly unsatisfying - quintessentially English, in short (and no letters, please, pointing out that Powell posed as a Welshman). The realisation dawned on me for the first time that most of the greatest modern novels in the English language have been written not by Englishmen but by Americans - Henry James, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hemingway…
And what is true of novels goes for so many other art forms as well. How utterly feeble and formulaic British films look - Four Weddings and a Funeral, About a Boy, the entire output of Merchant Ivory - beside the best of Hollywood. How prim and tasteful is a Hockney, or even a Damien Hirst, beside a Jackson Pollock.
I am still charmed by Gainsborough, Stubbs, Turner, Betjeman, P G Wodehouse, Elgar and Inigo Jones. But reading Powell back-to-back with Fitzgerald has made me realise just how true was Anthony Blanche's observation.
Where the arts are concerned, I'm afraid that those 26,000 people polled over the internet may be on to something. Cultivated Englishmen really do tend to be like Stephen Fry: polite, educated and desperately boring.
Of course, this is just the usual English self-deprecation, which comes from confidence in our superiority. If it fooled any US readers, that's just because you don't understand irony.
Ooops, can't say that. OK, I'll try again.
The English have a reputation for being self-deprecating. However, we're really not all that good at being self-deprecating. The Americans are much better at this than we are.