In Ian Buruma's case, I volunteer for the job. He has written a book which deserves to be noticed outside the review pages, and to be read by anyone with any interest in the past, present and future of Britain as a nation. Its title and subtitle - Voltaire's Coconuts, or Anglomania in Europe - may not set off the music of the bookshop till (Danger! Scholar at Work!), but they disguise a just and sympathetic account of how Britain has seemed over the past few hundred years to our European neighbours. And as Europe, or what used to be known as "The Continent", is now impinging on us as never before in peacetime - yesterday the resignation of Germany's finance minister was even the Sun's front-page splash; unthinkable 10 years ago - the time seems right to start learning a little more about this.
Buruma's book is a clever combination of history, biography, current observation, and autobiography. It begins with Voltaire, who saw England as a model of freedom and democracy (the title comes from his universalist idea that it could be transplanted, like the coconut), and then moves forward through all kinds of Anglophobes, Anglophiles (and Scottophiles). Some names are familiar: Goethe, the Kaiser, Karl Marx, Leslie Howard, Nikolaus Pevsner. Others obscure: Prince Hermann von Puckler-Muskau, for instance, who imagined that English parks and gardens held the key to human happiness and called his German country house "Barns Hall" as though it were in Wiltshire. Apart from telling you about things not commonly known, which is always a good reason for a book's existence, not always practised, the effect is reassuring: Britain and continental Europe have influenced each other in a multitude of interesting, individual ways as well as through the grand stuff we learnt at school about naval engagements and the Congress of Berlin.
This may sound taxing; it may also sound like Euro-propaganda. In fact, it's neither of these things. Buruma writes for a living, usually as a journalist, and he's always clear and often vivid. About the great European project - the euro, the federal state - he is agnostic. His special quality is to know Britain and to be not quite British. We are getting used to an external view of ourselves, but that view is usually American (Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Ruby Wax) and not necessarily useful if the British future is transchannel rather than transatlantic. Buruma, on the other hand, grew up in the Netherlands with a Dutch father and an English mother. He studied Chinese literature at Leyden and then went east on a scholarship to Japan, where he became a photographer, married his Japanese wife, and spent a long spell in Hong Kong. He speaks Dutch, German, French, Japanese and Mandarin. For obvious reasons, he says, the question of what nationhood means to people fascinates him.
For the past nine years, his home has been a terrace in Kentish Town opposite, in his words, "one of the ugliest churches in Christendom". A completely undistinguished bit of London: who could be bothered to notice it? And yet, as Buruma writes, there it is in Dr Nikolaus Pevsner's The Buildings of England - the church faithfully recorded and described "without praise or blame". Perhaps only an Anglophile German Jew could have recorded Britain's architectural heritage so indefatigably, driving around the country day after day, year after year, with notebooks and clipboards to list and describe any building worth looking at, and quite a few that weren't.
Without him, we would all be poorer. Pevsner is one of the foundations of the heritage industry. But at the time the rewards for his painstaking work were often snobbish jokes (by John Betjeman, among others) about unimaginative German pedantry. Punch magazine published a poem about him:
From the heart of Mittel- Europe I make der little trip to show der english dummkopfs some echt- deutsch scholarship ...
Have we moved on since then? Buruma thinks so, even though yesterday's Sun headline on Oskar Lafontaine did read "We haf ways of making you quit". He likes living here. Manners have certainly changed since his father came on a trip from The Hague to his wife's Berkshire village in 1950 and noticed that "the English are extremely polite but not so polite as to seem condescending". But other virtues have replaced them. "London is a genuine and pretty successful mixture of races and people, and you're left to get on with your own life."
On Thursday, we had coffee in a place off Camden High Street, though it might have been in Berlin or Amsterdam. Then we went to buy his book in Waterstone's. The assistant thought it might be in the basement under "sociology" - as attractive a category as "offal" in a butcher's shop. Sure enough, there it lay among the equivalent of pigs' feet. It deserves much better than that.
STILL, IAN BURUMA'S book had a launch party, and not every book has that. It was held in the flat of its publisher, Lord Weidenfeld, which overlooks the Thames from Chelsea Embankment. A fine place, as you might imagine: tapestries and paintings, bookshelves that go all the way to the ceiling. I was trying not to envy it when an eminent writer came up and asked straight out if I'd like to live there (he believes in directness).
There was something about his question that invited the answer no, so I began to give an equivocal reply, as though flats on Chelsea Embankment were there for my choosing. "Well, a nice view of the river ..." I began. "Yes, yes, yes," said the writer, "but the street, the street, the street! Imagine the noise, noise, noise, traffic all day and all night." He screwed up his face. The location was repugnant - "a terrible place".
Then I remembered I had been here before, 20 years ago, as a reporter on a Sunday paper. Another party, another crush, the same (or certainly very similar) manservants to take your coat and squeeze through with the canapes. That evening (most evenings in 1978) I was wearing a second-hand suit which I'd bought from a friend in Glasgow who dealt in them. He'd consult the deaths column in the Glasgow Herald and then call by the homes of the deceased to see if their clothes were for sale. Most of the these dead men's suits went to Zambia, a sweaty destination for the worsted of old Glasgow businessmen, but mine had been spared from the export crate.
It was a pretty good suit, made in Savile Row before the war. I liked the lining, the "by appointment" crest on the tailor's label. It cost a fiver. Perhaps it was a little short in the leg, rather too baggy everywhere else. Perhaps it was a mistake to wear it with a collarless shirt, which might have been a little torn. Anyway, for whatever reason, my host seemed to take against it.
Or that's my assumption, because a week later I had a strange and slightly ominous conversation with the paper's fashion editor. How would I like to be "made over" for an appearance in the fashion pages? Picture of me in old suit, picture of me smartly reborn in new suit: contrast and compare. I declined but grew anxious. Where had this idea come from? From the editor.
Had it originated with him? No, not quite ... The trail eventually led to the Chelsea Embankment. Twenty years later, wishing to smoke a cigarette in this same room, I moved well away from the host and his far-reaching influence. Otherwise, one day the editor may ring: "I've just been talking to Lord Z, I was just wondering ...", and then an unsolicited invitation to a health farm.
TELEVISION programmers have a strange opinion of our sensititivies. Last Sunday afternoon, in the same tradition which dropped films involving car crashes after Diana died, the BBC rescheduled a showing of King Solomon's Mines with an announcement that implied the reason was the recent slaughter of some British and American tourists in Africa.
On a succession of recent Thursday nights, however, you could hear a chef with Tourette's syndrome start his half-hour of profanity at 9pm on the dot - just after the kids, if you're lucky, have been put to bed. I've never seen or heard on television such a detestable figure as the chef in question, the playground bully Gordon Ramsay. With luck, his cowering staff will shove him in a pot, boil him for six hours, and then serve him in slices on beds of lentils to the foolish (but rich) patrons of his restaurant.Reuse content