Monday 16 February 2009

“England? Is that some little island somewhere?”

When I was a young boy I used to be dead proud of the British Empire. Oh yes, this drippy-dippy do-goody drenched liberal anti-racist politically-correct socialist used to sit and stare in awe and admiration at his atlas.
I just couldn't help myself. Aged six in 1966, no notions of social justice, political ideology or moral relativism existed in my head. England had just won the World Cup, beating those pesky Germans yet again.
Sometimes my brother and I played Cowboys and Indians, but mostly we just re-enacted what we thought were great moments from the war our parents had just lived through. Mostly these battles were spawned from the pages of Commando comics, where ingenious Tommy never failed to come up with a cunning ruse to foil evil Fritz.
So England was the best country in the world in my infantile mind, and upon being given my first ever atlas at school, I gazed upon the world map with disbelief.
England was tiny, absolutely minuscule, but huge swathes of the world map were coloured red, which meant they were ‘Ours’. The whole of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India and quite a few sizeable chunks of just about everywhere else all showed that little boy that they had been beaten by ‘Us’.
There was no doubt at all that we were the best, and blissfully happy in my prepubescent ignorance, it never occurred to me that any part of it might be a bad thing.
Everything I read seemed to back me up, and oh boy, did I read! Under the covers late at night, Ladybird books were devoured by the dozen, reinforcing my youthful prejudices. It didn’t matter who the book was about, each and every one laid more foundation to the notion that the English seriously kicked evil-doer’s arses, whenever and wherever they appeared.
Sir Francis Drake was a brave explorer and a supreme tactician, seemingly defeating the Spanish Armada single-handedly; Sir Walter Raleigh was fearless explorer and a great scientist, as well as the perfect gentleman. Charles the First was a good lad, and Oliver Cromwell was also a good lad. Even when they hated each other and started civil wars, all the English lads were good lads.
Nobody told me anything different, because victory over the Nazis was only 20 years past, and what’s more, Geoff Hurst scored a hat trick against the Hun in the final at Wembley, in front of her Majesty the Queen, and if that didn’t put God on our side, well, God must just be a very silly billy indeed.
Two World Wars and One World Cup, Doo Daah, Dooo Daah.
That was as far as my historical knowledge and political awareness went before my age hit double figures.
Burdened as I am now with all the boring detritus of a social conscience and half an education, there lurks still a tiny but eternal part of me that is extremely proud of England for giving the Luftwaffe such a hammering back in 1939, and for keeping out the Nazis against all the odds, alone for years before America entered the fray.
It would be a rare Irishman who agrees with me, but I’m sure that had the English lost the Battle of Britain, allowing Hitler to launch his ground invasion, Ireland would have come under German occupation.
So in a revision of history that would make Ladybird books and Holocaust denier David Irving proud, there’s an argument to say that the British saved the Irish from being colonised by a brutal foreign power.
Funny old world, innit.
Anyway, as regular colyoomistas know, my opinions are no longer quite so right wing. My brother introduced me to socialism when I was 13, and I embraced the chance to rebel against my Tory parents. Quite possibly, part of me still does. Mind you, after travelling the globe as an Englishman for many decades, you don’t half get browned off bearing the cross of times long gone.
Wasn't me mate! I wasn’t there!
Thankfully, my inflated perception of what put the ‘Great’ into ‘Britain’ took a short sharp kick in the goolies when I first left Europe in 1984.
Lost in wonder and excitement upon arriving in New York, I felt I’d finally arrived in the modern world. Eager to play, I first needed money, so entering a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank, I asked if I could change some Travellers Cheques.
The woman took my passport, looked at it and then showed it to her colleague, who shook his head. Several minutes later, having consulted half the staff in the bank, she came back to me, pointing to the words:
“The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
“Yeh, that’s it! Great Britain! United Kingdom! You know, Queenie and Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard and all that? Err, let’s see, erm, Winston Churchill? Bobby Charlton?”
Oh good god, I was starting to sound like a Spanish tourist lost in Piccadilly. But this was New York, and surely here, just the other side of the pond, they knew about England, didn’t they?
Most probably they did, but ‘England’, the one word missing from my passport, was quite possibly the cause of the confusion.
Resisting the temptation to point to the old-fashioned writing on my passport’s inside cover page, that arrogantly stated how ‘Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires Johnny Foreigner and Donny Dago to do whatever this wonderful English person might want of them...” I smiled and pleaded until she nodded, gave me the money and handed me back my passport, asking:
“Is this some little island somewhere?”
At this I paused, thought for a little bit, then laughed out loud, agreeing with her, my patriotism finally laid to rest.
“Yes, yes, that is exactly what it is. A little island somewhere!”
“Have a nice day now.”
My rehabilitation to a reasonable global perspective came many years later, in a pub near Timoleague, Co. Cork. As an Englishman travelling with his German girlfriend, we made an odd couple, and received many raised eyebrows, but none so brilliantly minimalist and wholly damning as the one delivered by the pub’s landlord.
As he lopped the tops off our pints of Guinness, he looked over at us and calmly quietly slowly stated:
“So you are German ... and he is English ... hmmmm ... (long pause) ... well, I don’t have any particular problem with Germans.”


