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Books: Thick-headed John Bulls made for the constable's bludgeon

Voltaire's Coconuts, or Anglomania in Europe

By Ian Buruma

Weidenfeld pounds 18.99

Englishness is wasted on the English. Rather than choose it, we're born into it. And this makes us careless and lazy, indifferent to what it means and inclined to think that nationalist pride is best left to smaller nations. The Scots, Irish and Welsh call themselves Scottish, Irish and Welsh, but the English prefer to call themselves British, as if England on its own were a matter of shame.

The shame is widespread. Most of the old national icons have been discredited. Stiff-upper lip? Doesn't fit the age of feely-feely candour. Roast beef? BSE. Union Jack? An emblem worn by football hooligans. Tweed jacket, leather- patched at the elbow? Doesn't look right with trainers. Cricket? We don't have a team. A friend recently drew up a list of English icons to be proud of, among them: 1 The language 2 Shakespeare 3 Kathleen Ferrier 4 The Beatles 5 The BBC 6 Racial tolerance (cf the rest of Europe) 7 Comic satire, from Hogarth through Dickens to Private Eye 8 Nature Poetry 9 A love of the natural world (eg gardening) 10 Decent traffic behaviour. But my friend is Scottish. An Englishman would be more diffident about drawing up a list, more self-deprecating too, tending to dwell on the tacky, thus: 1 The language as currently spoken (vide Beryl Bainbridge) 2 Jeffrey Archer's novels 3 The administration of the Royal Opera House 4 The Spice Girls 5 The Sun 6 Eltham 7 Public libraries (run down and hardly ever open) 8 Mars bars fried in batter 9 "No turning in this Driveway" signs 10 Road rage.

Fortunately, there have always been foreigners who value Englishness more than we do, finding qualities in our character, customs and institutions which we seem to overlook. These Anglophiles or Anglomanes, who go back at least as far as the 18th century, are the subject of Ian Buruma's thoughtful and entertaining book, which - for good measure, and in case we get too inflated an idea of ourselves - throws in several notable Anglophobes as well.

He begins with Voltaire, who saw England as a land of liberty, reason, tolerance and modernity, and who wondered why the rest of the world couldn't be more like it. To sceptics who held that one nation's way of life can't be transplanted to another, Voltaire answered with coconuts, which, he said, might take longer to ripen in certain climes but could be grown anywhere, even in Bosnia and Serbia. It was cock-eyed optimism, but Voltaire had a sunny disposition, which coloured his impressions when he arrived in England in 1726 under cloudless skies that reminded him of the south of France. He had come in order to be an intellectual: writers and artists were, he thought, treated better in England than elsewhere. He spoke no English but this didn't matter since French was the language of the court. And when set upon by a mob, intolerant of his aesthete's airs, he'd mastered English well enough to save himself by shouting (or so the story goes): "Brave Englishmen, am I not already unhappy enough in not having been born among you?" Voltaire left England after a couple of years, but remained energetically Anglophile. Thanks to him, English dress, books, gardens, horses, dogs, even food became fashionable in mainland Europe.

One of Voltaire's few doubts was about Shakespeare, whom he saw as a rough diamond, his plays as vulgarly populist as a cock-fight. A similar view prevailed in Germany, but there the Bard's lack of Aristotelian grace, his democratic hurly-burly, came to be seen as a virtue. "A huge animated fair", Goethe called his theatre, and set about converting his fellow- countrymen, who, bored with Racine and Corneille, greeted Shakespeare as one of their own. High-minded and increasingly classicist, Goethe was an unlikely sponsor of Shakespeare, and Weimar, stuffy and exclusive, was an unlikely setting to stage his plays ("There will be no laughter," Goethe decreed). But with Schlegel carrying on the good work, the cult of Shakespearomanie persisted. It was still alive in 1940, when the Nazi elite gathered to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday and to commemorate him as "a German classic".

Another, more ambivalent wave of Anglophilia came in 1848, when, after the failed rebellions throughout Europe, London became a home for radical exiles, including Marx, Garibaldi, Mazzini, Herzen and Theodor Fontane. Most of them found England dull, mercantile, over-industrialised and lacking in passion. Marx was especially scathing, telling Engels about "these thick-headed John Bulls, whose brainpans seem to have been manufactured for the constable's bludgeon". Exasperated as they were with England's world-weary complacence, its unwillingness to entertain dangerous enthusiasms, they had to admit its citizens were comparatively free and independent - even our beggars were somehow more polite. Perhaps this doltish contentment and shopkeeper mentality was why the revolution never arrived, despite the best efforts of Marx, whose excitable announcements that it had arrived, Buruma has fun with. England might be a graveyard for their Utopian hopes, but several of these rebels remained snobbishly in thrall to the notion of the English gentleman.

The gentleman's game, cricket, is a recurrent theme here. Pierre, baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, believed playing cricket and taking cold baths could reinvigorate the languid French. Hippolyte Taine, who derived his ideas of England mostly from Tom Brown's Schooldays, thought cricket instilled socio-political obedience, "since every cricket team accepts a discipline and appoints a leader". Theodor Herzl, who fell in love with England on the train from Dover to Charing Cross (such speed and efficiency: the electric lamps, the stuffed leather seats, the passengers served tea while they read the papers), planned for all boys to play cricket in the Jewish state he'd one day build in Uganda, Palestine or wherever.

Jewishness dominates the closing chapters. By the late-19th century, England had become a refuge for European Jews (Ian Buruma's own grandfathers included), many of whom, in their desperation to be assimilated, became more English than the English, clinging to its island customs as if to a raft. From the grotesque Kaiser Wilhelm II, with his paranoid vision of "Juda- England" nurturing a liberal-socialist-freemason-semite conspiracy, Buruma turns, movingly, to his grandparents, who during the Second World War took 12 German-Jewish children into their Highgate home. To his grandparents, the idea of England as a haven was no mere propaganda. They believed in it - and in their own Englishness.

The book ends with a portrait of the Leipzig-born Nikolaus Pevsner (lovingly cataloguing the buildings of England as though the national identity "were a shy, exotic butterfly to be caught in an expert's net") and with a tribute to Isaiah Berlin, whose Anglophilia Ian Buruma recalls with affection. Buruma himself understands Anglophilia inside out, and outside in. Half- English, half-Dutch, he grew up in an Anglomane district of The Hague, where boys like him were forced to dress like Little Lord Fauntleroy and over the summer lawns the shout of "Cowdrey's out" could be heard from men with transistor radios. He has read widely, in several languages, is balanced in his sympathies, and has a sardonic and epigrammatic turn of phrase. Part-history, part-family memoir, with flashes of travel journalism and socio-economic analysis, Voltaire's Coconuts is a book only he could have written.

One small grumble. Flaubert's Parrot was a great title, but in the tradition of famous possessor/quirky appendage we've since had Foucault's Pendulum, Kafka's Dick, Pushkin's Button and Tolstoy's Dictaphone, not to mention Chekhov's Lie, Tennyson's Gift, Rimbaud's Rainbow, Joyce's Web and Rembrandt's Eyes, and without even getting into Vladimir's Carrot, Rebecca's Vest and Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Time for a moratorium on titular apostrophes. You can have too much of a good thing.