Magazine article The Spectator

Muddling Through

Magazine article The Spectator

Muddling Through

Article excerpt

How England Made the English by Harry Mount Viking, £20, pp. 340, ISBN 9780670919130 It so happened that in 1961 I was part of a little group - three of us - which welcomed 'Mr Jazzman' to London. That was the code name for Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer, who had that day jeteed over the barrier in Paris and defected to London. He had very little English but he was already amused, and giggling, at what he regarded as the quaintness of Englishness.

'All the same, all the same', he kept saying, meaning the rows of terraced houses he had glimpsed as he was swept from London airport to the Brompton Road.

A year before this I had crossed on the ferry to the Isle of Wight with my mother-in-law, nee Lehmann. She looked about her. 'What an extraordinarily ugly race we are, ' she remarked. We were certainly a varied lot (Saxon? Celtic? Many different skull-shapes) . To me, newly returned from Java, it was a relief that not everyone had black hair. Certainly we were dramatically ill-dressed (it was a hot day, and this was the epoch of the string vest). However, with surnames like ours, though both of us born and brought up in England, we seemed in no position to puzzle the enigma of what made the English.

Now, 50 years on , after successive waves of change and immigration, Harry Mount valiantly addresses this slippery topic. One sign of Englishness for him, and an example of his difficulty, is our dislike of uniformity and a fondness for muddling through. Yet at the same time he decides that England's greatest contributions to urban architecture are those regular terraces that so amused Nureyev.

Most of these consist, or consisted, of houses small enough to be privately owned, whereas in most great cities people live in purpose-built flats. To Mount, this indicates a difference in the English temperament: a preference for ownership, for privacy, and above all for the human scale.

Of course, while Nureyev smiled, the wrecking-balls were levelling mile after mile of terraces, to be replaced by tower blocks. These, Mount says, are in their turn being knocked down, another example of English 'adaptability', of the English temperament manifesting itself and winning through.

This is a lively, young man's book, heartening to us greybeards who can only wince and look away. When we were young, we hardly dared to admire a quirky building with a patina for fear that it would be a curse, and the next time we looked it would have gone. …

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