So long, Britain


By Josep Colomer.



When I finally got a passport, my first trip was to Paris, which was the closest ‘abroad’ place from Barcelona. The second was to London. Since then I travelled to London more times than to any other place in the world.

My first visit was shortly after the Britons had ratified their membership to the European Community in referendum. As a young tourist who had always lived under a sordid dictatorship, I was impressed by a number of things: the natural patriotism of the population, reflected in the pervasiveness of Union Jacks and portraits of the Queen; the fog in the port and most of the city; the indifferent freedom at Hyde Park; a peaceful and legalized demonstration of supporters of the violent separatist Irish Republican Army, IRA, in downtown; the tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate; the tasty simplicity of fish and chips in a newspaper cone; the mummies at the British Museum and how one could still see traces of the Empire everywhere; the colors and clouds of Turner at Tate; businessmen with bob hats travelling on the tube; the zippy make-up girls at the beauty section of Harrods; the easy access to the door of 10 Downing Street; the public toilets in the middle of the street (which I thought were a delightful complement to the Labourites’ inspired model of gas-and-water socialism).


England had captured my imagination since I was a child. I read all volumes of Just William’s shenanigans, the typical present by an unaware aunt that becomes an educational overturn. The charming Jungle Book. The enchanting and traumatizing Peter Pan, all whose thrilling scenes would remain in my memory for ever. Treasure Island, the real adventure for a child. Robinson Crusoe, who opened a rare conversation with my father about how one can make it in life by himself. Sherlock Holmes, the monument to all-powerful brain, the model for a scientist mentality. Alice in Wonderland, the fantasy of fantasies, also full of mathematical and political jokes. My Fair Lady, a record from the theater play brought in by my father from one of his business trips to London, whose lyrics my brother and I memorized and sang all the time much before understanding any English. Similar allure with the songs of the Beatles, the Stones and so many others. Homage to Catalonia, the honor to have a stupid local conflict transformed into worldwide news. Dorian Gray, another freaking warning of what growing up might imply.

After my first trip, London became immediately my regular connection with the world. For near fifteen years, I was a fervid consumer of Dillons’ and Foyles’ books, Tower Records in Piccadilly, live rock music at Marquee, operas at Covent Garden, classic concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, West End musical shows, Monty Python’s films, newspapers from the Pakistanis’ kiosks, beer and shepherd’s pie in pubs, the Tea House, Indian restaurants and Chinatown dim-sum, and unrivaled walks in urban parks. London proved to be perfect for a honeymoon.


When I began teaching for university students in Barcelona, I was initially allocated a course in history of political thought, for which the fittest textbook was by one George Sabine. I was fascinated, in particular, by the chapters on the Scottish Enlightenment, the English utilitarianism and the British liberalism, which I decided to study more seriously. I edited in Spanish a selection of political writings of David Hume, whose workplace I visited in Edinburgh while I was trying to learn more English at a university building also opportunely named David Hume Tower. The moral and political writings by Hume are possibly the ones that made on me the biggest impact ever; the kind of thing that makes one feel: I wish I would have been able to write this! But I know I wouldn’t. I adopted his lemma for life: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”.

I also edited an anthology of Jeremy Bentham, who cleverly placed the aim of society at the achievement of the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers of persons. And I attended a rather bizarre meeting of the International Utilitarian Society in London: Bentham’s mummified corpse, which is permanently exposed, dressed in his own clothes, within a wooden cabinet in the middle of a corridor at University College, was brought in as the honor guest of our dinner –he was registered as “present but not voting”.


I also enjoyed the political sitcoms Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister as no other TV series ever –which is much to say. When I began teaching political institutions, I brought my students from Barcelona to visit the House of Commons, the example of lively parliamentarianism.

Later on, I was co-organizer of Europe-wide academic conferences at the universities of Essex and Kent. I gave lectures and judged thesis examinations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I was bemused at dinners and receptions at colleges in Oxford, including the legendary line of scholars, glass in hand, in front the Dean holding one bottle on each hand to offer the choice of Sherry or Port. I was hired for a while for the Chair in European Politics at Bristol. Gave seminars at Aberdeen and a speech at the Parliament of Scotland in Edinburgh. Participated in a storming-brain meeting of the Liberal International in Oxford. And was elected member of the Academy of Europe, headquartered in London.


I found disproved the lemma ‘No sex, please, we are British’. But I completely confirmed other clichés. A polite conversation must turn around the weather, animals (preferably dogs), and health problems. In contrast, it’s highly indecorous to raise issues such as money, politics or religion. Regarding the first of these taboos, the Britons are at the antipodes of the Americans, for whom everything can be measured with some monetary value. The religion ban is okay, because it’s a private affair. But not talking politics usually reflects a latent conflict that people may want to avoid.

In fact, and in contrast with the magnificence of surrounding medieval buildings and glorious imperial legacies, I found the typical English way of life rather restrained and frugal. Most people, including women, wear always black. People are extremely self-controlled, up to the point, for example, of never having touched their own feet. Facial and body languages are self-contained and unremarkable. They don’t wash themselves very much; actually in some lodgings where I spent a few nights, showers were considered a foreign device, only a bathtub was to be used once in a while. They do drink a lot.


Silence seems to be a major means of communication among Britons, especially among the upper and educated class. Almost everything is implicit, highly indirect, messages are sent per allusions, through hints. If one cannot use obscure words because the topic of conversation is simple, then let’s whisper in an inaudible tone. Nobody ever, of course, –ever!– speaks aloud. Everybody scrupulously abide by the rules –in spite that most major rules are either unwritten, implicit or the result of several centuries of cumulative, undecipherable clauses and caveats.

It’s plausible that such a culture of personal continence and austerity resulted from those many centuries of institutional continuity and also helped avoid turbulence and breaks. We shouldn’t either forget that the British Empire, the largest in world history, was dismantled and Great Britain was at the edge of collapse during the Second World War. In total despair, a clinically mad person named Winston Churchill was called to save their bacon. Which he did. But one cannot help thinking that the sentiment of decline may have reinforced Britons’ restrain and quietness as a self-protecting cuirass.

Then came the European Empire. But no former great empire like the British can easily accept to be just one member of a new empire –just one among a few dozens!– and not to be its core.

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