England's dodgy tapestry

Mr Paxman's complexion is deep pink. I fail to see how anyone could call him an Afro-Caribbean

THE POPULATION of England is about to be hurled into yet another spasm of self-consciousness, in which hundreds of people without any particular claim to anthropological insight or psychological penetration will try to define the "essence" of "Englishness" through a list of cute details. The last time it was done was on the publication of Julian Barnes's novel, England, England a few weeks ago. The time before, it was John Major's romantic little rhapsody about (my memory's a little hazy) district nurses from Surrey cycling tipsily across village greens and cricket pitches while reeking of stale beer. The time before that, it was Bill Bryson's list of things like chocolate biscuits, the Woolsack and Gardeners' Question Time in Notes from a Small Island. The time before that ... but you get the picture.

This latest occasion is Jeremy Paxman's book The English: A Portrait of a People, extracts from which have been appearing in a Sunday newspaper. Among the flood of details which Mr Paxman presents as typical of Albion culture are the usual procession of sausages, flagellation, DIY, crumpets and October bonfires, along with a few rather dodgy foreign imports like dry-stone walls (Irish), an obsession with breasts (American), excessive drinking (German) and curry (Polish - only kidding).

But future weeks will, I guarantee, see dozens of articles, like this one, adding a few more coloured threads to the shabby tapestry of English thinginess.

Amid Paxman's trenchant ruminations on our common prejudices, there was one that stopped me in my tracks. When discussing nationalism - and the curious fact that it is more a British than an English thing - Paxman recalls getting some nasty correspondence from bigots. One bit of hate mail accused him of being part of a Jewish conspiracy to destabilise the Christian state. The other, more curiously, contented itself with enclosing a cartoon picture of a British soldier firing a gun from a trench, above the caption, "Don't move, nigger". Further ideograms seemed to suggest that Mr Paxman should be strung up on a gallows. The communication ended with the cheery salutation: "Proud to be British."

Well, I've racked my brains to make sense of this but I confess it's beyond me. To call Mr Paxman an argumentative so-and-so, a hectoring quiz master or a Jew is, I suppose, fair comment. To suggest that he should be hanged is clearly going a bit far. But to upbraid him for being a Negro is surely right over the top. Mr Paxman's normal complexion is an attractive deep pink, sometimes shading into an irascible terracotta, occasionally darkening to a tanned and swarthy Tuscan ochre. But I fail to see how anybody could confuse him with an Afro-Caribbean.

Oddly enough, Auberon Waugh once tried a similar trick of mis-attribution when, as a student at Oxford, he lost a putative girlfriend to the bow- tied and exotic Grey Gowrie. Incensed, Waugh proceeded to spread the rumour that his lordship was partly or wholly Jamaican, in the teeth of all empirical evidence.

It seemed an odd form of revenge at the time; now, given Paxo's experience, it looks part of a larger trend - just one more of those quintessences of Englishness: pretending that someone you don't like is secretly black.

ONE OTHER particularly English quality at the moment seems to be Shopping Your Partner in the Public Press. There's a lot of it about. The spectacle isn't a pretty one but, goodness, it can come up with some wonderfully pungent little details. Like the news, from Mrs Margaret Cook, that her husband, when a small boy, was sent to collect half-a-dozen eggs in the time of post-war rationing and dropping them all, for which he was spanked. I think we're agreed that this explains a lot.

We're also indebted to Will Carling, for his selfless revelations in the Daily Mail this week about how he came to dump his wife, his parents, his new girlfriend and his 11-month baby son, Henry. Carling's constantly reiterated self-abasement is a wonder to behold. "I certainly did not know how to communicate within a relationship," he explains. "I did not take a particularly romantic or mature approach to marriage with Julia." Then: "I never made a pass at her," he says of the Princess of Wales. "I'm actually rather shy." He could never relate to women except as potential shags. At key points in his life, when things weren't going well, he says, repeatedly, "I closed down emotionally and retreated inside myself", sounding like a three-year-old reflecting on his capacity to have a blue fit. Whatever the pop-psychology in which Mr Carling wraps himself, nothing explains his behaviour as much as the detail that, when at Sedburgh public school, he was forced to wear short trousers, even in the sixth form. Everything about him is pure arrested development. How do you go on wearing short trousers after school? A career in rugby. How do you deal with relationships that a crowding in a bit? A stiff-arm fend-off. How do you approach women? With a flying tackle. Ah, the simplicity of life in abbreviated pants ...

STRANGE NEWS reaches my ears from the world of illustrators. A prize beyond riches can be theirs if they can manage to draw with conviction Sir Harold Pinter in the act of flogging and ravishing slaves sometime in the 1800s. That's not asking much is it?

I'm not making it up. An artist friend tells me the odd history of how she was approached by the Miramax film company, introduced to the art director of a new movie and given an exciting brief: to supply drawings for a forthcoming film of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, published in 1814. No details of actors or director were given; it was jolly hush-hush. Just do these illustrations and get them down here, double quick.

Every reader of Ms Austen's more boringly moralising book will recall how its heroine, the prim and timid Fanny Price, gets involved with the Bertrams, owners of the titular mansion, and how its owner Sir Thomas Bertram takes off to the West Indies on unspecified trading business, and later falls out with the ferocious knight for rejecting the proffered hand of Henry Crawford. In the film treatment, Fanny discovers the true nature of Sir Thomas when she stumbles on some pictures that were painted during his Caribbean sojourn, pictures that incriminate him in shocking scenes of cruelty and rape. Jane Austen preferred merely to hint at her readers about the worldiness of Sir Thomas. At Miramax, they've grasped the window of creative opportunity with both sweaty and trembling hands. What they commissioned was a series of illustrations of a furious white settler flogging a succession of slaves at a trading post; and several others of the same imperial villain raping terrified black girls.

My friend tried some preliminary drawings, got stuck and requested some "references" as to the faces, costumes etc she should be trying to capture. In the post, rather to her surprise, came of a clutch of photographs of Sir Harold Pinter, looking cross, as the fictional knight. She duly worried away translating Pinter's face to the A4 page and finishing up with a succession of strong images of savagery, sex, gross insertion a la Clinton, whipping blood, gore etc. To her great chagrin, they were turned down, as being insufficiently vivid. "We were hoping," she was told, "for something more Goya-ish." Never mind, I told her. You did your best. It's just so difficult, isn't it, capturing the elusive Jane Austen quality.

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