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The Bulldog and the Gentleman  |  The soul of Britannia

The Bulldog and the Gentleman


- as published in Auroville Today, June 1997.
The article is written by Alan,
a longtime British Aurovilian.

What makes the English English?

A few weeks ago, a small group of English Aurovilians met to explore what they felt was the essence of their culture. While acknowledging the crucial contributions of the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish to both English and British culture, the conversation inevitably focused upon the achievements, the foibles and particular characteristics of the English people. Here Alan summarises their findings as well as using them as a spring-board for further speculations.

What is the essence of Englishness or English culture? Sri Aurobindo gave some valuable clues in The Future Poetry. He notes, for example, that while England has thrown up great individuals in the arts and sciences, she lacks an established artistic, philosophical or scientific tradition. And while there are "lacunae" in her cultural achievements - he cites sculpture, architecture and, much more debatably, music - in "the business of practical life there is an unqualified preeminence".

In fact, individualism and practicality or pragmatic ingenuity can be seen as two of the leitmotifs of English culture. Often they complement each other. For example, in the two great periods of English civilisation -the Elizabethan Age and the late 18th and 19th centuries- England asserted her independence from continental influences in areas like literature while embarking on a vigorous expansion of trade and commerce based upon practical ingenuity and (in the latter period) a ruthlessly successful enlargement of her Empire. The English tradition of individualism, which Elias Canetti ascribed to her island status and special relationship with the sea ("The Englishman sees himself as a captain on board a ship with a small group of people, the sea around and beneath him. He is almost alone…"), is displayed in various forms: it is the Magna Carta -the first charter of liberty and individual rights- it is the English eccentric, wandering the country-side in his tweeds and battered deerstalker as he seeks a new species of butterfly, it is her strong nonconformist tradition in religion, it is her rough-cut heroes who scorn convention (and sometimes the law) - the pirate Drake who routed the Spanish Armada, Robin Hood, Nelson putting his blind eye to the telescope so that he was unable to see his commander's order to retreat, 'Bulldog' Churchill refusing to admit defeat in 1940 - it is her continuing ambiguous relationship to European union. For as Andre Malraux put it, "England is never as great as when she is alone".

That strand in her make-up of rugged individualism, of that stubborn almost anarchic Anglo-Saxon vein which resists easy acquiescence to imposed authority, also powered many working-class movements like the Luddites and the Chartists last century, and continues to be reflected in modern phenomena like Punk or the Travellers with their tents, collectivism, direct action and celebration of spontaneity. Yet English culture, paradoxically, is also preeminently a culture of convention and tradition. This is reflected in the pride she takes in preserving her national monuments and institutions, in the continuing (though damaged) popularity of the monarchy, and in her class system which, in certain areas of British life (the higher echelons of the Diplomatic Service and banking world), still continues to exert its influence. In this context, it's worth remembering that the English have evolved a type of the ideal man (and, by implication, woman) which Andre Malraux described as one of the very few examples in world history of "une grande creation de l'homme". He is, of course, the English gentleman. Writing in the mid 19th century, Cardinal Newman enumerated some of his qualities:

"The true gentleman carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast… his great concern is to make everyone at their ease…he is never mean in his disputes, he never takes advantage. From a long-sighted prudence he follows the maxim of the ancient sage that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He is too well-employed to remember injuries, too indolent to bear malice…he submits to pain because it is inevitable, to bereavement because it is irreparable and to death because it is his destiny."

Whether or not the English gentleman according to Newman's description ever really existed outside popular literature is less important than the influence the idea exerted upon the nation, an influence, it should be said, both for good and bad. On the positive side, it emphasised the qualities of generosity and modesty, of good manners, of fortitude, above all of fairness and decency. These qualities are reflected in something as prosaic as the English emphasis upon waiting one's turn, queuing - which the English have raised to an art form - and in something as influential as the British system of parliamentary democracy which, with varying degrees of success, has been exported all over the world. These same values underlie the British judicial system in which all individuals are equal before the law (and innocent until proven guilty), in the concept of the Commonwealth, in civil liberties, in tolerance of religious and political minorities, in 'playing the game' or good sportsmanship in all aspects of life, and in the extraordinary tradition that "an Englishman's word is his bond".

