Daily Mail, 22 July 1995
Don’t ever lose your Britishness
After the row over teaching British culture in schools, a Hungarian-born writer argues that our children must never be allowed to forget the values that still make us great
TWENTY-FIVE years ago this summer I moved to Britain, my adopted country. I can no longer remember if it was by accident or design that I arrived here right smack on my 18th birthday, but it was the best birthday present I could have asked for.
For a teenager who’d just graduated from high school in Hartsdale, New York, it was like entering a magic kingdom, a land of legend and literature and ancient history.
I didn’t really know a great deal about life in Britain, or London, the city which I made my home. What I did know stemmed mainly from my voracious reading I spent my first few days charging around, devouring the sights – but not the usual tourist places.
I looked up the addresses I knew from Sherlock Holmes and Dickens. That’s what London has always meant to me: little details, like the exact bit along the Thames where Pip kept his boat tied up for the getaway with Magwitch.
I felt, as so many people feel who come here from America, that this country was eminently civilised. And I decided right away that I wanted to spend the rest of my life here. This might seem a rash step for someone who’d only come to take a course at drama college. But instinct told me that this country and I were destined for each other. Pretty soon I was composing little poems about the place – a sure sign that I was besotted. In my teens, every passion found its outlet in a burst of poetry.
That was a quarter of a century ago. My decision to settle here was no empty threat. I’ve been in Britain ever since. After college I began to work, I got married and had children. And if that kingdom I fell in love with so long ago now seems to have lost some of its magic, this is only partly because I am no longer the wide-eyed ingenue. I have grown older and more complicated, but so, I have to say, has Britain.
Every day we open our newspapers and see grim headlines. We read about the rise in crime and drug abuse. Violence on the streets. The many people out of work or in danger of losing their livelihood. Homelessness. A failing NHS. The breakdown of the family structure. Young people with no direction. Pollution. Seemingly insoluble problems.
Everything appears to be going downhill. So it is easy to conclude that the very fabric of national life is pulling apart and disintegrating before our eyes, that what we are witnessing is nothing short of the final demise of this once-mighty Empire.
All of these problems are real, and need to be addressed. Parents should be concerned about the nature of the country and the society which our youngsters will one day inherit. Let’s face it, life was happier and more innocent in those days before ram-raiders and gangs of girl muggers, video nasties, pornography on the Internet, wheel clamps, and beggars camping out in all our cities.
But this is modern Britain, not ancient Rome. All is not lost. And from time to time we should take stock of what hasn’t changed. Of the values and virtues which – despite the catalogue of late-20th century horrors – have remained essentially intact.
There’s the humour, of course. It took me a year or two to attune my ears to the British brand of humour, through which daily frustrations are so effectively vented. It’s dry, subtle, deliciously irreverent and cleverer than anywhere else. It’s the repartee between Ian Hislop and Paul Merton on the TV show Have I Got News For You. It’s the ready quips of Cockney cabbies, and tart Northerners. It’s having as Prime Minister the only man who ever `ran away from a circus to join a bank’.
It’s also the spate of wickedly funny Hugh Grant jokes, which were making the rounds here almost before his fingerprints had dried at a Los Angeles police station. And it’s Private Eye. Whatever the problems – social, political, economic – which plague Britain, the revolution will never reach the streets as long as it can play itself out every fortnight on the pages of a satirical magazine – run, remarkably, by members of the very Establishment it is lampooning.
The British are good at joking, especially about themselves. Oscar Wilde summed it up: `Life is far too important to take seriously.’ Something else which has not been lost as we near the end of the millennium is civility. It is felt in those small acts which, perhaps unnoticeably, make our everyday lives more pleasant. For example, only those who’ve spent several minutes attempting to use a pedestrian crossing in a German city, as the BMWs blindly roar by, can appreciate the fact that as soon as one puts a toe on the zebra here at home, almost invariably the traffic stops at once. And this does not apply only to us humans. I’ve seen an articulated lorry screech to a halt just to allow a lone street mongrel to amble across its path.
Common decency is still with us. But it comes in many guises, and because we are often guilty of judging by appearances, we don’t always see it. Not long ago I was driving through the busy centre of a South Coast resort. I stopped at a red light, and a frail old gent started unsteadily to negotiate his way across the road. There were several pedestrians around, but the one to lend a hand and help the elderly man reach the other side was a youth sporting violent-green hair, with dragons tattooed along his arm and rings through most of the protruding bits of his face.
Much was once made of the British sense of fair play. But no one speaks of it anymore. Is it dead? There’s an extraordinary establishment in Cricklewood, North London, which attests to its being alive and well. It’s a restaurant called Just Around The Corner, where customers are given bills with no prices on them, and asked to pay whatever they think their meal was worth.
When it first opened, everyone reckoned that the owner, a Serb emigre, would have to scrap this bizarre policy or go bust. After all, there was nothing to stop people from coming in, consuming three-course dinners and bottles of wine and leaving 10 pence, or some other derisory amount. `I couldn’t possibly run a business like this in any other country,’ the Serb explained, `but I know the British will always pay fairly.’
The policy stayed, and far from going bust, the restaurant has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Very few customers – and this in a period of recession – have ever taken advantage of the DIY bills. In fact, eager not to underpay (or merely out of embarrassment), they frequently leave more than they need to.
And what of the famed British tolerance and liberalism? There are those who would have us believe that the injustices of the Establishment are many and heinous – people like the social workers in Left-wing councils, and gay rights activists, and Paul Foot and Peter Hain. Failings there certainly are. But `tolerance’ is a concept which can only be measured in relative terms, and in a world rife with regimes of a categorically intolerant kind – of Right and Left, religious and military – Britain stands as a paragon.
It’s precisely because vast differences in belief, lifestyle and custom are accommodated within the generous bounds of what is culturally acceptable, that so many people from all over the world want to settle here.
For me, traditional British liberalism is symbolised by one small (but not to be under-estimated) thing: the happy fact that you are allowed on the grass in public parks. You can sit on it, lie on it, eat your sandwich or kiss your lover on it. This is a nation of glorious parks, but however glorious they are, the grass is never ranked higher than the people. You can judge the whole national mentality by this single detail.
I’ve been to parks in France at the height of summer, when the grass is a scratchy, dried up, sorry affair. But even so, the rigid formalities are observed and there are signs declaring it out of bounds. As if human contact would make it look worse. And once, in Vienna, I saw a small child gambol through a strip of lawn in a public garden and a miserable old woman sitting nearby actually threatened to call the police.
Little things like that make this country look good.
But perhaps the real benchmark is television, the mirror to any society. In the United States, by the early Sixties TV had been hijacked by its sponsors and turned into another advertising medium. Its main purpose is to tell you which washing powder or dog food to buy. America is the superpower which sends rockets into space more smoothly than other countries can run a bus service, yet is incapable of producing watchable, intelligent television. The enduring quality of British television – despite market forces and the machinations of Michael Grade, John Birt and others – says more about traditional British values than anything else.
I met a visiting TV producer from New York not long ago, a dynamic and successful woman who spoke disparagingly about the programmes she’d been watching here. She was particularly scathing about the fact that one evening – `at prime time’ – BBC2 showed a documentary about the flora and fauna in a remote region of Africa.
`How many people would want to sit and watch that?’ she demanded. `Don’t they know about ratings?’
Coming from the shallow waters of American TV, she couldn’t possibly understand that that kind of broadcasting illustrates a public life which, in spite of its shortcomings, has an ineradicably enlightened heart. It shows that, even in our era of hamburgers and airport novels, the lowest common denominator doesn’t always rule.
As a mark of the excellence of our television service I need look no further than my 11-year-old son, a self-confessed TV addict. I used to worry about the huge chunks of time Nicky spends in front of the box. I’d urge him to read a book instead. `This is the 1990s, Mum,’ he would retort, whatever that was supposed to mean.
Then gradually I realised that my son was one of the best-informed people I know – and that includes assorted Fleet Street journalists. He knows about the secret life of every plant. He can tell you who holds the land speed record. He knows the latest techniques for making skyscrapers earthquakeproof, and how to give first aid to someone suffering from convulsions, and how to make a curry without the rice sticking together. He gets it all from TV. And for all the reading I used to do at that age, I can’t say my vocabulary was half as impressive as Nicky’s. His spelling is lousy, I admit. But who’s perfect?
Perhaps, in order to appreciate fully the good things which endure beyond the often bleak face of today’s Britain, it helps to have a background such as mine. An early childhood in a country crushed by Stalinist dictatorship (Hungary), and parents whose lives were blighted first by political oppression, then by a bloody revolution, and finally by the trauma of emigration.
Those experiences never leave you, but provide the harsh backdrop against which every freedom, great or small, is seen, and every victory of human dignity is measured. For the native Brit, it can be a useful exercise once in a while to view the homeland through the eyes of someone who lives here by choice, rather than chance.
Winston Churchill once described democracy as `the worst form of government, except for all those other forms’. Well, by the same token, I believe that Britain, for all the bad things, is the least bad country in which to live. It’s still the best birthday present I’ve ever had. It’s home.