Thursday, 19 January 2012

In which Lord Bragg leads me to ponder the national character

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I love Lord Bragg. There, I’ve said it. It’s out there.

I don’t know what he’s like in life. He might be an utter charlatan, for all I know. But I love him because every Thursday he gets three or four academics, the best in their field, round a table and lets them talk. I sometimes think no other country in the world would have a radio programme like In Our Time, and I bless the dear old Beeb weekly for it.

Today, he was talking about the revolutions of 1848. This made me highly excited. Apart from the First Reform Act and the Repeal of the Corn Laws, almost nothing interests me more. (You think I am joking. Tragically, I am deadly serious.) At the age of eighteen, when I was studying for my history degree, I found the 1848 ructions deliriously exciting. I liked to think I had a bit of a radical soul in those days; I think I rather identified with all that taking to the barricades.

So today was a lovely gallop down memory lane for me, and my love for His Braggship increased. But then he asked the interesting question: why did Britain not have one? The profs muttered and giggled. Constitutional monarchy, they mumbled; reform from within; the Chartists. Queen Victoria, said one of them, suddenly stalwart, was an awful lot better than those cretins on the European thrones. I was rather amazed. Are you even allowed to say cretin on Radio Four?

Of all my history essays, the one I remember as if it were yesterday was on this very question. From 1789 to 1815 to 1830 to 1848, as Europe roiled and erupted, as the paving stones in great cities were ripped up to make barricades, as monarchs trembled and high ministers resigned and new constitutions were hastily written, Britain just kept calm and carried on.

It’s not as if the British were not interested in revolt. The poets and the theorists and the socialites were initially thrilled by the French Revolution. The Duchess of Devonshire was always running off to Paris, as if the fall of the monarchy were a tourist attraction. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, wrote Wordsworth. People got very grumpy with Burke when he foresaw disaster. Then Robespierre went mad, and it wasn’t so romantic after all, and everyone cleared their throats and shuffled their feet and looked at their shoes and changed the subject.

But for all the reform movements and radical ideas, there was no late eighteenth century or nineteenth century revolution, despite the turmoil just over the English Channel. I remember having a very robust notion about this. I said it was because of the essentially conservative nature of the British character. The British did not like uproar and chaos; they liked routine and small certainties.

I vividly recall writing about the minor bread riots which would break out, like clockwork, on Monday mornings. The workers would get paid on a Friday. They would then spend all the cash on drink, wake up on Monday broke and hungover, have a little riot, and then everyone would go back to work. (Can this really have been true? I certainly used it as convincing evidence.) Anyway, according to me, that was how the British did revolt.

Of course my argument slightly falls down when one reflects that we did have a bloody revolution, and killed a king too. The Civil War set families against each other, fathers against sons, brother against brother, and led to rabid witch-hunts and crazed religious tests.

Perhaps it was the folk memory of that awful experiment which kept Britain calm in later centuries. Perhaps it was that the vested interests and the monarchy were very clever at giving away little bits of power and making them look like great concessions. (The First Reform Act was presented as revolutionary, but it only produced a very limited franchise.) Perhaps it was that there were occasional crusading prime ministers who really seemed to be on the side of the common people, like Peel in 1846.

My nutty theory, which I must have dreamed up to be cussed and to excite my tutor, does make me wonder now whether there is such a thing as national character. It’s something I think about a lot. Do all Americans really love winners, and believe in American exceptionalism, and still have the frontier spirit running through them? Are the Germans really that efficient? Do Ordinary Decent Britons truly believe in reticence, and stoicism, and queuing, and the underdog? Is every last French person entranced by good food and intellectual debate?

Despite this, I do wonder if there might not have been a minute grain of truth in my teenage argument. I think the British are historically conservative, with a very small c. All the politics here takes place in the centre ground. Unlike in Europe, extremes and ideologies have never taken hold. Moseley’s fascism was dark and dangerous, but he was mostly treated as a joke. On the other side, the Communist Party only ever had a minute membership. In contemporary times, Tony Blair made Labour electable again by dragging it to the centre ground; David Cameron did the same with the Tories, in an attempt to banish their nasty party image. Perhaps, if there is anything in the idea of Britishness, it is a default setting of the middling sort, a Goldilocks tendency: not too hot, not too cold, just right.

Well, it’s just a theory.


Some quick pictures. There was amazing light this morning:

19 Jan 1 19-01-2012 11-31-00

19 Jan 2 19-01-2012 11-32-22

19 Jan 3 19-01-2012 11-33-07.ORF

19 Jan 4 19-01-2012 11-34-44

19 Jan 6 19-01-2012 11-31-00.ORF

Pigeon, elegant in black and white:

19 Jan 10 19-01-2012 12-44-43

Carrying her tail like a flag:

19 Jan 11 19-01-2012 11-32-00

With her slightly quizzical face and neat paws:

19 Jan 11 19-01-2012 12-44-54

The hill:

19 Jan 12 19-01-2012 11-35-23

Tomorrow I go to stay with my very old friend M in the Borders. There shall be no blog until Monday. I apologise for this shocking dereliction of duty. I'm afraid the Pigeon and I shall be living it up somewhere south of Peebles. It is very, very naughty of us.

Have a lovely weekend.


  1. Much as I adore your writing, your pictures, and your general approach to life I am afraid I cannot share your appreciation of Bragg. Radio 4 keeps me going as I shoot around the Normandy countryside, but when Bragg takes to the air, I'm afraid that I head for France Inter, or if the mood is right, turn to my learn-Italian-in-a-day CD's. Sorry to disappoint, but I wish you and the Pigeon a wonderful weekend nevertheless.
    PS Thank you for reminding me how fantastic the light can be in Scotland!

  2. Sharon - dissent! I love that you so kindly apologise for disagreeing. I do absolutely see that it is an each to each thing. Perhaps there will now develop a heated debate between the pro-Melvyns and the antis. :)

  3. WHOO-HOO! Have a fantastic, frivolous, fun-filled weekend, you two!

  4. Tania - your blog is always enthusing, and I used to comment sometimes. But the Comments system changed: it used to have a word verification, you typed your name and pressed Publish. Now out of the selection list I'm trying 'Anonymous'! I wonder if others have the same problem? Vivien

  5. As an American, I can say you have it mostly right, but I've always thought America publicizes its winners, but truly loves its underdogs. America wants everyone else to see its winners, but the underprivileged or disadvantaged soul who makes good is the most beloved of all.

    If you want to see America's opulent, "successful" icons, watch their television programs. If you want to see what Americans really love, watch their movies. (The Blind Side, Million Dollar Baby, Remember the Titans, anything by Walt Disney... the list is endless).

  6. Do you suppose it could have anything to do with the supposed existence of an island mentality? Islands are definitely other sorts of places from mainlands filled with potential chaos and too many differences not far down the road?

  7. I must put a word here for His Braggship and the excellent 'In our times': three quarter of an hour every week of pure, intelligent escapism. You can forget all your niggling chores and just dive in, feet first, and guilt free.
    Good Lord Bragg is always grappling with the weekly subject, unpacking its various layers in a eager, gentle, systematic way, while managing to voice all our most obvious and down to earth doubts and curiosities.
    Wheather the subject is 1848 of which I have some recollection from my schooldays, or Aristotle's life long passion for biology and how it interacted with his philosophycal beliefs, of which I knew nothing, it's the aspirational middle brow talking to the high brows.
    And I LOVE it!
    It's a safe heaven, with conflicts and contentions that will not eat at you or make you angry, but simply strech your thinking.
    For me too that Lord Bragg is a man after my own heart.



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