Back in May, 2005 – on May 4, to be precise – my wife and I were invited to the 59th annual Boat Race Dinner of the Washington Oxford and Cambridge Club. The principal speaker was Sir Martin Rees (now Lord Rees of Ludlow), the Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, but I had the honor of proposing “The Toast to the Universities.” Some of what I said was lifted from a column I’d written for Chronicles magazine (waste not, want not), but much of it was new. Basically, I used the occasion to explain why I was so pleased to be there.
My Lords, ladies and gentlemen —
It’s a treat to say those words aloud for the first time. I’ll say them again:
My Lords, ladies and gentlemen — It is an honor to address this group, on this occasion. And I have no doubt that the recollection of it will be a pleasure, although at the moment it’s rather intimidating. I’m intimidated in part because I am not actually a graduate of either of the Universities – thus hardly a graduate at all, by their splendidly arrogant reckoning.
If it helps, I have regretted this regrettable fact ever since I learned what I missed. I did go to college in one of the nine Cambridges in the United States, the one in Massachusetts (and incidentally I taught last autumn at one of the twenty American Oxfords, the one in Mississippi), and I have visited both English Universities as a senior member, but I have never been sconced, or sported my oak. I have never ragged about, broken windows, or been chased by proctors. I was into my thirties before I knew a buttery from a battel, a dean from a senior tutor. Joseph Epstein has written of his “hopeless yearning,” his “sadness” at not having gone to Cambridge or Oxford, and I know what he means. I haven’t gone so far as to become what Professor Epstein calls an “English impersonator,” but, like him, I’ve invested so much imagination in Oxford and Cambridge that I feel entitled to a degree of some sort. Epstein suggests that “a disappointing second” would be about right.
I am, in short, an Anglophile whose condition is inseparable from his affection for both of your magnificent Universities. So I’m delighted to be addressing what a speaker at this occasion a few years ago called “Washington’s annual exercise in Anglophilia.”
It’s only natural that this evening should be such an exercise. After all, those who didn’t savor their Oxbridge experience are unlikely to be here. There are a few such soreheads. You’ve met them: Americans who spend all their time in England complaining about the food, or the weather, or the class system. It strikes me that going to England and complaining about those things is like going to California and complaining about narcissism — there’s nothing you can do about it, and if it really bothers you, you should just go home – but I can’t deny that American Anglophobia exists. These days, however, it’s a mere shadow of what it was in the time of Colonel McCormick. Witness the fact that Prime Minister Blair is more popular in the United States than in his own country. American Anglophobes of the old school used to complain about the British dragging Americans into their wars. Now the complaint runs the other way.
No, for us Anglophiles the real threat these days is not Anglophobia but indifference, or nonchalance. When George Keys wrote me about this dinner he alluded to some “younger . . . members of the Universities who seem jaded.” He observed that their time in England “was not their first extended stay abroad and, indeed, for some not even their first time at Oxford or Cambridge having spent junior years or summer sessions in England.” For earlier generations, he said, the experience was “qualitatively different and more affecting.” Ed Yoder, in his recent memoir Telling Others What to Think, writes to the same point. For his 1956 class of Rhodes Scholars, he says, “England was virgin territory and the Atlantic crossing a novelty. . . . [I]n the innocent 1950s, the Atlantic remained the cultural moat it had been for three centuries. . . . [T]he European experience had not been democratized and, if truth were told, rendered banal by tourism.” Yoder acknowledges that “it would be quite different with a similar group today.” Ed went by ship. Those of us a bit younger missed that experience, but even for us the journey involved a change of planes in New York, if not a layover in Iceland. It was a big deal. Now that there’s a flight every evening from Raleigh to Gatwick – now that you can go straight to Victoria Station from Billy Graham Parkway in Charlotte — it isn’t the same.
And the England we went to was very different from the United States we left, in obvious ways. You’ll have your own memories – mine involve such prosaic things as pub closing hours and one-bar electric heaters and pounds, shillings, and pence. Inevitably, these days, we old-timers can’t help feeling that England has become — well, less English.
