DJ Taylor: Cry Big Ron, Desmond and St George

There is more to being truly cosmopolitan than acquiring a taste for cappuccino
Click to follow

Whatever disasters may have taken place around the country in the past few days, it has been a notably bad week for the idea of the English cosmopolis. In fact, a satirist, asked to fabricate some witty contrast between a nation's public face and the real sentiments boiling away at its core, could not have improved upon the diversity of the headlines that greeted newspaper readers on the morning of St George's Day, 2004.

At one level, with the European Union preparing to open its doors to a clutch of new members, a British Prime Minister - himself the embodiment of the modern metropolitan Europhile - opts to allow his people the chance to approve a constitution that will enable them to take their place at the epicentre of the new Europe. Meanwhile, down in medialand, a press magnate - having delivered himself of the opinion that "all Germans are Nazis" - caps this performance by goose-stepping around a Docklands boardroom.

Not to be outdone in the bigotry stakes, a TV soccer pundit is "expasked to leave", as we used to say at school, after apostrophising Chelsea's Marcel Desailly as "a fucking lazy nigger". It looks bad. It is bad. On the other hand, in the context of English cultural history, it is only slightly less predictable than Arsenal's triumph in this year's Premiership.

Over the last couple of decades, the vision of England peddled by advertising and the Sunday supplement journalists has turned staunchly cosmopolitan: a matter of foreign holidays, endless cappuccinos quaffed at pavement cafés and ever more exotic purchases at supermarket delicatessen counters. According to this orthodoxy, the pattern English bourgeoisie take their vacations in leafy Tuscan villas, wave their children enthusiastically off on foreign exchange trips and think no more of catching the Eurostar to Paris than the Tube to Golders Green. TV ads set amid our vibrant urban landscapes abet this enticing vista, with hordes of smiling multicultural folk disporting themselves against a backdrop that could be Turin or Basle rather than Newcastle or Cleethorpes.

No doubt at particular social levels there is something in this idea of English cosmopolitanism. Certainly, as a man in my early forties, I spend far more time "abroad" than my parents did, and have far more dealings, whether casual or professional, with "foreigners". At the same time, this creeping awareness that there is a world beyond the English Channel co-exists with an epic insularity that all the pro-European propaganda of the past 30 years has failed to dent.

For the most part it stems not from Richard Desmond-style bigotry but from simple geographical isolation. Here in Norfolk, for example, it is still possible to meet people who have never been to London and for whom a foreign holiday would be an unimaginable adventure. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the majority of British people, if pressed, would admit that they regard the EU as a kind of licensed swindle got up by the French and the Germans with the aim of preserving their own national interests.

As a teenager back in the late Seventies - a time when the idea of Europe and our place within it was as contentious a topic as it is now - I can remember it being confidently predicted that these attitudes were ripe for change. In particular, the generational prejudices of one's forebears - my sweet-natured grandmother who hated Germans on the grounds of a brother lost in the Flanders mud - would supposedly fade away.

There would be no repeat runnings of that sticky afternoon in 1977 when the parents of my sister's German penfriend arrived unexpectedly for tea ("I've been to Flossenburg," my father innocuously proposed. "Oh yes," inquired Herr Ehlers, "when was that?" "May 6th 1945," my father shot back.) Somehow, though, this failed to happen, both at the upper levels of our cultural life, where whole swaths of art and literature are still predicated on the idea that foreigners are funny, and down at the lower end where "abroad" means nightclubbing in Ibiza or turmoil outside continental soccer grounds.

In his celebrated 1939 essay Boys' Weeklies, George Orwell anatomised the classic English assumption that foreigners of any race are all alike and will conform "more or less exactly" to a list of stereotypical patterns. Based on the kind of insults thrown around in school playgrounds or TV comedy programmes, it would be perfectly possible to update this list to the early 21st century. Thus: French: racist, licentious, excitable, eat snails; Germans: sinister, authoritarian, stolid, wear lederhosen; Italians: excitable, corrupt, cowardly, eat pasta; Swedes: dull, suicidal, pornography loving, drive Volvos.

This is a joke, of course, but it curious how often life tends to corroborate it. I was once watching Norwich City in action when a newly arrived French player named Marc Libbra was introduced to the pitch. The Norfolk crowd quite liked Libbra - one of those "cultured" continental players who combine jaw-dropping skill with a disinclination to go at full pelt for 90 minutes, invariably stigmatised by English fans as "laziness". "He's been on the red wine again," they would cheerfully crow whenever Libbra showed evidence of this trait.

Yet the defining mark of English nationalism, it might be said, is its ability to co-exist alongside more enlightened views in the minds of people who would be greatly shocked if you taxed them with xenophobia. To put it another way, I am a citizen of a free Europe, keen to welcome fellow Europeans to my country with the same enthusiasm that I expect them to welcome me to theirs.

And yet my father had five years of his life taken away by the war, and my grandfather's Mons Star lies in the family curio box. To ignore this would be to ignore a substantial part of one's own heritage. It was exactly the same a century and a half ago, you feel, in the long aftermath of the French wars. William Makepeace Thackeray's stepfather, who lived in Paris for more than 20 years, christened his dog "Waterloo" simply so that he could annoy his neighbours by calling for it in the street.

Perhaps, in the end, the obligation is to distinguish between the contending brands of nationalism on offer. Clearly, nothing will teach Richard Desmond and Ann Winterton (who recently disclosed that she apologised for her sally about the dead Chinese cockle-pickers merely because she was compelled to) which century they inhabit. On the other hand, as a novelist, I will cheerfully admit that on the day when foreigners cease to be funny the English novel will have ceased to exist.

As to the scepticism of the English provinces, for whom "abroad" is still a mixture of picturesque TV ads and vaguely embittered folk memory, if not tolerated, it should at any rate be understood and factored into the national debate now raging around us. We are not all Europhile prime ministers with a place in history to fight for. Equally, we are not all ranting, goose-stepping Mr D.