Mother tongue, brown nose

The English like Bill Bryson because he reassures us that our mighty offspring is still in awe of its senile old mother.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • Mother tongue, brown nose

Bill Bryson has been awarded the accolade of being the writer today who best sums up the spirit of England. A poll by 4000 people ranked his Notes From A Small Island ahead of the likes of George Orwell, Jeremy Paxman or the dishy George Monbiot. The odd thing, of course, is that this author of Notes From A Small Island is an American.

A lot of people don’t like Bill Bryson. His language is twee and his observations are often banal. Altogether, he is far too chummy for many people’s palate. Personally, I don’t mind him. His travel writing is amiable, and his two books on the English language, Mother Tongue and Made in America, are superb.

It’s not his style that I find off-putting – it’s the reason for his popularity. Had Bryson been an Australian or Canadian, I don’t think his books would have become such a hit with the British (and mainly English) public. His secret to success is that he’s an American. Although us Brits feign cultural superiority over the Americans (‘they’re so litigious/obese/arrogant/stupid/uncultured/unironic, etc’), we have a deep inferiority complex. We are jealous that this former colony replaced us as the world’s major power – and that they saved our asses in the war, too.

The British have fallen in love with Bryson because he patronises us so wonderfully with a whole litany of clichés: that we are funny, eccentric and polite. Such very nice people. It’s on a par with Asterix in Britain for its amusing yet depthless regurgitation of benign national stereotypes. Bryson reassures us that America, that healthy and mighty offspring, is still in awe of its senile old mother, Great Britain.

  • Unholy alliances

This same cloying sentiment also exudes from some pro-‘war’ agitators this side of the Atlantic. It’s as if they think that if we keep helping out the USA in its ‘war’ against terror, that it will admire and respect us once more – rather than view us as an interesting and dysfunctional theme park.

Still, I don’t really have an opinion on the current ‘war’ in Iraq. My main gripe is people referring to it in the present tense when nothing’s actually happened. Yet there is one stance that I think is flawed.

The anti-war Not In My Namers assert that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda could never be allied because they are mutually antagonistic. On the one hand we have a secular, socialist state, on the other, a movement driven by anti-modern, religious fundamentalists. Such an ideological chasm surely prevents the two from forging an alliance?

Yet such a partnership is entirely precedented. History is littered with cases of unholy alliances between movements that are ostensibly antipathetic to each other. These arise when both parties feel threatened by, or hostile to, a third party. For example:

  • The anti-Catholic Cromwell made an alliance with the French Catholic state because both feared the Spanish empire;

  • The Pope backed William III and his Protestant army because both saw Louis XIV as a greater threat;

  • The racial supremacists of Nazi Germany allied with Japan to kill fellow ‘Aryans’;

  • The Nazis and the Soviets signed a pact in 1939, having spent a decade portraying each other’s ideology as the greatest menace to the world;

  • Churchill, who loathed Communism, as did the Americans, sided with the Soviet Union;

  • In the post-war years, Muslims and feminists – no bosom buddies – have campaigned together against pornography;

  • Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, which waged a bitter war against Muslims, exchanged military secrets and intelligence with Hussein’s Iraq – for both were international pariah states;

  • The BNP has had meetings with black separatist organisations from America, both groups having the common enemy of liberal multiculturalism;

  • American Evangelical Protestants are among the biggest financial backers of Zionists – both fear Islamism, although the former only does so because they believe Jews are God’s chosen people who will be converted to Christianity on the Day of Judgement;

  • Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) allied to campaign for Scottish devolution, the former because they said it would strengthen the Union, the latter on the understanding that it would destroy it.
  • Alliances arise often not out of ideological convergence, but out of expedience. In the post-war period America has backed all manner of revolting regimes for purely cynical purposes. Britain isn’t called ‘Perfidious Albion’ for nothing, either.

    It would similarly be entirely rational for al-Qaeda and Iraq to be in cahoots, because they have a bigger, common enemy: the USA.

    • Essential foods

    Last week, an advertising watchdog criticised McDonald’s because one of its ads for a steak sandwich bore little relation to the real thing. Reporters for the Guardian newspaper subsequently went out to purchase chicken nuggets and burgers from fast-food outlets, comparing unfavourably photographs of the real thing with what the adverts for Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s insist their products look like.

    This is silly. Nobody expects fast food to resemble what is seen in adverts. Real connoisseurs of junk food fully understand that such a pictorial representation is nothing less than a Platonic aspiration. It embodies an eternal, idealised form that is not of this world. Of course we know that the real thing will be flawed and imperfect – soggier, greasier, of duller hues with limp lettuce.

    Secondly, it is a bit rich for journalists to complain about these things. Guardian columnists don’t look as young/pretty/intellectual as their picture bylines make out. Picture bylines are always out of date and similarly misleading.

    For instance, I can tell you Brendan O’Neill’s forehead is not as big as it appears on spiked, while the picture you see above gives the impression I have long hair. I currently have it cut short. I am also a bit flabbier around the neck. But that’s the fault of all those non-Platonic burgers.

    Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics


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