Magazine article The Spectator

Lights under Bushels

Magazine article The Spectator

Lights under Bushels

Article excerpt

Here's a question for all of you who can claim to be (or would wish to be) English. When was the last time you sold yourself short, modestly claiming, 'Oh, it's nothing really. I just botched it together in a rush'? Or, 'I'm sure I know nothing about politics, ' when in reality you're an avid reader of Fraser Nelson's column? Or to a climatechange fanatic, 'What was that? I didn't understand what you said, ' when you've got a degree in environmental science? In recent years, we've been told such self-deprecation is bad for us and we need to go into therapy to retune our responses. But no longer. Or so Andrew Marr argues in Unmasking the English, his four-part series on Radio Four (Mondays).

Marr, we must remember, is a Scotsman (a nation of such primitive origins that, as Dr Johnson once said, they had to be introduced to the virtues of cabbage by Oliver Cromwell's men). Despite this, he has bravely gone down avenues of sociology where no one else would dare to roam, teasing out the essence of what it is to be English. In his first programme he decided that the modest self put-down so typical of the descendants of the Angles and Saxons is a Pavlovian response, a tactic, a useful way to deceive the enemy. We can't help it. It defines our national character, and we should nurture and preserve it, not school ourselves out of it.

It's best personified, said Mr Marr, with irreverent enthusiasm, by Agatha Christie's fictional amateur detective Miss Marple.

She always succeeds in outwitting the plodding professionals, hiding her beady-eyed brilliance so successfully that no one realises what lies behind that image of cardiganclad primness. 'There she goes, ' explained Marr, 'tootling placidly off to check that the Victoria sponge is ready or that a passing badger hasn't devoured her begonias, ' having just outed, to astonishing effect, the villain of the piece.

The seeming effortlessness with which Miss Marple unravels the plot is what Marr most admires; indeed, he claims that it's the key to England's imperial success. It's a dodgy argument, since Miss Marple does not make her fictional appearance until 1930 when Empire's almost done, and then only as a very minor character in a much earlier story by Agatha Christie. Marr was reminded by P.D. James, the grande dame of crime writing, that her emergence as the lady detective par excellence depended on Joan Hickson's portrayal of the character in the TV series. …

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