Taunt the British at your peril

This means war! (or at least a change of subject)

Beneath David Cameron's mild exterior beats the raging soul of Henry V (above).
Beneath David Cameron's mild exterior beats the raging soul of Henry V (above).

The English reputation for diffidence, modesty and self-deprecation is all cover-up and camouflage. The denizens of my native island can be as aggressive and vindictive as Kim Jong-un or Dick Cheney. Provoke us at your peril.

Nowhere can this hornet's nest of vituperation unleash itself more powerfully than when someone actually taunts the English, as did a Russian delegate to the recent G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg. He suggested to Prime Minister David Cameron that England is a small island with diminished influence in the world, and that nobody any longer pays attention to what its inhabitants think.

This putdown put David into full Goliath-bashing mode. Cameron's stinging response rose to heights of oratory reminiscent of Churchill ("We shall fight on the beaches; we shall never surrender") or Shakespeare's Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother").

Elgar and the Beatles

Cameron trotted out some of his country's great achievements. Britain, he noted, cleared Europe of fascism, took slavery off the high seas, ushered in the Industrial Revolution, invented television and the World Wide Web and produced Elgar and the Beatles, to say nothing of inventing most of the sports that the world likes to play.

Of course, it would have been very un-English for Cameron to overplay his hand. He failed to mention Shakespeare or Dickens, for instance, and stopped well short of reminding the G-20 folk of other notable English creations, such as the steam engine or penicillin or the telephone. He actually could have engaged in a little self-deprecation by noting that even though England gave birth to many of sports, it seldom wins any of them; not having won a World Cup soccer tournament since 1966.

It's also characteristic that Cameron's response was entirely defensive while his Russian adversary was entirely offensive. Cameron might justifiably have matched insult for insult, pointing out that Russia is really a medieval Third World dictatorship masquerading as a great modern power. He did no such thing. He's English, after all.

Why I left

All of this reminds me of how, growing up in the England of the 1950s and early '60s, I sat in classrooms displaying maps depicting three-fifths of the world's landmass as British dominions or territories. But by then that feeling of England as a land of hope and glory was already beginning to fade.

Deference to authority was declining; satire, such as the late David Frost's "That Was the Week That Was," punctured old notions of class and privilege. People in their 20s and 30s were beginning to perceive politicians like prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home as relics of another age who needed to be supplanted by technocrats like Harold Wilson, who won the general election of 1964.

For some of us, change wasn't quick enough; for me, emigrating to Canada at age 25 seemed like a way to shed the barnacles of the British class system and find a North American land of opportunity.

Do I miss my old country? In a way, yes. Visiting England, even after so many decades away from it still gives me a bit of a twinge when I think of its remarkable accomplishments and incredible history.

But I really wouldn't want to live there. More to the point, I wouldn't want to trumpet all those British achievements"“ or indeed my decision to cross the Atlantic. That would be very un-English indeed.

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