23 June 2016

Alone in the World

Max O'Rell 1894

For those who will vote ‘leave’ today there is a Utopia within our grasp. Freed from the tyranny of the EU, we can look forward to a future as, in the words of the Sun, “a self-governing nation envied by all”. But this is a future that feels like the past.

Isn’t that what we once were – self-governing and envied? In our pomp, just before the First World War threw everything into the mixer, wasn't the whole world frantic with jealousy? All Europe coveted our power and our possessions; those pink places that we had acquired because we governed ourselves so well we thought nothing of governing others the same way, whether the locals agreed or not. Alone in the world and independent, yet at the heart of an Empire flowing across so many time zones that the sun never set.

This was the Britain that Max O’Rell saw through the eyes of a Frenchman at the back end of the 19th century. O’Rell was the pseudonym of Jean Pierre Blouet who moved from Paris to London to work initially as a school teacher. After several years among us, he had amassed a collection of anecdotes and observations on the peculiarities of the British, which he published in a book called John Bull and his Island.

That book was successful enough that he was able to leave his teaching post and embark on a career commentating on all things British, including John Bull’s women and John Bull’s ham-fisted attempts at cooking. Although he is largely forgotten now, O’Rell was a best-seller in his day and was in high demand as a lecturer in public halls up and down the country. This book came about after a two-year tour of the colonies, where British emigrants were also keen to have his unforgiving mirror held up to their motherland. 

O’Rell’s analogy of the British Empire as a business – John Bull & Co., with the colonies as so many branches scattered around the world – was very apt. From the East India Company to Hudson’s Bay, large chunks of the Empire were established primarily through a motivation to trade. It’s true that this was far from benign trade on equal terms, and that it was sometimes trade conducted at the point of a bayonet. But the analogy also holds in its implication that the British Empire was a brand that could be recognised wherever it set up shop.

Just as walking into a Sainsbury’s or PC World anywhere from Inverness to Basingstoke feels like walking into the same shop, so towns and cities from Australia to South Africa and beyond were unmistakably British in origin. There may have been tropical plants or vast deserts just down the road, but there were also the protestant church, the cricket field and, of course, the people.

O’Rell’s speciality was the British people, who seemed to enjoy his mocking observations about them delivered from the assured cultural superiority of a French man. And as he farted in their general direction, he regularly threw up sketches of how the continental European experienced the Briton. Finding an Australian town where he is due to speak full of drunken men, for example, he points out that “when a Frenchman is drunk, he is generally socialistic, anarchical, revolutionary, and he raves at the top of his voice ‘Down with all tyrants!’ When the Englishman is in his cups, he grows conservative and jingoistic.”

Later he contrasts the dedication and quality of French workers with their Anglo Saxon counterparts who, he says, “are bunglers and have not the least artistic instinct in them”. Before getting even half way through the book, a picture has emerged of a kind of 19th-century White Van Man, clobbering his way around the world, setting up colonies and inviting his oafish mates over for a taste of the good life. It is all caricature, driven by an innate snobbery that O’Rell’s largely middle-class audiences would have enjoyed, safe in the belief that he wasn’t really talking about them.

When he returned to London, O’Rell set about adapting the French comedy Le Voyage de M. Perrichon to appeal to a British audience. On the Continong featured a newly wealthy Englishman called John Perkins (played by O’Rell himself) travelling abroad to acquire some sophistication. The play toured the major northern cities and its tone – and presumably the source of its laughs – can be gauged from the comment of the reviewer for the Liverpool Mercury who pointed out that “the average Briton abroad does not enjoy with continental peoples the best of reputations for manners or education”.
By the end of the 19th century almost all of the colonies of the British Empire had some form of self-government, with parliament houses springing up everywhere. Like many others, O’Rell could see that the road for these places would inevitably lead to full independence and that entirely new countries were being spawned. In Britain itself, he finds a section of public opinion that proposes the Empire should become a confederation, with London at its centre; a prototype Commonwealth.

From his experience, though, the colonies would have none of it. By the time of his travels, each place had gone a long way towards perfecting its own distinctive culture. From the graft of their British roots, they were responding to irresistible forces of climate, geography and - where they had not been entirely eradicated - the ancient ways of indigenous populations. And, in parallel with similar movements across Europe, they were declaring their own strident brands of nationalism. At one point, O'Rell encounters a group of Australian workmen, most of whom "have gone to Australia at the expense of English emigration societies", who have lobbied their government to stop immigration - "There are no more wanted. Australia belongs to them."

But the reality was that these new countries, often occupying vast areas of land, needed new blood. For O'Rell, they are ultimately "nurseries of liberty" where people from anywhere in the world may go and "settle without having any formality to go through" and where they "may go on speaking their own language, practising their own religion". 

Over 120 years after this book was published, the sun has long since set on the British Empire. The new countries are now established and the UK faces uncertain times ahead. In a moment of homesickness for Europe, O'Rell comments that "no one can expect to find a country that has a future as interesting as one that has a past". Given that all countries have both, this aphorism doesn't stand too much scrutiny. But for those who imagine that a return to pre-EU days will give us the kind of self-governing freedom we apparently enjoyed in the 19th century, thriving on the back of newly boosted trade with our former colonial children, it is worth considering that we have a much longer history entwined with continental Europe.

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