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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)