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What does it take to be a Brit (and how would I know)?

We received a letter from American James Hodge, which we thought might interest you, since it spans English literature, fried bread in London and the answer to his question, What does it take to be a Brit (and how would I know)?

I wouldn’t, of course, because I am a Yank. (Yes, I know the origin of the term, and it's alright with me if it's alright with you.) Let's face it: You can't be a Yank of my generation and background and not be an Anglophile. Not that I would root for the wrong side in 1776 or 1812, but how often since then has the difference between the continental tendency toward "guilty until proven innocent" and British jurisprudence reminded me where our libertarian interpretation of individual liberty comes from? (If you dislike that preposition at the end of the sentence, I refer you to Winston Churchill.)

There is some English blood in my veins. It has given me a name that is just one letter too long to be a four-letter word. It's a good Anglo-Saxon surname that suggests my English ancestors were farmers who gave the English language words like "cow" and "sheep" and "swine". Norman rulers, sitting at their well-appointed tables, gave native French words for the same animals to English dishes: "beef, mutton, pork."

English speakers fiercely defended their language and skillfully incorporated selected French words. As a result, Geoffrey Chaucer would decide to write in Middle English rather than French. It was a fortunate and fateful decision, enriching our heritage with romance, comedy, realism - the start of it all. The great wealth of what comes afterward explains why, for much of our U.S. history, teachers of English literature have been the academic aristocrats while teachers of American literature were the academic grunts. They were, after all, working in "English" departments. It also explains the words carved into the steps of a college building on a campus in the northeastern U.S., commemorating a respected English prof of a previous generation: "And gladly wolde he lerne And gladly teche."

It further reminds me of a colleague who was internationally known as an outstanding scholar of British history. He recalled what he thought of as the highest praise he had ever received when he overheard his mentor at Oxford recommending him to a colleague: "He’s American, but he’s solid."

There was no need to wait for school to encounter the peculiarly British way of thinking. It did not matter to the nonsense-loving child that Little Jack Horner was a real, historical figure, or that Old King Cole was political satire. Long before Disney's film, children read or heard their parents reading the Jungle Book and Twice-Told Tales. Later, it was natural to explore the rest of Kipling's world, which was geographically mind-boggling: The sea tale of Captains Courageous (hello, C.S. Forester); the intrigue of Kim (hello, Eric Ambler and John Le Carré); the Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney (which got under Bertolt Brecht's skin, giving him such an itch that he created one of his most savage satires); poems like Gunga Din, an opus I heard recited by heart in the not-quite-sober aftermath of a Saturday party by one of the more enthusiastic pledges in my college fraternity. That is the same fraternity that had for one of its standard anthems The British Grenadier - a song I suspect every one of my class can still sing word perfect. We were 'educated young fellows', so we knew, or would soon know, who Alexander and Hercules and Hector and Lysander were, but it was only in this song that we learned why the name "grenadiers."

So it is no wonder, by the time we were ready to go out and face the world, that some of us - even those who studied the languages and literatures of the continent - were keenly aware of "following in footsteps." Study trips to the continent beginning in the '60s reflected in their own way the standing of the Brits.

A day trip to Palace Schönbrunn in Vienna introduced us to a display of contrasts. Getting on the tour bus was a Babel of tourists. The dour French woman behind us was impatient. I could tell that from the fact that her umbrella tip intermittently, "accidentally" jabbed me behind one knee. The Italian family, who came a little late, happily ignored decorum and swarmed over, under, around and through us. The small coterie of English teachers quietly but firmly waited their turn. I would remember them years later when I read a recent article in the local paper discussing standing in queue: Americans are truly stodgy about everyone keeping his or her place in line, it said. The only ones worse were their cousins, the British. Fair is fair.

Arrived at the palace coffee shop, we all filed in and jostled for tables. Italians shouted a thousand orders; French waved imperiously and frowned; Americans sat looking like children on a school trip, not knowing what to do. “Die englischen Damen” gazed sternly and raised a hand. Half of the wait staff headed for the British table.

Films in Vienna lent further perspective. One German adventure-cum-bodice-ripper featured an American girl kidnapped by generic bad guys and rescued by a British military policeman. The American was athletic and vigorous in her own defense, but inevitably overwhelmed. The hero appeared - a body Arnold Schwarzenegger would not scorn. Dressed in khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirt, he tossed the villains around like rugger balls. We suddenly understood how Brits fought the war.

Brits talk faster than we do. In Vienna we went to see Spartacus and 4:50 from Paddington. We were surprised at how fast the German voice-over had to speak to render the efficient but comparatively leisurely sentences in Spartacus. We laughed out loud when the German translation of Christie's story ran on after the characters' lips stopped moving and continued through the following action at incredible speed. I lost track of how many thoughts were not completed.

All roads lead to Rome, and you cannot really go to Europe without at least passing through London. We stayed at a B&B, which served a good "fry-up" for breakfast. I have never been able to duplicate the only tea I ever had that tasted just as good to me, day after day, as coffee. I was too young to feel my arteries hardening, so I tried desperately after we returned home to duplicate the fantastic taste of fried bread. Perhaps fortunately I was never able to recreate that sensational breakfast.

On our second pass through London some years later, our very young son had spent nine months with us in Vienna. He knew the rules. Some things, such as grass, were only to look at. So when we strolled through Hyde Park (on one of those unusual days when no one was haranguing anyone or demonstrating against anything) and decided to leave the path and cut across the grass to find a place to sit, he refused to come along. It took some explaining to make it clear that in Britain grass was free to be used and enjoyed.

So what does it take to be a Brit? Aside from a drive for trade and profit leading to a worldwide domination of the seas? Other than stitching together a united kingdom out of a patch of land with Cymric Welsh and Cornish to the west, Gaelic Scots to the north, Anglo-Saxons and Danes here and there and everywhere? Besides absorbing Romance into a Germanic language and streamlining the result mercilessly over time, to create a universal language that, unlike its predecessor, Latin, is just as accessible to the uneducated as the educated? Aside from harnessing capitalism to the tradition of citizen government? Besides standing alone and then crossing the Channel to confront the tyrannies of the day?

I say: a sense of tradition and values painstakingly developed and nurtured over time, that will not let this latest wave from the collectivist continent wash over a small but indomitable island.

Thank you, Jim.

Comments (4)

Wisconsin Anglophile :

Your comments are eloquent and erudite, worthy of multiple reads.

Mike Spilligan:

Many thanks are due to James Hodge and BaTB for posting this.

Thanks, too, to Wisconsin Anglophile - your recommendation is willingly accepted.

Too often we Brits need reminding of our own history; and much too often Americans have to teach us what that is.

Katie:

By far, your comments here are among my favorite that you have ever posted. Your comments on the brisk pace of speaking made me chuckle. Often, when my Mom (Mum) spoke her rapid English, my American English-speaking friends would ask me, "What did she say?" I had to interpret English into English.

My Dad would be proud of all that you wrote. That makes me smile! The spirit of a Brit lies not in the origin of his birth, but in the origin of his heart.

Holly:

Three cheers for James Hodge, whoever and wherever you are!

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