Many of the changes are disquieting. In the early ‘90s my wife and I went back to England for the first time since 1978. We had missed the entire Thatcher era, which I take to have been a major turning-point. We’d no sooner entered the Underground than we saw an advertising poster that showed a couple of good old Southern boys sitting on a front porch in Benson, North Carolina, drinking Budweiser. Am I the only one who finds it sad that Budweiser is available at all in the country that taught me to like bitter and brown ale?
The problem is less creeping “Americanization” — that perennial bugbear of the English left and the old Tory right – than galloping cosmopolitanism in general. In the cafeteria at the Victoria and Albert Museum we found no British beer at all, just the Dutch and German lagers that one of my English friends calls “Euro-fizz.” Just so, in a Knightsbridge delicatessen, the pleasant young Pakistani behind the counter looked puzzled at my inquiry. “Wensleydale,” he said. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” When I went to an Oxford Street shop to buy some Harris tweed jackets (the ones I’d bought there in 1978 hadn’t changed shape with me), all I found were double-breasted Italian numbers, with wide pointy lapels. The clerk suggested haughtily that I try “someplace that caters more to the tourist trade.” (I did, and found what I was after.)
The changes aren’t all bad. Only someone who hates the British could begrudge them central heat and double-glazing. And thanks to Europe and the New Commonwealth and Tesco and, yes, Americanization, it’s much easier to eat well in England than it was when Ed Yoder wrote home about how much he missed turnip greens and cornbread after a steady diet of Oxford’s “drab” brussels sprouts and cooked cabbage, “unpalatable” soups, and “potatoes, and more potatoes, mashed, baked, boiled, etc., but always potatoes.” In 1978 we had to take our children to London, to Baker Street, for the McDonald’s hamburger that was their birthright as Americans. Now, of course, McDonald’s is everywhere, and say what you will about Mickey D’s, it beats Wimpy hands-down.
But facile generalizations about cultural convergence raise my suspicions. I’ve made a career of arguing that American Southerners still share a distinctive culture, despite the astonishing economic, demographic, and political changes of the past few decades. Just so, the England that most of us first knew is still there. You can still find chip butties, baked beans on toast, and deep-fried Mars Bars. It’s true that British television has become a vast wasteland of vulgarity and celebrity that sometimes makes the Fox Network look like Masterpiece Theatre, but there are still broadcasts of snooker tournaments, flower shows, and sheepdog trials. I can’t deny that the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002 was marked by a concert featuring, among others, Ricky Martin, Atomic Kitten, Ozzy Osbourne, and Tom Jones singing “Sex Bomb”. But there was also a garden party at Buckingham Palace where each of the lucky guests chosen by lot received – I’m quoting from the newspaper account — “a Waitrose hamper containing ‘Jubilee’ chicken salad, shortbread, strawberries and cream, a rain poncho and a half-bottle of champagne.” And although it’s true (as the Wall Street Journal observed last month) that about the only blood sport still legal in Britain is hunting and torturing the Royal Family, a million people gathered on the Mall to celebrate the Jubilee, a million people — – all sorts and conditions, all colors, all ages and classes –waving Union flags and cheering their Queen. The next morning the Guardian, faithful to another British tradition – bloody-minded republicanism –led with a story about something else altogether.
No, there is still much for an American to love and to envy about England. Emerson wrote, in English Traits, that “the English shrink from a generalization” (itself of course a generalization), so I risk showing my essential American-ness here, but let me count the ways.
Every Anglophile has his own catalog of admirable English qualities. Bill Bryson, the American whose Notes from a Small Island spent over 60 weeks on the Times bestseller list, loves the classic British fortitude summed up in the expression “Mustn’t grumble.” I have a friend who likes the insularity of the British working class, the refusal to take foreigners seriously – even when the foreigners in question are Americans like himself. He has clipped and saved a classic tabloid headline: “Why Don’t the Froggies Like Us?” Joseph Epstein’s catalog includes the sort of “English cool . . . represented by Evelyn Waugh, stepping out of a bunker during a Nazi bombing raid in Yugoslavia, looking up at a sky raining down bombs and announcing, ‘Like all things German, this is vastly overdone.’”
