BOOK REVIEW / Putting the boot into Wellington: Sue Gaisford on a gathering of national legends, from Guy Fawkes to Dixon of Dock Green: Myths of the English - Ed. Roy Porter: Polity Press, pounds 39.50

THEY WERE 'very proud of their emotions, which supposedly led them to burst into tears on any occasion, commit suicide with frequency, become melancholy, get drunk and fall in love with noisy panache'. Who were these volatile extroverts? No, not the Russians but the English, those vulnerable softies whose enthusiasm for kissing everyone in sight had startled Erasmus in the 16th century, and who were still embarrassing foreigners right up to the moment of Victoria's accession. According to Iain Pears, then began the cult of the Great Man, as embodied in the formidable figure of the Duke of Wellington, and English masculine emotions were stifled in perpetuity.

It's an appealing idea, though it does not do to inspect it too closely. It supplies the starting point for a fascinating essay exploring the ways in which the arch-rivals Wellington and Napoleon created, sustained and even believed the myths by which they wished to be remembered. The archetype of all great Englishmen was seen to be self-made, self-disciplined and undoubtedly self- important. 'I am the Duke of Wellington,' he said, 'and must do as the Duke of Wellington doth.' The real man was a good deal baser, less virtuous and more interesting than the paragon of military and domestic virtue that he pretended to be, but the image became a potent and strangely enduring emblem of true grit.

This essay is one of 10 collected by Roy Porter under an ambiguous title. Did he ask his contributors to consider what myths delight the English, or by what myths they are defined? Each writer has put a different gloss on it, with the result that this is a very mixed bag indeed. Marina Warner offers a learned expose of Mother Goose, expanded from a lecture she gave to the Folklore Society some years ago. Her researches lead her to the dark suspicion that 'buried deep inside comfy Mother Goose is the ancient goddess Porne'. Whether that be so, or whether the old bird fluttered fully-fledged from the fables of La Fontaine, there seems to be little that is specifically English about either her origins or her sphere of influence. There is even a theory that the original Mrs Goose came from Boston. Whatever the truth of her provenance, she adds precious little to the notion of English myth, though she is the subject of the longest and least digestible piece in the book.

Gilbert and Sullivan could not conceivably have been other than English. Whatever the ostensible location, says David Cannadine, their operas are in fact about an England in which all foreigners are mildly comical and profoundly unfortunate. He suggests several reasons for their enduring popularity. In an age of theatrical decline, Gilbert's libretti were models of contemporary satire, clever plotting and sparkling epigrammatic dialogue. Sullivan, too, could turn out whatever the action needed, be it hornpipe, gavotte or madrigal, and his scores contain gems of pastiche Verdi, Handel and Wagner. More than all that, the Savoy operas were so tightly fenced in with legal restrictions that nobody was allowed to tinker with them at all until very recently, so that they went rapidly from topical to traditional without becoming passe on the way. Even now that they are public property, they have robustly survived some radical restagings and one of them, Princess Ida, is currently braving the assaults of Ken Russell.

Two November festivals are discussed in the book. David Cressy's history of Guy Fawkes's Day is refreshingly readable and informative. He has a brisk way with folkloric theories that the celebrations are a leftover from Celtic fire-festivals, dismissing such notions as 'speculative nonsense' fuelled by barely a flicker of evidence.

As hard fact, he provides the full text of a prayer for the day that stayed extant in the Church of England Service book until 1859. More curse than prayer, it makes the bloodthirsty second verse of 'God Save the King' look like something uttered by Christopher Robin. 'Penny for the guy', goes an old rhyme, 'Sock him in the eye, / Stick him up the lamp-post / and there let him die'. Though originally designed to fuel anti- Catholic feeling, 5 November has proved an adaptable feast and guys have been made to resemble every figure of popular hatred from the Whore of Babylon to Pitt, the Duke of Brunswick, Araby Pasha, Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Mrs Thatcher. The effigy of Mr Fawkes himself is still the most popular, reaching its apotheosis in 1839 as a 12ft-high machine filled with hydrogen, launched 'in a perpendicular manner' over Pentonville and last seen drifting towards Kent.

Remembrance Day will also never be forgot. The Great War had such a devastating effect that lasting memorials became urgently necessary. Patriotism was certainly not enough. Instead, the sacrifice of so many lives had to be seen as possessing a special, supernatural, sacred quality.

To this end, writes Bob Bushaway, Lutyens was commissioned to design the great gateway at Thiepval, the Cenotaph in Whitehall and all those bleak gravestones in military cemeteries. Kipling was brought in for the words. 'Lest we forget', 'Their name liveth for evermore' and 'A soldier of the Great War known to God' were all of his choosing, the emotions heightened by having lost his only son at Loos. Does this count as myth? Sadly, it probably does.

The supreme qualities of the English bobby are certainly mythical, discussed here by Clive Emsley. The envy of the world he may well be, but his attempts to control traffic or solve crime are a little dismal compared to the efforts of other forces, and his incorruptible image is crumbling away in the light of recent scandals. Sergeant Dixon asked us all to mind how we go, but today we go alone, unprotected by the constable on the beat and hearing only the siren of his successors on the motorways. The image of the tramp is more diffuse. As gypsy, inadequate or gentleman of the road he arouses respectively fear, pity and envy. Here again, the myth is fading. Few could really envy today's cardboard citizens, though plenty pity them.

You can always blame teachers, and people always have. Margaret Kinnell trots through their various representatives in children's literature, from early, uninspired Mrs Teachum to the benighted beak in nominal charge of Billy Bunter, and comes to the sad conclusion that only in genuine individual reminiscences are they ever represented fairly or honestly. To prove her point, she slips in a tribute to her own Brodie-like Mrs Miller, who successfully passed on to her girls a boundless enthusiasm for the novels of Dickens and for pink gloves from Paris.

In the universities, Jowett of Balliol and Eleanor Sidgwick of Newnham receive handsome tributes from Reba N Soffer. She sees them as mythic figures, powerful but selfless people who used their authority for the immediate good of others and for the greater good of society. The main difference between them was that Jowett disapproved of modest ambitions while Mrs Sidgwick found them virtuous by necessity, in an age when women were not even allowed to receive the degrees they had earned.

Much fascinating scholarship is displayed by the authors of this book, however easy it is to list lacunae. Its jacket picture of a mid-Victorian cricket match in Dorset holds out a hope that is largely unfulfilled. Only once is there a mention of that baffling, heroic, mythic and most English game. It is a suitably metaphorical reference, used by Charles Head to explain why a Frenchman could never hope for ultimate success: 'Napoleon might be said to have been one of those brilliant but wild batsmen who with luck in their favour can hit up a century in record time. In his first innings sixes and boundaries flowed from his bat . . . His luck held for a long time but he never attempted to play for his side and in other features of his game he was quite useless. His second innings was short and ignominious, though the bowling against him was easy and his opponents an unpractised and hastily got together team.' So that's how Waterloo was won.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?