Land of Failed Hope and No Glory
When I was in my 20s, my nickname was “BBC”. That was because I spoke English fluently and effortlessly while most of my friends struggled. I knew better than anyone else what was going on in Britain. In short I was a Briton in disguise. I was and have been since then, without even knowing at first that such a category existed, an Anglophile.
I have often heard people say that Anglophiles love a country that does not exist any more, or that never actually existed in the first place. They miss the point. I never ignored that Britain is full of contradictions, that it made horrible mistakes at various points in its history, that it contains a lot of poverty and ignorance as well as some of the finest schools and universities in the whole world.
It is not just the warm beer or the quaint villages that I used to like about Britain. I once knew a country where everybody played by the rules, and the rules were there to protect the players, not hamstring them. Confrontation is not a binary event in such an environment, but a triangle: not You v Me (the strongest wins), but You — the rules — Me (the best wins). Nowhere was this principle that you must play fair more embedded in the social fabric than in Britain. You may think I am being too idealistic. Far from it: because at the same time Britain used to be a place where pragmatism reigns absolute, a “nation of shopkeepers”, but honest ones. Nothing sophisticated, just good old pragmatism. Costs and benefits. The Britain I loved could blend opportunism and principle in its own, unique way.
A country that seemed immune to populist propaganda, who rejected fascism and helped rid Europe from fascists at great cost is now the home of one of the nastiest, crassest and most openly racist parties in the Western world which, worse still, is now considered almost mainstream. Its well-to-do leader and an old Etonian spearheaded a referendum campaign full of blatant lies whose aim was to make people believe that they had the chance to kick the elite’s butt. As if they had not been the quintessential offspring of that same elite. And the people of Britain, as the rest of Europe watched in horror, swallowed those lies hook, line and sinker on a record turnout. Don’t blame duplicitous politicians only: if such an egregious amount of hogwash goes down so well in most of the country, there is something seriously wrong with the country itself. And that uniqueness must have vanished sometime along the route from Churchill to Cameron.
A certified majority of bigots is not something that can be reconciled with my fondness. The smallest casualty of Brexit is therefore my Anglophilia, which cannot possibly survive such a massive dose of poison. Britain no longer can occupy a special place in my mind, having so spectacularly failed the test of history.
If that sounds like the rant of a spurned lover, it is because I am a spurned lover. No one I can think of was so passionate in his search for the true meaning of Britishness, I have tried to let it seep into myself through every possible passage, from walking miles upon miles of London streets and country bridleways to listening to every week’s comedy show to singing the anthems at Evensong, and countless other silly things that lovers do. Britain turned its back on me and everything the likes of me stand for, and it feels like suddenly realising that the Pre-Raphaelite lady whom you have loved and admired all your life is really a wrinkly chain-smoking frump who wants to marry Nigel Farage.
It cannot but be my fault too. Through my rose-tinted spectacles I never registered that Little England was more than some beer-bellied cranks whining over straight bananas. For decades I sleepwalked through a country I never really knew as I hopped from museums to concert halls trying (with considerable success) not to look and sound like a visitor. What a fool.
My many British friends have nothing to fear. They are all extremely nice people and I want to keep all of them as close to my soul as they have ever been. But the pang of envy I invariably felt whenever I met them, because they’re Brits and I am not, has been smothered. Indeed, considering the misery that the country has inflicted upon itself, I am starting to think I was born on the right side of the Channel. But gosh how it hurts.