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
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot