Jewish World Review July 14, 2005 / 7 Taamuz
The Englishness of it
"As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."
That sentence will be familiar to any Orwell fan. Those are the opening words of the essay, pamphlet and love letter to his country ("England, Your England") that George Orwell wrote in the winter of 1940 at the height of the Blitz, when Britain stood alone against the whole weight of the Nazi war machine.
The words came back on reading about the Blitz of 2005 and the typically British response to it: quiet, dignified, utter defiance.
In a way, nothing has changed. Once again England is standing fast. Only against a different kind of barbarism. And once again she will not be intimidated.
Quite the opposite, actually. As Hitler found out in 1940. Instead of cracking under the strain of nightly firestorms, the British rose to what would prove, in Churchill's immortal phrase, their finest hour. What could Hitler have been thinking? This is a people not easily frightened, and even when they are, they don't run but fight.
They say the terrorists know us better than we know them. The way cockroaches know our houses better than we do. They understand the cracks and crevices of a free society, and how to hide in them. They know their legal rights and how to take advantage of them. They know our common, everyday technology cell phones, remotes, airliners and how to turn it against us.
They're not the first to make that fatal error. Napoleon sneered at the English as "a nation of shopkeepers." Surely that was before Trafalgar and Waterloo, ere he saw Elba, and had plenty of leisure in which to ponder the character of shopkeepers. A whole nation of them.
What makes the British so fatal a target for terrorists? One might as well ask what makes the British so British: a sense of justice, an intangible but palpable respect for simple decency, a sense of privacy, British reserve . . . .
It's what made Eric Blair into George Orwell. He started out like any other talented son of genteel poverty, a scholarship student at one of the lesser boarding schools, vulnerable to all the hurts and envies of the poor and talented. A stint in Burma with the Indian Imperial Police only deepened his cynicism about the whole bloody empire.
It was natural that the young Orwell would become a social critic, even a socialist, writing biting critiques of the Colonel Blimps and the whole rotten, oppressive establishment they represented, etc., etc. His columns from those days can still be relished; he had a gift for candor and the written word that made him one of the lesser lights of the literary scene. His career course was set, his direction predictable: onward and leftward!
Then something happened. His Englishness intervened. His aversion to theory and preference for experience emerged. When he did his book about the poor in 1937, "The Road to Wigan Pier," it turned out to be a more biting criticism of the left than the right. One prescient reviewer at the time predicted: "It is as a great critic of socialism that Orwell will be remembered, not as the Socialist missionary he would have liked to be."
Soon enough highly civilized human beings would be flying overhead trying to kill him. And he was thinking on what made England, his England, worth fighting for, and writing for. He had reclaimed his Englishness.
They say England has changed now, and surely it has, like everyplace else, but I hope not too much. Not in the crucially important ways. Like the refusal to give in to one more of history's bullies. British resolve, it's called. And it's still there. You can hear it, sense it, in Londoners' reaction to this latest Blitz.
One quote tucked away in the news after the blasts caught my eye, or rather my ear. It came from an elderly lady overheard in the crowd watching events unfold on the telly through the windows of an electrical goods shop in King's Road, Chelsea. "It's ridiculous not being able to take trains home," she was muttering. "If we didn't kow-tow to Hitler, why should we to this lot?"
Maybe there really will always be an England.
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