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Anglomania: A European Love Affair

by Ian Buruma
Random House, 304 pp., $25.95

Anglomania, the passion for “une certaine idée de l’Angleterre,” possessed European intellectuals for some two hundred years. Today, it is something of an endangered hobby. Europe has changed and so has England, whose very identity is now a matter of feverish speculation in the increasingly disunited United Kingdom. I was happy to see that Ian Buruma dedicated this book to one of the last of the tribe, his friend the Hungarian intellectual Gaspar Miklos Tamas.

I first met Tamas nearly twenty years ago in Budapest. A Magyar by culture, he had been driven out of his native Transylvania by the Ceauåüsescu dictatorship in Romania and now lived the precarious life of a Hungarian dissident. At that time, he seemed to be one of the last of another tribe, Homo Omnisciens Habsburgensis, the Central European intellectuals. For the price of a tiny cup of black coffee, he would sit in a café and discuss with dazzling enthusiasm and wit the contents of every single literary periodical in Europe and North America, published in capitals which he had never visited and—if the Communist passport authorities had their way—never would visit. Later, in better times, he was able to move to England and enjoy the society of his dreams. He signed up to the England which rode to hounds and preserved aristocratic manners with self-conscious zeal. He joined what Buruma calls “the odd Anglophiliac world” of the set around The Spectator magazine, with its special right-wing combination of xenophobia, cheekiness, satire, and flaunted snobbery.

It was for The Spectator that Tamas wrote what Buruma calls “the best, most concise expression I know of a timeless Anglophilia.” It is worth quoting:

How to be a gentleman after 40 years of socialism? I recall the tweed-clad (Dunn & Co, 1926) and trembling elbow of Count Erno de Teleki (MA Cantab, 1927) in a pool of yoghurt in the Lacto-Bar, Jokai (Napoca) Street, Kolozsvar (Cluj), Transylvania, Rumania, 1973. His silver stubble, frayed and greasy tie, Albanian cigarette, implausible causerie. The smell of buttermilk and pickled green peppers. A drunk peasant being quietly sick on the floor. This was the first time I saw a tweed jacket.

Ian Buruma, fortunately, has a view of England which goes much deeper and wider than tweed jackets. He was brought up in Holland, child of a Dutch father and a British mother whose family were themselves German Jews who had immigrated in the late nineteenth century. His book, a learned and wonderfully well written set of historical profiles and personal reflections, approaches the enigma of Englishness by sampling the varieties of enthusiasm—and sometimes of disillusion and revulsion—which foreigners have felt for this country. And Ian Buruma has felt most of these moods too. As a child, visiting his grandparents in their comfortable house in the English countryside, he was converted to “the absolute superiority of life in England.” But now, after many years spent living and bringing up his own family in London, he is less …

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A Cup of Coffee December 2, 1999