There are some things the English continue to do better than most others. Pageantry is, of course, first on the list. Coming a close second, in my humble and eccentric view, is crime fiction — a field in which Scandinavians feel they too have acquired some expertise. Crime naturally involves the presence of at least one body and at least one flat-footed detective modelled along Inspector Lestrade who is so generously accommodated by Sherlock Holmes, or Inspector Japp whose close attachment to Hercule Poirot stops at gastronomy. However, beyond the classic whodunit, there is a sub-genre where crime and espionage provide a luscious cocktail. And in that department, writers such as John Lawton, Simon Tolkien, Philip Kerr and Charles Cumming have proved worthy disciples of the one and only guru, John Le Carré.
The complexities of treachery and the romance surrounding the perfidy of the bright Establishment figures who betrayed King and Country for Stalin and the elusive Revolution has, predictably, been the starting point of any story involving betrayal. Even six decades after Guy Burgess, the outlandish diplomat who flaunted his homosexuality and was compelled to accompany the more sedate Donald Maclean to Moscow, the English are yet to get over their fascination for the 20th-century version of Flashman, the proverbial cad and bounder in the old school-tie.
“To betray, you must first belong,” the legendary Kim Philby once observed in an interview given to a journalist in dreary Moscow. But Philby, like Burgess, Maclean and Sir Anthony Blunt, the last of the Cambridge spy ring to be outed, always belonged. After all, the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6, as it is better known, was not any old outfit. It existed, as Le Carré once wrote “to defend the traditional decencies of our society: it would embody them. Within its own walls, its clubs and country houses, in whispered luncheons, with its secular contacts, it would enshrine the mystical entity of a vanishing England. Here at least, whatever went on in the big world outside, England’s flower would be cherished.” It was this fanatical desire to reconcile the civilities, decencies and even the hugely complex class system of an England with a ‘cause’ that blended the illusion of classlessness with drudgery and brutality that was the subject of Alan Bennett’s play, An Englishman Abroad. Centred on a chance meeting of an Australian actress touring the Soviet Union with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and with Guy Burgess trying to make the best of his enforced exile in a grey, shortage-riddled Moscow, it brought out the fact that treachery and Englishness could go hand in hand. What Burgess yearned for from his lost homeland was a suit from his Savile Row tailor, a pair of hand-crafted shoes from the unobtrusive shop in St James’s, a pair of white pyjamas from a particular shop with a Royal Warrant and, above all, an Old Etonian tie.
“Poor loves,” a slightly drunk and very arthritic Connie Sachs despaired to George Smiley in Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on hearing of a possible mole in the ‘Circus’, “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.” It’s a lament that resonates in the character of Charles Leigh-Hunt in John Lawton’s Old Flames and in the counter-factual depictions of a post-1940 Britain where a Halifax-led government had sued for peace with Hitler in a desperate bid to preserve the Empire. In France, where Marshal Petain did indeed compromise with the rampaging German war machine, Vichy is a truth that still remains buried in a wilful exercise of collective national amnesia — much in the same way as the widespread prevalence of loyalism to the British Crown is viewed as a non-phenomenon by India’s historians. In Germany too, there is still veil over the turbulent 12 years of the Third Reich which is only just beginning to be slowly removed. In the United Kingdom, however, a grotesque perversion of the same spirit that saw Englishmen celebrate its monumental disasters such as the Charge of the Light Brigade and Dunkirk has now led to an outpouring of post-colonial angst and a ridiculous bout of self-flagellation.
The literate sections of contemporary Britain are today engaged in wistful nostalgia over the post-War ‘Austerity Britain’, a time that was marked by rationing, the Labour Party’s quest for a New Jerusalem, Denis Compton, the Third Programme, the last stand of RP (received pronounciation) and, above all, the event that brought an age, which began with Lord Clive, to an ignominious end: Suez 1956.
If the historian, Correlli Barnett is to be believed, Britain’s decline was inherent in a post-War consensus that was marked by the denial of economic uncompetitiveness and the deification of welfare entitlements : “We didn’t win the war to go back to the 1930s.” That self-delusion was to persist until Margaret Thatcher, decried in high Tory circles as the “grocer’s daughter”, drove home the realities of decline but also masked it in some robust flag-waving over the victory in the Falkland Islands. But somewhere along the long journey from 1945 to 1979, reality did begin to peek through the heavy blackout curtains. The turning point was Suez, which, far more than the disorderly retreat from India, signalled the end of Empire.
The abrupt realization that the age of Rudyard Kipling and G.A. Henty was history has been vividly captured by Lawton in Old Flames. The Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Stanley Onions, a working-class Yorkshireman-made-good, receives the news of the murder of his son-in-law by Cypriot guerrillas. He is naturally shattered but simultaneously livid: “What the bloody hell are we doing in Cyprus? What in God’s name have we got to do with the Gyppos (Egyptians)? It’s like the Boer War all over again. What is this? The last bash at the wogs? I thought all that malarkey went out when I was a boy; I thought we’d just fought a war for a better world? No wonder the niggers are picking us off like flies. We’ve no business there. Let the niggers have bloody Cyprus, let ’em have the f…ing desert!”
Last week, as the depredations of Bashar al-Assad against his own people in Syria generated a wave of moral indignation among those who treat The Guardian as gospel, an impish reader of The Spectator recalled a poem by that great wit, A.P. Herbert, in 1940 when “Some great minds were contemplating a ‘strike’ on the Soviet Union to punish it for its invasion of little Finland”. The composition was called “Baku, or the Map Game”, and began: “It’s jolly to look at the map, and finish the foe in a day./ It’s not easy to get at the chap; these neutrals are so in the way./ But what if you say ‘What would you do to fill the aggressor with gloom?’/ Well, we might drop a bomb on Baku. Or what about bombs in Batum?” The poem ends: “And then, it’s so hard to say who is fighting, precisely, with whom,/ that I know about bombing Baku, I insist upon bombing Batum.”
Later this month Germany goes to the polls. The most emotive issue, some perceptive observers have noted, isn’t either Syria or even the Euro. Passions have been aroused over a Green Party proposal demanding that German observe one meatless, ‘veggie day’ each week. This, more than anything else, indicates why modern Europeans don’t want a war over either Baku and Batum or Damascus. There isn’t enough justice to cover the whole world.