England’s last roar

Pankaj Mishra in The Guardian:

Englishness was always a form of theatre, first staged in overseas colonies. Discovering its traces in Rudyard Kipling and India, VS Naipaul remarked on how, “at the height of their power, the British gave the impression of a people at play, a people playing at being English, playing at being English of a certain class”. Today, in a post-imperial Britain run by half-witted public schoolboys, the English character seems even more, as Naipaul wrote, “a creation of fantasy”.

Those such as Orwell, who saw through the fantasy, were usually mortified. He was born in Bihar in India to an opium agent, with a Caribbean slave-owner as an ancestor. While working as a colonial policeman in Burma, he discovered imperialism to be an “evil despotism” and Englishness to be a humiliating act: a pose of masculine authority and racial superiority necessary to keep volatile natives in their place. Others such as Enoch Powell, a lower middle-class native of the West Midlands, were seduced by this posture of stiff-upper-lipped preeminence. Powell became a classicist at Cambridge, taught himself fox-hunting, and wrote highly wrought Georgian verse; he exulted, as a brigadier, in the hierarchies of empire in India. Then, like Curzon, Milner, Cromer and other purveyors of an Englishness made in India and Egypt, he came to develop a certain rather fierce idea of England and its destiny.

Orwell, on the other hand, was an archetype of the unpatriotic leftwinger on his return home – until he found a lodestone of native English genius in the “red wall” of northern England. The spirited English response to Hitler’s vicious assault deepened his conviction of having discovered a new “emotional unity” in England – one that a socialist revolution could turn in favour of its downtrodden people. He persuaded himself that “England, together with the rest of the world, is changing”, and a new middle class blending in with the old working class would bring forth “new blood, new men, new ideas”.

More here.