Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma; drawing by David Levine

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 sure. The complacency that once seemed both elegant and justified now grates on him; the rituals of Englishness have grown empty. At the end of a chapter about “Schooldays,” he describes himself picking up his daughter, neat in her little uniform, from a North London private school which was founded only a few years ago in order to offer “traditional English education.” He attends the same venerable school play, and then rises to sing the same venerable hymns. But “I felt more like an outsider in a society that manages, generation after generation, to mimic itself.” This is a book that darkens as it goes on.

Anglophilia was all around him when he grew up in The Hague in the decades after the war. Admiration for the British as liberators had given way to a middle-class affectation of English style: the Dutch bourgeoisie wore blazers and classic brogues, and listened to the Test Match scores on the radio in the pavilion of The Hague Cricket Club. Later, in the 1960s, Buruma and other teenagers were fascinated by the very different style of “swinging London”: the music, the mood of social rebellion, the crazy kit which betrayed—as Buruma now recognizes—an irony about the past which was also a longing for a vanished aristocratic hedonism. “It was as though a generation of working-class children had raided a vast stately home and dressed up in the master’s old clothes.”

Much of the book is built around the questions raised in its second chapter, “Voltaire’s Coconuts.” Voltaire arrived in England in 1726, and was enraptured with the political system which, to a great extent, he invented to satisfy his own expectations. He declared that England was a model for liberty and reason, wonderfully tolerant in matters of religion (which it wasn’t). Here the monarch had enough power to do good but was restrained from doing evil, the nobles were great without being insolent, and “the people share in the government without confusion.” Voltaire declared that in England, as opposed to France, ideas were taken seriously and thinkers were treated with honor and respect by authority—precisely the opposite of the envious attitude English intellectuals were later to adopt toward their French colleagues.


Much of this was fantasy. For his own satisfaction, Voltaire required a mythical neighbor country whose virtues would show up the vices and shortcomings of France. But he also insisted that the English political system of limited monarchy and bourgeois liberties could be exported—even across the Channel. Skeptics objected that coconuts that ripened in India did not ripen in Rome. Voltaire, in a memorable image, retorted that it had taken a long time for those coconuts to ripen in England, but they had done so; this was proof enough that they could thrive everywhere (even—he said—in Bosnia or Serbia). The point was to start planting them right away.

The coconut theory meant that Voltaire had to argue against the idea that English liberties might be “native,” a unique growth from the special soil of English history and character. On the contrary, they were the local fruit of universal reason. Voltaire thought that the English had inherited nothing significant from the Saxons or Normans, or even from the crude feudal bargain of Magna Carta. Shakespeare was undeniably a native product, but that—in Voltaire’s opinion—was one of the reasons why he was a second-rate writer, as opposed to the international genius Corneille. The only thing that mattered about their history was that the English had fought to defend personal freedom, and “waded through seas of blood to drown the I dol of arbitrary Power.”

Ian Buruma uses the coconut test throughout his book. He divides his Anglomaniacs into two schools. First, there were those, Voltairean disciples of the Enlightenment, who saw English or British institutions as at least partly exportable to their own countries. After all, for much of the eighteenth century London and, to some extent, Warsaw were the only European capitals in which monarchy was limited by a constitutional settlement, in which the press was outrageously free, and in which elected members of a parliament could say what they thought. Surely, the enlightened visitors thought, this happy and natural state of things must in time become the condition of all humanity.

And then there were the “organic” Anglophiles. They adored England, or their own version of it, because it was unrepeatable, a genius that could only have grown out of its moist northern soil. Unluckily for Voltaire’s legacy, the English themselves soon came to share this view. The wars against revolutionary France and against Napoleon convinced them that “religion, honesty, and independence” were only at home in England, while “atheism, murder, and equality” would always and naturally flourish in France.