For my part I treasure a refreshing difference between England and America that my friend Richard Blaustein once summed up nicely: “Brits think a hundred miles is a long distance,” he said. “Americans think a hundred years is a long time.” American distances really can be incomprehensible to Englishfolk. A woman moving to North Carolina’s Research Triangle asked me once if her daughter could study with a violin teacher in Knoxville. She’d seen that Tennessee adjoins North Carolina. When I started to explain by pointing out that North Carolina is slightly bigger than England, she was – as she might have said – gobsmacked. This attitude is catching. After a few months in England I find myself thinking things like “It’s 120 miles to Southampton. I’d better plan to spend the night.”
Of course it takes a long time to drive 120 miles. In that distance you’ll pass through dozens of villages and towns, most with old inns, manor houses, or parish churches that are worth a look. I like that. And I like a place that has a history it can take for granted, where you run into 12th-century buildings still in use that don’t even make the guidebooks, where something called “New College” was founded in 1379. When an American friend of mine was at Cambridge in the 1960s, an undergraduate at St Catharine’s, his rooms were in a fifteenth-century building that was finally condemned as unsound. My friend went to the dean and begged to stay, saying that it meant a lot to him, as an American, to live in a building that predated Columbus. The dean let him stay, but only after he signed a statement waiving his right to sue if the building fell on him.
Another thing I like about England is the sense of irony that is second nature to most of my Oxford and Cambridge friends. It largely immunizes them against the orthodoxy and sentimentality that constrain and clutter so much of American academic conversation these days. True, the mawkish national weepfest of Princess Diana’s funeral suggests that I haven’t met a cross-section of the population, but people who think Seinfeld has an ironic take on life need a few evenings at High Table. My English friends’ impatience with cant is reflected in the well-honed English art of putting each other down. Even if Americans had words like twee and naff we probably wouldn’t use them often – not because we don’t have what they describe (Lord knows we do), but because they’re rooted in social-class distinctions that we’re far more squeamish about than the English. When one of my friends sniffed that cell phones are “all very well for jumped-up estate agents” it spoke volumes about the Thatcherites’ failure to make enterprise an English trait.
I also admire a sort of temperamental conservatism that might drive me nuts if I were English, but that as an outsider I find very agreeable. The English I like best are nearly all attached to some combination of cricket, football, dogs, real ale, Europhobia, and the Church of England. I only share their tastes in beer, Europeans, and Anglicanism (and those not always), but in general a Southerner like me understands people who like being what they are and intend to stay that way. When British Air proposed to replace the Union Jack on its airplanes with something more modern and Euro-friendly — you’d have thought they were going to take the Southern Cross off the Mississippi state flag. This conservatism isn’t even usually political — Lady Thatcher, for instance, isn’t conservative in this sense — and it may not even be the majority attitude these days, but it’s widespread enough that someone who shares it doesn’t feel like an alien.
In this respect as in others, both Oxford and Cambridge are major repositories of Englishness. Although as an outsider I find the Universities’ similarities (and their differences from American universities) far more striking than their differences from each other, I think there’s some truth to the stereotype that Oxford, especially, resists fashionable innovations. In 1744 John Wesley preached a sermon at Oxford. William Blackstone, then a young student, described it this way: “He informed us: 1st, That there was not one Christian among all the heads of Houses. 2ndly. That Pride, Gluttony, Avarice, Luxury, Sensuality and Drunkenness were the General Characteristics of all Fellows of Colleges, who were useless to a proverbial uselessness. Lastly, that the younger part of the University were a generation of triflers, all of them perjured, and not one of them of any Religion at all.” Wesley’s sermon created a stir, as you can imagine, but – as Blackstone put it – “on mature deliberation, it has been thought proper to punish him by a mortifying neglect.”
Mortifying neglect is exactly the right response, if not to Methodism, at least to a great many trendy isms, and Oxford has it down pat. When Max Beerbohm was asked what he thought about Freudianism, for example, he replied: “They were a tense and peculiar family; the Oedipuses, were they not?”
For an American academic – for this one, anyway – an Oxbridge College meeting can be a strange experience. At one, for example, we approved the lifetime appointments of two new fellows in five minutes, then spent the better part of two hours discussing the dining rights of several categories of honorary and quondam fellows. At another meeting we quickly and indignantly rejected an outside auditor’s suggestion that the College stop selling wine from its cellar to fellows for their personal use, then debated at length whether the advowson of a parish held by the college should be transferred to the Bishop of Ely.
