England is a semiologist’s paradise, a novel that Henry James didn’t quite write. It is a land where all is sign and nuance and cryptic scruple. People decode your house, your accent, your socks, your taste in magazines and movies, the way you talk about the weather. A puzzled look comes over their faces at the simplest remark, as if you had suddenly dropped into Sanskrit. They don’t have any trouble understanding what you have said, they are trying to work out what you mean. This is particularly difficult if by any chance you mean what you say. Asked how you are, you don’t answer, “Fine” or “Great,” you say, “Surviving,” or “Struggling along,” or “Not too bad, considering.” That’s if you really feel fine. If you felt lousy you might say you felt great. We make wonderful spies because we think the double life is the only life.
The craziest English characters parade as straight, hearty folks, while the most conventional people dress like sideshows and treat themselves as eccentrics. The famous English sense of humor doesn’t find or make things funny, it just pretends to be serious when it is not, thereby fooling hapless and humorless foreigners, naturally not up to this frisky stuff. Jonathan Raban has a splendid throw-away comment on this topic. The English, he says, “are very famous—at least among themselves—for their sense of humor.”
One could understand such a country, if at all, only by stealth, skepticism, immersion, an ability to breathe irony. Or perhaps by escape, since the natives themselves tend not to know how thoroughly they live among signs. Raban has found the most elegant and tantalizing of escapes, a constant but erratic mode of contact with what he calls his “peculiar country.” For four years he sailed a small boat around the coasts of the British Isles—thereby taking in quite a bit more than “England,” of course—concentrating, as he put in and out of port, on “this aspect of land from the sea.” The phrase, quoted in Raban’s epigraph, is Hilaire Belloc’s, who continues, “You think of landsmen as on a stage…. Nowhere does England take on personality so strongly as from the sea.” But Belloc, and a series of nineteenth-century sailing solitaries, dubious, autocratic antecedents amusingly reviewed by Raban before he takes us on his own voyage, didn’t really look at England from the sea, they made it up in their own image. Uncrowded by the landlocked reality principle, they turned their country into the tight little Tory ship of their dreams, full of moral vigor and manly fortitude. The end of one of them tellingly shows that fact can be more allegorical than fiction:
On June 14, 1891, he was sailing alone in his 27-foot yawl, Perseus, somewhere in the English Channel, when a heart attack killed him. Two days later, Perseus was spotted by a fishing boat off Cherbourg. It was maintaining a steady westward …