Germany produced its own curious crop of Anglophiles. In the hands of Goethe and Herder, the cult moved far away from Voltaire’s vision of a land of reason and liberty toward the “organic” sort of appreciation. Goethe, crazy about Shakespeare, insisted that his plays—“a huge, animated fair”—derived from the special nature of his country. “Everywhere [in Shakespeare] is England—surrounded by seas, enveloped in fog and clouds, active in all parts of the world.” And yet this native species of coconut could be transplanted. In Schlegel’s translations, Shakespeare became a German—releasing, through the “barbaric, Nordic” energy of his imagination, the suppressed German Geist. Buruma records the final twist in this eccentric tale of cultural adoption: Shakespeare’s naturalization as a Volksgenosse in Nazi Germany. His works were declared to be “German classics” in September 1939, as war in Britain was declared, and in 1940, as the Nazi armies prepared for the invasion of the British Isles, the party elite met in Weimar to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. Macbeth and Hamlet, dramas of lonely Nordic heroes arming for battle against fate, were the plays they liked best.

The core of England’s attraction for nineteenth-century Europeans was quite different. Here seemed to be a country which precisely avoided the logical extremism of German thinking and instead thrived through compromise between normally irreconcilable opposites. Here the lion of traditional authority lay down with the lamb of freedom. As Buruma puts it, “…A certain kind of Anglophile…would argue that freedom and democracy are safeguarded by deference and tradition—vox pop tempered by enlightened aristocracy.” This naturally appealed to conservative princes or counts from across the Channel. Here was a plebs which had been persuaded that “your privilege is the safeguard of our freedom.” Where else in the world could a blue blood find a social bargain like that?


But there were princes and counts who saw a little further into England. One of these was Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (“Prince Pickle” to his Regency friends in London). His first visit to London in 1815 enchanted him with this mixture of freedom and aristocratic order. Far from his barren, sandy estates in eastern Germany, he became a whist-playing dandy and studied the “English” landscape garden style (“Parkomania”) which was becoming popular all over Europe. Later, though, as Buruma records, Prince Pickle grew disillusioned. He had a sharp eye, and noticed the flaws in his smart circle of friends. With regret, he admitted (in his Letters from a Dead Man) that the English aristocracy was arrogant, pretentious, and blind to the reality that British society was being run by an increasingly energetic bourgeoisie. He found the bourgeois pursuit of wealth vulgar, but at the same time he came to feel that, compared to the frightful caste of parasitic dandies who betrayed all his high ideals about noble blood, the middle classes represented all that was solid, kindly, and patriotic in England.

Buruma guides his reader through a long gallery of imaginary Englands. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Olympic movement, adored the cult of the amateur and of physical prowess which he found in the English public school system; he dreamed of a new, muscular European elite which would “rebronze” the youth of the world. Mazzini fell in love with England during his exile there, although he was constantly disappointed by its insularity and lack of interest in high political principles. Theodor Herzl—yet another dandy, in a book full of dandies—was fascinated by the country because “he believed in liberal government by cultured gentlemen” rather than in radical democracy. The Viennese economist F.A. Hayek, whose free market dogma was to inspire Margaret Thatcher, made himself at home in the England of “genteel suburbs,…of gentleman’s clubs (the Reform was his permanent ‘home’), and of Cambridge combination rooms.” Nikolaus Pevsner, author of the monumental Buildings of England book series whose judgments still pervade English architecture, “arrived in Britain [in 1933] as an apostle of modernism, socialism, and European progress and ended up as an admirer of the conservative English ‘national character.”‘

Wilhelm II, the kaiser who led Germany into the First World War, was a grandson of Queen Victoria. Hopelessly confused about his own emotions, he zigzagged between shrill denunciations of a degenerate, feminized England, whose old muscles had been gnawed away by the Jews (“Juda-England”), and childish affectations of cultural Englishness: London tea, Highland uniforms, a passion for big ships with lots of guns. Buruma’s acid sketch of Wilhelm put me in mind of the self-mocking “English National Song” composed long ago by the comedian pair of Flanders and Swann, with the lines:

It’s not that they’re wicked, or naturally bad;
It’s knowing they’re foreign that makes them so mad…

But can foreign Anglomaniacs only go mad over the English upper classes? Does Anglomania require snobbery? Reading Buruma’s book, you might at times think so. And yet the most devoted Anglomanes Iever knew were a circle of East German Communists, almost all Jewish, who had spent the wartime years in Britain and usually in the British armed forces. They came away with a deep, abiding love (it’s not too strong a word) for the English working class they had met under the bombs. In the London of the Blitz, they had found the greathearted proletariat of their dreams: brave, generous, scathingly contemptuous of all authority, humorous even in the worst moments. They still spoke the patois of wartime Cockney, with its half-forgotten jokes and slogans, and the most important word in their English language was “decent.” One of them improbably said to me: “That Walter Ulbricht, he’s a decent old bloke really!”

