3 DECEMBER 1948, Page 20


The Beastly British

THE form of nausea which overcomes Mr. Wilson when he writes about the British is easier to understand than to diagnose. Perhaps it is some social or emotional misadventure, suffered while in our midst, that underlies his nagging indignation, and it is certainly the endeavour to present his findings with the urbanity that becomes a distinguished man of letters which lends a rather feminine waspishness to his attacks. This mixture, so to speak, of arsenic and old lace is, though not exactly endearing, a welcome change from the more forthright methods of denigration so frequently employed in their homework by retired American generals and war correspondents • and the thin red line of anti-British feeling which runs through Mr. Wilson's account of his wanderings in Europe at the tail end of the war gives life and interest to a narrative which otherwise not even the author's somewhat machinel experiences in brothels could save from being more than ordinarily dull.

We are, of course, an intensely irritating race. Whether we,ever minded about this is doubtful, and now, at any rate, we have been irritating so many different people for so many different reasons for such a very long time that we do not even pretend to care. This makes us all the more exacerbating, and in some ways one cannot help sympathising with Mr. Wilson's overriding desire to take us down a peg. Some of his criticisms are quite good, but the ill- natured vein in which he writes is apt to rob them of authority, a weakness which is enhanced by his tendency to over-simplify. One sees, for instance, exactly what he means when he writes : "What we consider rudeness is their form of good manners. In other countries, manners are intended to diminish social friction, to show people consideration and to make them feel at ease. In England it is the other way: gbod breeding is something you exhibit by snubbing and scoring off people " ; but this unkind statement, intended to devas- tate, makes so inept a use of the perfectly valid grain of truth which it contains that instead of wincing we feel rather pleased, as always happens when foreigners, wishing to abuse us, overplay their hand.

One of the troubles with Mr. Wilson, whose sense of humour is

• not well-developed, is that he takes us much too seriously. For instance, in Crete h.: met a British officer of whom, in a grudging , sort of way, he approved. (" His excellent relations with the inhabi- tants seemed to me at first surprising for an English officer abroad ; but I learned later that he was a Scotchman (sic), which explained, I dare say, his willingness to ally himself with people from small houses.") In order to introduce this phenomenal character Mr. Wilson feels obliged to write the following sentence : "There are other kinds of motivations than the old-fashioned imperialistic ones which impel certain British officers who may once have been liberals or socialists to support the imperialistic policy of the continued occupation of Italy and Greece." There is nothing wrong with this sentence except that it does not really mean anything at all to any- one except Mr. Wilson.

For so atrabilious an observer he displays at times a touching innocence. "I had not realised how much Winston Churchill . . . was disliked by the English soldiers," he writes, after being driven somewhere in Greece by a private who "expressed himself very strongly on the subject of Churchill's cigar." And he is disgusted by the anti-American bias of an Oxford don, celebrated for his learn- ing and also (as somebody ought to have warned Mr. Wilson) for his wit, who "remarked that he had never read Walt Whitman, who was considered, he understood, a great writer -in South America. When I said that Leaves of Grass was probably the greatest American book, he asked me whether I thought it even more impor- tant than the writings of Whyte-Melville." A former literary editor of the New Yorker ought not to have had his leg pulled quite so easily.

Like most foreigners, Mr Wilson believes that we have motives (which possibly he would call motivations) for everything we do. These motives are always elaborate and generally base. Our minds, vacuous and brutish though they are, appear to him to be perpetu- ally filled with long-term schemes aimed at the subjugation, exploita- tion or (in the case of Americans) humiliation of our fellow-hcmgs. When he writes of England he rather suggests a mouse describing, from the inside, the mechanism of a complicated, old-fashioned and very inhumane mouse-trap. This, I think, is the only direction in which he overrates us. In a characteristic passage he describes the sentries outside British" Army Headquarters in Athens coming to attention with a crash every time an officer went in or out. "If you watched them, as I did, for a moment, the effect was absolutely gruesome. It was the same thing as the goose-step, I reflected, though in a considerably milder form." The guard was changed every Sunday morning,' "completely stopping traffic on the street, which is one of the most important in Athens." The alleged reason was : "We do it at Buckingham Palace " ; but "the truth is, of course, that . . . the ceremony is intended to serve as a reminder and a threat to the Greeks." Poor Mr. Wilson ! One feels that if he had stayed much longer among us he would have found some- thing "absolutely gruesome" about the way we eat porridge and discerned in the truncheons of our bestial police force "a reminder and a threat" to all men of good will.

It seems slightly odd that an intellectual writer of Mr. Wilson's eminence should think it a good thing to publish a book about Europe which, in his publisher's words, "excludes France, Germany, Northern Europe and all countries behind the Iron Curtain," to say nothing of Spain, Holland, Belgium and a few others, and of which the main raison d'être is to be catty about England. English writers, though seldom English writers of the first rank, have in the past given equally jaundiced and even more jejune accounts of America • but I find it difficult to imagine somebody like (say) Mr. Harold Nicolson going out of his way, in these days, to stoke the fires of intolerance so gratuitously after a short visit to the United States. When he was last here, Mr. Wilson complained that, what with our various annoying characteristics' he "found himself estranged from the English more than ever before," which seemed all the harder because "we take a friendly interest in England and we remember the past without rancour." There are few grounds for hoping that we shall make a better impression on him if he comes over again, and on the whole the sense of estrangement to which he refers seems likely to grow rather than to diminish. We must all