Few subjects provide the English with quite so much guilty fascination as that of Englishness. Convinced that we are enigmatic and widely misunderstood by less psychologically complex nations, we tend to be boastfully modest about our national character, forever drawing attention to how self-effacing we are.
Oliver James has put us on the couch, travel writers from Bryson to Theroux have roamed about, searching – often in vain – for our alleged charm. Jeremy Paxman investigated Englishness in book form, and now Andrew Marr is having a go on the radio. Sound-bite insights from the usual suspects (A A Gill, P D James, E T Cetera) are corralled into a neat, mildly amusing theory. The first in the series concluded that the English used modesty as a mechanism of self-defence.
As the programme’s central joke (that Boris Johnson is a modern version of Miss Marple) was repeated for the third or fourth time, it became clear that the series is likely to be too good-hearted and anxious to please to reach what is clearly a central, awkward truth about our national character – that a central part of Englishness, particularly for those of middle age and beyond, is about being trapped in a state of unending adolescent frustration. For many Englishmen and women, love and sex are things that happen to other people and are to be viewed in a state of throbbing, yearning rage.
How else can one explain the summer’s leading silly season story – one which, if it were being investigated by Miss Marple, would be called The Case of the Newsreaders’ Legs? It started in the middle of August when not one but two female newsreaders appeared on the BBC, showing – please excuse my directness – their lower legs. Both Emily Maitlis and Fiona Bruce had, in relaxed mode, sat on the edge of a desk for trailers for the news, quite clearly and unashamedly showing several inches of calf below the knee. There were outraged calls to the duty officer and the story appeared on the front page of that natural home for the sexually frustrated, the Daily Mail.
The story had legs. This week, in a two-page profile with Fiona Armstrong, the bewildered presenter was asked yet again about the scandal. She thought it was the editor’s decision to seat her on a desk, adding wearily that she didn’t “think for a nanosecond that it was done deliberately so viewers could see my legs.”
If all this seems like an old joke, then that’s because it is. In 1980, Henry Root, the comic creation of Willie Donaldson, wrote a fan letter to Esther Rantzen. “Just one slight criticism of your show last night. I thought your dress was rather revealing for what is essentially family viewing. One could see your legs quite clearly. I hope you won’t mind my saying this. One doesn’t want to see women’s legs in one’s lounge-room at a time when youngsters are still up and about. Could you possibly oblige with a photo?”
How very odd it is that a rather good joke about a socially ambitious wet fish merchant, watching TV and simmering with randy disapproval, should, more than 25 years later, prove to be such a perceptive insight into the way so many of the English think and feel. Will the BBC’s latest attempt to identify Englishness make the obvious point that thousands, perhaps millions, of our nation are trapped in a state of anguished, grey-haired adolescence which informs their character, politics and morality? Will Fiona and Emily be invited to express their views? Somehow it seems unlikely.
A lucrative passion for peace
Jane Seymour has been speaking movingly from her home in Malibu Beach in California of the “quintessential England” represented by the house in the Cotswolds which the actress left behind and now rents out for up to £28,000 a week. Heartbreakingly, her neighbours have objected to a 24-hour alcohol license granted to what she calls her spiritual home on the grounds that it causes disruption. These people are guilty of “mean-spirited bullshit”, she says. “By attacking a celebrity, they got to be famous.” Clearly the sun, and perhaps Malibu Beach, do something terrible to the brain. What Ms Seymour loves about her bit of quintessential England is its peace – the very peace she denies her neighbours while she is away.
* The flood of Britons, mostly middle-aged and middle class, who have settled in France over the past two decades, have just had a shock. President Sarkozy, faced with a crisis in the French health service, has found an obvious way of saving a few sous. From the end of this month, any British passport-holder who is under the age of retirement, and who has lived in France for more than two years, will lose the right to state healthcare.
The EU could undoubtedly do with a bit of consistency in the matter of health benefits for foreigners but, in the meantime, among those of us left behind who have heard rather too many tales of the many joys of life in the sun, only the most saintly will be able to resist a moment’s smugness. People who have used the system to sell property expensively in Britain and buy at relatively low prices in France, often opting for an early retirement on the proceeds, cannot protest too loudly when the system bites back.