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.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen