English Butter

David Trotter

  • Englishness: Politics and Culture 1880-1920 edited by Robert Colls and Philip Dodd
    Croom Helm, 378 pp, £25.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 7099 0849 0
  • The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement by Michael Rosenthal
    Collins, 335 pp, £15.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 00 217604 1
  • Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? by Richard Symonds
    Macmillan, 366 pp, £29.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 333 40206 5

‘It angers me to pass a grocer’s shop,’ declares the impeccably fogeyish hero of Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), ‘and see in the window a display of foreign butter. This is the kind of thing that makes one gloom over the prospects of England. The deterioration of English butter is one of the worst signs of the moral state of our people.’ Eighty years on, the prospects of England continue to be gloomed over. The evidence of deterioration mounts: not just butter now, but apples, cars, furniture. As for the moral state of the people ‘driving’ the cars and beating each other over the head with bits of the furniture ... don’t even ask. Ryecroft’s hatred of a world in which an honest chap can no longer secure an ‘honest chop’ still plays its part in the politics of decline.

Continuities such as this tempt one to trace the politics of decline back to the time when passing the corner store first became a trial to the spirit. Many of Ryecroft’s contemporaries certainly feared the worst, and it wasn’t just the groceries they had to worry about. America and Germany were challenging the industrial supremacy of Britain, while the inexhaustible Russian masses pressed in on her most valued possession, India. ‘Now,’ Lord Salisbury said in 1898, ‘with the whole earth occupied and the movements of expansion continuing, she will have to fight to the death against successive rivals.’ Fighting to the death can’t have seemed a very attractive option, if you believed what people were saying about the physical and moral degeneracy of the British, most of whom could barely be trusted to get themselves out of bed in the morning. Bad habits and bad butter would sap the nation from within, making life easy for an invader.

Decline had set in, or so it seemed. The danger was met, we are told, not so much by the development of new values and skills as by the reassertion of old ones: a pre-industrial landscape, a primitive hardiness, an archaic chivalry. There were campaigns for ‘national efficiency’. But what was to be made efficient – adapted for the fight to the death – was an original and essential Englishness, an inherent superiority. So emphatic was this reassertion, the argument goes, that it still colours the way we think of ourselves, and still prevents us from accepting our diminished status. It seems to be taking the blame for a whole variety of evils, from the decline of the entrepreneurial spirit to the rise of literary criticism.

And yet it sounds so curious. We may worry about imports, like Henry Ryecroft, but we don’t infer morality from butter. We may worry about war, like Lord Salisbury, but we don’t infer rivalry between nations from a Darwinian rivalry between species. Those inferences have a history, which is not necessarily our history. They were mobilised, at the turn of the century, by factions and pressure-groups whose effect has not yet been measured. An emphasis on the continuity of Englishness can obscure the specificity of the terms in which it was reasserted.

The editors of Englishness: Politics and Culture 1880-1920 emphasise continuity: ‘it is within the shadow of that period, and its meanings, that we still live.’ They choose as their epigraph Richard Shannon’s claim that ‘the characteristic “Englishness” of English culture was made then very much what it is now.’ The essays they have collected aim to describe the institutions, policies and symbols by and through which that characteristic Englishness was made; or, as they put it, to ‘map’ the ‘areas’ of political culture and cultural politics. The topics covered include the discovery of rural England, the rise of English studies, patriotic music and literature, the propaganda directed at marginal or subordinate groups, and the uses made of nationalism by the main political parties.

The metaphor of mapping will bear some inspection. It carries a hint of trackless wastes and forbidden cities which the editors cannot quite resist. They claim that their subject remains ‘unexamined – some would say wilfully so’. Some would say that the claim itself is a little wilful, since Englishness has always been a focus of political debate, and since all the contributors are able to draw upon a fairly extensive secondary literature.

This need not matter, of course. It is possible, as D.G. Boyce’s essay on Ireland shows, to write illuminatingly about familiar subjects. Boyce describes the consequences for the ideas of Englishness and Irishness of the emergence of Parnellite nationalism in the 1880s. When the Liberals committed themselves to home rule, they had to meet the charge that they were destroying the United Kingdom and the Empire. They did so by redefining the United Kingdom as a state which contained within its boundaries different nations, different identities. Assimilation and adjustment were revealed as the main characteristics of Britishness. This flexibility was bad news for the Irish home rulers, who had not envisaged cheerful absorption into a multi-national state. There was little point in fostering the ‘Irishness’ of shamrocks and harps, when the Viceroy, Lord Aberdeen, thought no function complete without a hint of shamrock and harp; a portrait of his two sons shows them dressed in ‘traditional’ peasant costume, sitting in a wheelbarrow full of potatoes. There was little point in establishing an Irish version of Irish history when Gladstone himself condemned the Act of Union of 1800 and the measures which had enforced it. The Celtic revival of the 1890s faced the same problem. Groups from the Gaelic Athletics Association to Sinn Fein found themselves insisting that the only proper Irish identity was one which had destroyed all traces of English influence. Britishness and Irishness became utopias, utterly distinct and yet utterly dependent on each other for their appeal.

