May 13th, 2012

Poltroons And Proud Of It

Judy was in a Nashville restaurant. The band wasn't American; she could tell that from their playing style. She toyed with the idea of them being Brits, but decided they had to be Irish because they had the Battle of New Orleans in their repertoire. Would Brits be singing, 

We fired their guns and the British kept a-comin'
There wasn't half as many as there was a while ago.
We fired once more and then they started runnin'
Down the Mississippi to the gulf of Mexico
. ?

Actually, they might. See, I know the words without looking them up. Why? Because Lonnie Donegan, "The King of Skiffle", had a hit with the song in 1959 (when I was 8). Donegan was London Scottish and a key figure in the development of British rock 'n' roll. When I hear that song I hear a tiny little piece of my heritage. The USA had Elvis, we had Donegan. Donegan was cool. 

We Brits are funny that way. Write a song about how perfidious Albion is and what surrender monkeys we are and- if it's catchy enough- we're quite capable of taking it to our hearts. Is this down to our revolting confidence in ourselves as top nation? Our well-developed sense of irony?  A bit of both, I think.  Anyway, I told Judy not to jump to obvious conclusions.

I Knew No Harm Of Bonaparte And Plenty Of The Squire

Another thing about us Brits: we do love a worthy opponent.

George Washington, for instance. England is studded with places claiming to be his ancestral home. Churchill went so far as to claim (not I think entirely in jest) that bluff, squirearchical Washington's victory over George III and his Hessian and Hanoverian troops was yet another victory of the British over the Germans. Played 4, won 4.

Then there's Napoleon. We're sorry he lost at Waterloo. We feel his pain. 19th c.British pictures of him looking pitiable on Elba, St Helena or the Billy Ruffian are as plentiful as those showing the death of Nelson. No-one bothered to paint Wellington in his hour of triumph. Or sing about it. I know a couple of mournful, admiring folk songs about Boney- none about his British conqueror. The sub-text here is that quite a lot of us wouldn't have been too put out if he'd come over here and liberated us from our native oppressors- of whom snooty, hawk-nosed Wellington was a fine example. 

Kipling wrote a poem congratulating the fuzzy-wuzzies ("who broke a British Square"), there was a lot of admiration (and support) for the Boers. We didn't warm to Kaiser Bill (who could?) but we adored The Red Baron. Hitler was similarly unlovable but we rooted around for a Hun to honour and lit on Rommel. James Mason got to play him on screen. No-one has ever bothered to make a movie about Monty.

Gandhi took India away from us and we adore him for it. He has a statue in a London Square, and the hero-worshiping biopic was directed by a Brit and starred a Brit. Why, he is almost one of our own- just like Washington.  Don't you know he was totally inspired by Ruskin and Morris and the Toynbee Hall crowd?