There's something very sane, very low-key and understated, about what is considered good-breeding in English culture…and herein lies also the seeds of its deficiencies. Because Newman's gentleman is, above all, a social animal whose most important function is not to challenge or inspire but to put people at their ease. And this, by definition, automatically excludes references to controversial topics like politics and religion, excludes the forceful exposition of ideas or feelings, excludes a certain largeness of scope in favour of the small, the parochial, the safe, the banal.

Good-breeding in England was often associated with a certain affected languor, with an aversion to commerce and 'money-making', with a refusal to become too enthusiastic about anything, and with the image of the talented amateur. The emphasis was less upon winning than upon playing in the right ("gentlemanly") spirit, exemplified in that very English hero, Scott of the Antarctic, who failed, but failed magnificently (his last words, found on his frozen corpse, were "I have done this to show what an Englishman can do.") English culture remains suspicious of the intellect (which makes Sherlock Homes something of an anomaly) and of the avant-garde in the Arts. 'Good' taste tends to favour the safer products of English and European culture - English and Dutch landscape painters, popular novelists, Strauss - over, say, the German expressionists, Beckett and Stockhausen. In fact, English culture has probably only been saved from total embourgeoisement by its capacity for self-criticism ("They possess a capacity for self-criticism unequalled in any other nation", wrote Laurens Van Der Post), by its ability to poke fun at its more ridiculous propensities and by its 'underclass' movements which have reacted against the stultifying influence of the dominant culture. In modern times this counter-reaction has thrown up some of the most interesting achievements in the Arts including the plays of Osborne, the music of The Rolling Stones, and independent films of life on the fringe like 'Performance' and 'Trainspotting'. Just as the Celtic influence in the British character has served to lighten the dominant Teutonic strain, so this raw yet creative energy is challenging the influence of the stiff upper-lip and of comfortable conformism and powering the revival of London as one of the most stimulating capitals of Europe.

One other fundamental quality of English culture that should be mentioned is the special relationship the English have with nature and the countryside. England's greatest painter - Turner - was a landscape painter, Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams frequently evoke the countryside in their music, her finest poets - Spencer, Shakespeare, Marvell, Keats, Words worth, Shelley, Blake-all celebrated nature, often opposing it to the evils of city or court life or the "dark Satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution, and the ivy-clad country cottage or the grander country house with its croquet lawn, peacocks and topiary were two of the defining images of "ye olde England". Unlike the French who, as at Versailles, tried to shape nature to their own conceptions, the English aimed at artfully enhancing nature, combining lawns, winding paths, wild areas and lakes to achieve an always varying but charming perspective. Even today, if an Englishman's home is his castle, his garden remains one of his favourite places of recreation.

It seems fitting then, that if the English (who are, essentially, an ethical nation) can be said to have made any approaches to spirituality, it seems to have been in their relationship with nature. The poetry of Words worth, Shelley and Hopkins, for example, attempts at times to pierce the material veil and to invoke subtler regions of experience, Dr. Bach, the discoverer of the flower remedies, often had near-mystical experiences as he searched out flowers, and today the Findhorn community in Scotland is world-famous for its pioneering work on communicating with the subtler forces of nature.

Clearly if a British pavilion were ever to take shape in Auroville it should focus not only upon that society's more typical manifestations (rose gardens, a cricket pitch… a pub?!) but also upon its glories, upon that which it has contributed to world culture. This, preeminently, would include the English language, that uniquely flexible and subtle vehicle of communication which serves today in many spheres as the unofficial world language, the great achievements of English literature and the best products of its educational and communication cultures - the Open University, the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company. But in terms of Auroville itself at present, there is a very specific area in which a certain quality of English culture is needed. Shraddhavan, an English Aurovilian, puts it like this:

"I don't think that England is one of the great nation souls. Just as Britain itself is a land of modest scale, modest charm, so our strength is more in the middle region of pragmatism and ethics than of idealism and spiritual discovery. But if we look at Auroville at present, we're missing that middle ground. We have the visionaries, we have the grass-roots people, but we lack the social thread-makers and binders, those who ease tensions and maintain a certain quality of social relationship, of harmony, reliability and stability. And this is something that the English have always been good at."

  

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