Friday Book: A strange fixation with tweed

VOLTAIRE'S COCONUTS: ANGLOMANIA IN EUROPE

BY IAN BURUMA, WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON, pounds 18.99

DOCKING IN Gravesend in 1726, Voltaire found in England a near- perfect model of liberal tolerance and a haven from the zealotry of Continental extremism. Voltaire's original question - can the virtues of one nation be transplanted to another? - pervades this exploration of Anglophilia. For just as the great Frenchman's stubborn belief that coconuts could be persuaded to grow in any climate with enough attention, countless Anglophiles have convinced themselves that prized aspects of Englishness could survive transplantation.

The author himself is a product of such a family. Brought up in Holland with a Dutch father and an English mother, he harbours childhood memories of the Anglophilia of The Hague: his grandfather's tobacconist preserving Winston Churchill's half-smoked cigar; the breathless hush of the close in Benoordehout, where the grandees of the community frequented the cricket club and cheered Cowdrey and Truman in Dutch. His mother dressed him in long flannel shorts and socks; "Authenticity divorced from context is absurd," he recalls with some feeling.

This background bequeaths him a fine sense of the romanticism of Anglophilia and the suspension of disbelief necessary to sustain it. A fine writer, whose elegant prose fluently conveys the teeming ideas, personalities and absurdities of three centuries of fixation with Englishness, from Goethe to Pevsner, he is also an artful voyeur who conceals a certain steeliness behind the appearance of an easy-going outsider. His sly account of life at The Spectator during its early-Nineties phase of lofty superiority captures the degree of camp self-invention entailed in marketing Englishness: "Tell me," the editor, Charles Moore, asks Buruma during a lull in the lunch-time conversation, "Which Bible do you use?"

These personal chapters linger longest in the mind, such as the outstanding account of his German grandparents' integration into north London and their quietly noble attentions to the plight of German Jewish children, a number of whose lives they saved by whisking them out of the Third Reich to a hostel in Highgate.

To be strict, this book's scope doesn't really live up to the subtitle Anglomania in Europe. It is is centred on the relationship of high culture and men (there are hardly any women) of high office in France and Germany with Englishness, and on the relationship between Jewishness and Anglophilia. Southern Europe is represented only in the effusions (reciprocated) of Garibaldi and Mazzini; the latter hyperventilated on arrival about "the country of my soul", only to end up having his post opened by the government at the request of Metternich. "Disgracefully un-English behaviour", he complained to Parliament in 1844. Eastern Europe's peculiarly intense and melancholy idea of England receives cursory treatment, and Russia is entirely missing.

With Buruma's command of detail, no one could quarrel. It is the unlikely Anglophiles whom he describes best, such as Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, dreaming of a miniature Jewish empire with a civilising mission and cricket. He is surely right to see in Kaiser Wilhelm II's poisonous fixation with England a love grown sour. Unable to rise to his English mother's expectations, the Kaiser grew to hate her Albion, seeking escape in the company of Prussian officers and pursuing his fateful dreams of a navy to match his grandmother Queen Victoria's fleet.

The broad thesis is that England's role as a beacon of liberal freedoms has dwindled into a nostalgic attachment to tweed jackets and braying voices, and that the American vision of liberty and opportunity has superseded it. Not many people beyond the wilder shores of Little Englandism would disagree with this judgement. Buruma, however, hitches it to a political conclusion palatable to the more fervent integrationists: that the alternative to British participation in a federal Europe is "the myth of insular freedom". That fails to answer the question of whether the price is worth paying, in economic and democratic terms, and whether the more individualist and free-trading traditions of the English can wield real influence within an institution created around the post-war needs of France and Germany.

He visits a Eurosceptic fringe meeting at Conservative conference and finds the audience a little below the salt: "Young men in loud suits and crude haircuts telling us why they thought Britain was great and Europe a tyranny". Yes, a room full of wannabe Teddy Taylors and aggrieved fisherman is not a pretty sight. But that hardly answers the question of how the liberal ideals Buruma embraces will fare if Britain ties itself unconditionally to a federalist vision of Europe.

The conclusion shows that it is not only Anglophiles who are prone to a certain Panglossian romanticism. Buruma sketches an appealing vision of Britain's spiritual allies in the arc of the continent's great trading cities, from Hamburg to Lisbon, Milan and the Baltics, holding aloft the values of open-minded flexibility against the dirigisme of France and the anxieties of Germany. I would not bet my last coconut that such an inspiring alternative would survive the first round of qualified majority voting on a dank Wednesday in Brussels.

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