And High Table conversations are nothing like American academic discourse. American academics usually want you to know how much they know, and talk shop incessantly, but the approved Oxbridge style is still, as Ed Yoder observed in Oxford in the 1950s, “to wear learning lightly, almost off-handedly.” As Yoder learned, it is often “bad form to talk about one’s own academic specialty; the trick,” as he observed, is “to be witty and well informed, and if possible provocatively amateurish, about someone else’s.” Of many memorable High Table conversations, two in particular stick in my mind. One was with a venerable Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, an ancient historian – in both senses of that phrase – who affected not to have heard of Elvis Presley. The other was a discussion with a clergyman, over good wine and (yes) brussels sprouts at St Antony’s, Oxford, of the relative merits of terry-cloth and fur covers for one’s hot-water bottle.
From time to time in Oxford or Cambridge, I confess, I feel as if I’d wandered into a scene from Porterhouse Blue. Scenes like these may be what Isaiah Berlin had in mind when he observed that “After Oxford, Harvard is a desert.”
There are many reasons to treasure the Universities — their contributions to knowledge; their preservation and renovation of architecture, choral music, and literature; their production of generations of leaders, not just for the United Kingdom but for our own country and much of the world – you know all this. But someone who likes England because it’s not like America, not like Continental Europe, must be especially grateful that while doing all this Oxford and Cambridge remain distinctly, stubbornly, obstinately English.
George Orwell is always a good name to drop with Anglophiles. Many of you will know his wartime essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn.” After generalizing delightfully about British traits himself, Orwell wrote:
It needs some very great disaster . . . to destroy a national culture. [In England] the Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.
The same can be said of the Universities. Change will come, as it must, as it always has (even the boat race may be forgotten), but Oxford and Cambridge will surely endure. And as long as they do, there will always be — Anglophilia.
With that proposition in mind, I ask you to rise . . . and to drink, as I do now, the health of the Universities.
I’ve often found it curious, yet inestimably heart-lifting, that many of you yanks seems to still have for our old Albion. I found your article a beautiful evocation of traditional Englishness and the role of the ‘Oxbridge’ in our culture.
Alas, I fear though that so much of what makes England England is dying. I don’t just mean the obvious, like the fact we’re now part sovereign-state and part province of a federal Europe. No, much of our religion, culture, tradition and institutions seems to be understand constant attack. I wouldn’t say England hasn’t lost some of itself in many of the changes of the last five, and particularly three, centuries. However since the 60s, the deluge of Chairmen Jenkin’s cultural revolution and a myriad of other blows, have accelerated so much of the decline. You mention the Guardian. Read that rag and you will see precious little of England or Britain in it. You will not even find much of England’s illegitimate whelps like Algernon Sidney , Cromwell or Locke. Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Los Angeles rule are the fountainhead of that New ‘Englishness’, which you’ll find in so many outlets in modern Britain, from the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation(the BBC.) to the leadership of the Tory party.
Oxbridge doesn’t seem to have escaped the general assault. I don’t think their academic staff are significantly less dominated by the usual Godless, Jacobin sort than most other major, Western universities, though I cannot claim first hand knowledge of these two establishments.
First off: Thoroughly enjoyed the piece!
Also, is it possible that the dimunition if “Englishness”–or any “cultural identity”–could be do to the fact that people are discouraged from identifying too strongly with any group or tradition, for fear of being labelled “prejudiced”, “narrow-minded”, “provincial”, or even “bigoted”?
Thank you for this piece!
Though I should write the Union Jack is more than the flag of the England… it’s the flag of the Great Britain, and I lean more towards dis-union.
“I fear though that so much of what makes England England is dying”
Two good books on that subject are Scruton’s “England: An Elegy” and Kingsnorth’s “Real England.”
Thanks for the recommendations Rob. Peter Hitchen’s The Abolition of Britain is a good read.
A belated correction: For the record, the material that I recycled in this address was not taken from Chronicles (as I said), but from an essay in a short-lived literary review called Brightleaf. It’s sad when the memory starts to go. . . .
I disagree. Read that
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