Those who fled fromHitler were able to see England as a refuge of “decency,” in a way which had nothing to do with liberal dukes, dandies, or the class system. In retrospect, Britain could and should have taken in far more fugitives while there was still time, and those who did come were often treated coldly. But Ian Buruma’s grandparents were among those who organized invitations and guarantees for the 10,000 Jewish children permitted to leave the Reich for Britain between 1938 and 1939—without their parents. As he says, their own immigrant origins made his grandfather and grandmother believe in British fairness, liberty, and tolerance with a special intensity. He recalls that one of the key patriotic movies of the time was The Scarlet Pimpernel, set in the 1790s, in which Leslie Howard played the bold Lord Blakeney smuggling condemned French aristocrats across the Channel to the White Cliffs of Dover. The author, the scriptwriter, and the producer were all Hungarian immigrants, most of them refugees. And so was the archetypal English gentleman himself, Leslie Howard.

The foreigners assembled and encouraged to perform by Ian Buruma thought that the country they admired was called England. They were not always right about that. Buruma’s book arrives at a strange and critical time in English history. This crisis is not primarily about devolution, the loosening of the old centralized British state to provide parliaments for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is about the temporary effacing of English identity, and the new search to rediscover and redefine it which devolution has touched off.

It was always plain to the Scots and the Welsh that Britain was a state, while Wales and Scotland were nations within that multinational state. They had no great problems of identity. England, however, as the dominant partner in this state, began to lose its consciousness of a distinct national identity and to confuse it with the very different category of “Britishness.”

Robert Musil expressed this problem neatly in The Man Without Qualities. Austria-Hungary, he wrote, “did not consist of an Austrian and a Hungarian part that…combined to form a unity, but of a whole and a part: namely, of a Hungarian and an Austro-Hungarian sense of nationhood, and the latter was at home in Austria, whereby the Austrian sense of nationhood actually became homeless.” England became homeless in exactly this way. Over the last thirty years or so, it even became politically incorrect to declare oneself “English,” a word associated with football hooliganism or with skinhead fascists waving Union Jacks in the East End of London.

Now, inevitably, English national awareness is returning to the surface. The mind may be British but the heart is learning again to speak aloud in English. The vast London crowds that turned out to mourn Princess Diana two years ago chose, for the most part, to carry the English flag of Saint George rather than the “British” and royalist flag of patriotism, the Union Jack. What will this new English nationalism be like, and which of many English pasts will it select as its foundation?

Ian Buruma himself suffers from some confusion between “England” and “Britain.” He observes that “Englishness is a romantic, not a political concept,” a notion that no longer holds water if it ever did. Many of the best passages in his book are about the ideal of the “gentleman,” described by Malraux as England’s “great human creation.” My own feeling is that the gentleman (circa 1760 to circa 1960) was the only example of a genuinely British culture, virtually identical in accent, schooling, clothes (that tweed jacket), and usually attitudes from one end of the British Isles to the other. He could be compared to Homo Sovieticus, who also existed as a ruling class from Brest-Litovsk to Vladivostok. And both gentleman and Soviet Man are species not simply endangered but approaching extinction, their habitat destroyed or usurped by new predators.

Will English nationalism adopt aristocratic values, the sort of balanced, tolerant combination of order and liberty which Buruma’s subjects once prized? Or will it be driven by the coarse, xenophobic forces of the ancient English mob, which even Voltaire dreaded? A coconut palm has taken root, and is growing fast. But nobody can predict the quality of its fruit.

This Issue

May 20, 1999