Pomp and circumstance

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

My last few days have seemed very English. A bizarre thing to say, probably, but I have enjoyed a succession of near-parodic (and therefore brilliant) expressions of “national character”, for want of a better phrase. If this all sounds a bit vague, that’s because I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to say yet. This is one of those moments where I’m writing to try to work out what I think.

Anyway, Exhibit A was The King’s Speech. The film was described by one Times reviewer as “a perfect storm of Englishness”, and I can kind of see where she was coming from. It’s about class, keeping up appearances, stiff upper lips and, of course, the royal family. You even get Churchill and the Second World War thrown in for good measure. So far, so naff, you might be thinking. And The King’s Speech could have been a succession of awful clichés, a pretty dry film really. The premise in itself (monarch gets speech therapy) is not especially brilliant. Luckily, the acting, script and cinematography make the most of it as a simply human drama – the story of a buttoned-up, shy man who is forced to overcome his stammer and take on an enormous national role. You realise when watching it that his privileged status didn’t really do anything to make him happier.

Poor bloke


Of course, the truth is that you couldn’t have one without the other – the human drama probably wouldn’t be as moving, or as funny (and it is both of these, to a huge extent, in places) if it weren’t set against such a familiar (and grand, and therefore un-human) backdrop. Turning clichés and stereotypes into genuine, recognisable people and situations is difficult, but extremely powerful when it succeeds. Stephen Frears’ The Queen is a another good example of this. Of course, there are other reasons why these films are so popular and successful – the royal family do exert a particular sort of mystical fascination on the British people (and, perhaps even more so, on foreigners). But then that fascination itself arguably derives from the bizarre mix of ceremony and soap opera which is forever relayed through the media.

Exhibit B (this sounds lame) is Howard’s End, which I started reading yesterday. I read A Passage to India for AS English, and absolutely adored, but then strangely haven’t read any Forster since. Anyway, to be brief, because it’s late and I’m tired, there is a similar mix of pointless upper-middle class manners and worries, and Forster’s incisive, heartbreaking comments on human nature. The former makes the latter all the more affecting.

There is also a wonderful passage on train stations, which appealed to my romantic side and chimed with something I’d thought before:

Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo.

This is a fantasy, of course. Liverpool Street doesn’t have the same inclines any more, and you can get to the fenlands from King’s Cross these days. But it echoes how I feel about England – I think I love it for all the silly little clichéd things, like the royal family and tea and Sunday lunch, and the pointless traditional bits of my education at places like Tonbridge and Cambridge. What I wanted to say (and I haven’t done it very well) is that those peripheral, small things can have a profound effect on more fundamental feelings and actions. That’s why, I think, patriotism will always remain in some form, and will always remain near impossible to understand.

P.S. I’m just about keeping the New Year’s resolution alive, I reckon…


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