Anonymous said...

"It would be a rare Irishman who agrees with me, but I’m sure that had the English lost the Battle of Britain, allowing Hitler to launch his ground invasion, Ireland would have come under German occupation."

The fear for Ireland during WWII was that ireland would once again come under British Occupation, Churchill wanted to move English troops into all of the Republics ports, and even threatened to send in the stormtroopers,(black and tans).

De velara was stuck between a rock and a hard place, the brits versus the nazis.

The suggestion that Britian saved us is not only ridicolous but also insulting, if you are going to live in Ireland the least you can do is learn its history.

Anonymous said...

Well Anonymous, clearly you are not that rare Irishman.

Indeed I have studied history, and as a result of recent revelations I am aware that there was, in fact, much greater cooperation between Dev and Churchill than ever previously acknowledged.
Apparently Dev was a cannier man than your good self, and realised that the prospect of a Nazi Ireland was far scarier than the 2nd rate independence offered by the Treaty.

So go steady with your unfound accusations and apparent lack of sense of humour. Come to think of it, that is indeed a rare thing to be lacking in an Irishman.

Thanks for reading the piece, but please watch that 'if you're going to live in Ireland' tone. Smacks of bigotry and intolerance.

Anonymous said...

I am neither intolerant or a bigot but do take exception with elements in your article,

I for one am proud of the efforts of the Irish as individuals and as a state during WWII, the planning of D-day was dependent on weather reports from Ireland, many Irishmen joined the English Army and fought against the Nazis and any English pilots, seamen or soldiers that found themselves on Irish soil were taken care off- the old joke being "we are nuetral, but against who?"

what troubles me is statements such as the following which smack of arrogance and ignorance of the Irish position.

"there’s an argument to say that the British saved the Irish from being colonised by a brutal foreign power."

As opposed to the British themselves?

Can you not understand how a statement such as this is blatantly insulting?

Consider your statement from an Irish point of view.

Consider the millions that starved or were deported under English rule, not to mention the brutality dealt out by the black and tans (who were put together by Churchill), the time period between these events and WWII being breif enough to ensure a massive and natural distrust of the Crown.

You mentioned David Irving in your article, it seems to me you have adopted a very "Irving" point of view of English rule in Ireland,
I fear that the childish deluded romanticism you spoke about still has you blinkered.

I suggest that instead of branding me a bigot you examine the arrogance and bigotry of your own statements.


Charlie Adley said...

Oh for god's sake, take at look at its context. Take another look at the remark afterward:

"So in a revision of history that would make Ladybird books and Holocaust denier David Irving proud, there’s an argument to say that the British saved the Irish from being colonised by a brutal foreign power.
Funny old world, innit."

It's clear to anyone that I am being ironic, and more, mocking my younger self throughout this piece. If you choose to ignore what I am saying so that you can get upset about something, then there is nothing I can do. Go down to Argos, buy yourself a sense of humour and even, if possible some understanding of irony and use them.