The English have got a lovely bunch of coconuts

Voltaire's Coconuts
July 2, 1999

In the final scene of The Scarlet Pimpernel , made in 1934, Lord Blakeney, played with gentlemanly panache by Leslie Howard, returns from France. He has saved dozens of French aristocrats from Robespierre's Terror by smuggling them to England, the island of liberty. On the boat, gazing at the cliffs of Dover as though witness to a revelation, Howard tells his French wife: "Look, Marguerite" - a pregnant pause, and then, spoken with deep emotion - "England!" Ian Buruma, who has previously analysed the cultures of Southeast Asia and in particular Japan, turns his attention in this book to a cavalcade of foreign Johnnies who at one time felt as the Pimpernel, though who later, in some cases, qualified their enthusiasm for England.

What about the coconuts of the book's title? Voltaire regarded England as a nation where, unlike at home, writers were not "thrashed with impunity". Buruma takes Voltaire as the first Anglomane, heading for an island of Liberty whose ideas, Voltaire hoped, could be transplanted to France, or even - topically - to Serbia, like the precious seeds of coconut trees. Buruma's book, in its study of Europeans who love and illuminate the English, weaves a narrative from an eclectic mix of the distinguished - Goethe, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, Nikolaus Pevsner and Isaiah Berlin get a chapter each - and of many others less well known. The latter include the Buruma family; there is a scene from the author's Dutch childhood in which an uncle visits an Amsterdam tobacconist who proudly keeps "Churchill's cigar" in a display frame.

The burden of the book is the properly moist-eyed gratitude and admiration for England that characterise the attitude of so very many Europeans of a certain age, and especially Jews who had no option but to flee from a European mainland rather more pernicious in this century than that experienced by Voltaire. The accounts of the experiences of the author's relatives, by no means all of them happy, put something of a dampener on the Pimpernel-Marguerite approach - more "England, but" than "Look, England".

Of the all-out Anglomanes, the nuttiest seems to have been de Coubertin. His 1896 revival of the Olympics was inspired not so much by ancient Greece as by what he saw in Much Wenlock. We have de Coubertin admiring Gladstone as "the veteran boater" and especially the pugilism of English schools:

"Putting a solid pair of fists in the service of God is a condition for serving him well." Much later, he was heard wishing all well at the opening of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (though even the Nazis were obliging enough to have a commemoration in 1940 of Shakespeare's birthday before trying to invade England).

But the book is not all of the past or about Anglomanes of the past. The present is the subject of strictures. Buruma recalls a 1990 meeting attended by Sir Teddy Taylor where a lot of angry (and drunk) fishermen were not at all favourably disposed to Europeans. He recalls too the distaste of Cambridge art historians at Peterhouse for Pevsner, and his own ill ease both while he was on the staff of The Spectator and while being eyed somewhat officiously when entering the Long Room at Lord's as the guest, ironically enough, of the immigrant-descended Dominic Lawson. There is a delightful vignette of Thatcherdom circa 1989: at a Spectator editorial conference, the deputy editor - "a pale carrot-haired man whose girth showed a fondness for English puddings" - is asked to suggest who might write on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and immediately bellows:

"Enoch! Enoch's always frightfully good on Indians."

It is hard to love the English, thinks this wonderfully acute observer judging from his gazetteer of those who have tried. In many ways they are not particularly nice, which did not put off Alexander Korda, maker of the 1934 Scarlet Pimpernel , who remarked: "All Hungarians love the English. It is their snobbism, and I am a snob." Buruma shows that there is worse to the English than mere snobbery, and his conclusion on coming to live here in the 1990s for a third time, is that we are not getting any better. And yet, with every reservation about England that he can muster, perhaps Buruma still feels just a little bit like the Kaiser, who on arrival in exile in Doorn in November 1918 called for a nice English cup of tea. Which he got, and with scones.

Andrew Robinson teaches history at Eton College.

Voltaire's Coconuts

Author - Ian Buruma
ISBN - 0 297 64312 6
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £18.99
Pages - 326

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