The assertion of mutually exclusive yet mutually dependent utopias created a brutal dilemma for those who recognised neither, the Ulster Loyalists (loyal to what? to loyalty itself?). Unable to align themselves with the Irish Catholic majority or with the British Parliament, they fell back on an identity beyond politics: the spirit of the Protestant apprentice boys who had shut the gates of Derry in the face of King James. This retrenchment had the effect of removing from Protestant identity the level of political allegiance and negotiation. Any reform was, and still is, construed as an immediate threat to fundamental values. Addressing an Ulster Unionist Convention in 1892, the Reverend Lynd declared that what seemed to the English a political question was for Ulster ‘a matter of life and death, a matter of home and hearth’. Boyce’s argument reveals continuity without obscuring the specific process by which national identities were formed during the 1880s and 1890s.

But the metaphor of mapping has another, and more damaging, implication. It implies that the task of the historian is to register the existence of people or institutions or ideologies, rather than to ask how and why they came into being. There is not enough archaeology in some of these essays, not enough evidence produced of the conditions under which people thought or wrote or organised as they did. For example, several contributors draw attention to the establishment during the period of institutions which helped to define and transmit Englishness: the National Trust, the National Portrait Gallery, the Dictionary of National Biography, and so on. Clearly these are important ‘places’ on the ‘map’. But, apart from Brian Doyle’s account of the early years of the English Association and Philip Dodd’s brief discussion of plans for a National Theatre, we learn nothing about them: about the reasons for their establishment, about the way they worked.

The preference for mapping over archaeology favours an emphasis on continuity. Maps tell you where to go, how to get there. The danger is that we will meet only ourselves: that the years 1880-1920, instead of casting a shadow over us, will exist only in the shadow cast by our search for origins. Peter Brooker and Peter Widdowson’s thorough survey of fictions of Englishness casts a shadow of this kind. It rests on a theory of the relation between literature and ideology developed in the 1970s: the function of ideology is to work contradictions into an appearance of wholeness and cohesion; literature disrupts this appearance by its persistent excess.

Brooker and Widdowson argue that the idea of Englishness promoted by the literature of the period depended upon ‘assumptions of a unity of identity and purpose’. But public-school patriotism, to take an obvious example, depended upon assumptions of a difference of identity and purpose. There was one kind of patriotism for gentlemen, another for bounders and cads. The schoolboy hero of Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (1913) knows that his kind of patriotism has set him apart. Observing the demonstrations provoked by the Boer War, he wonders ‘whether England were losing some of her self-control under reverses, and, worst of all, whether in her victories she were becoming blatant.’ The blatancy of jingoism tells the gentleman how he differs, how he is. The gentleman sacrifices himself, the jingo cheers from a safe distance. The gentleman plays the game, the bounder watches other people play. ‘That’s why professional football is so rotten.’ Rather like the utopias of Britishness and Irishness, these patriotisms both exclude and depend upon each other. They are founded on difference, not unity.

If you think that the function of ideology is to unify, then you will place a high premium on the disruptive and the fragmentary. Brooker and Widdowson enlist Modernism as an opponent of the dominant ideology of Englishness. Their argument is by no means facile, but it does encourage some curious distortions. We are told, for example, that Robert Bridges’s editing of the proto-Modernist poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins accommodated their dangerous excess to a ‘prevailing orthodoxy’, and ‘muffled’ their ‘critique of industrialisation’. Brooker and Widdowson associate the literary radicalism of these ‘occluded’ experiments with a letter of 1871, in which Hopkins expresses uncertainty about the future: ‘I am afraid some great revolution is not far off. Horrible to say, in a manner I am a Communist.’

One would have thought that Hopkins did a good deal to occlude himself by his habit of burning poems and his general reluctance to publish. He was an unequivocal patriot and Imperialist who loathed Gladstone and despised the ‘stupidity’ of a nation which ‘gapes on while Gladstone negotiates his surrenders of the empire’. His critique of industrialisation owed more to Froude than to Marx. He thought, like many militant Imperialists, that the cowardice of British troops at Majuba Hill had revealed the physical and moral degeneracy of the urban population. ‘The disgrace in itself is unspeakable.’ His literary experiments connected with attempts to regenerate the Imperial race by purifying its language, by conserving an essentially and eternally English (Anglo-Saxon) speech. ‘A great work by an Englishman is like a great battle won by England.’

Too hasty a mapping has obscured the habits of mind which frame both Hopkins’s politics and his poems. The best essays in the book avoid this danger either by questioning the homogeneity which we have imposed on the period, or by starting to explore its differential codings. Hugh Cunningham demonstrates very effectively that the identification of the Conservative Party with patriotism was never as unproblematic and as beneficial as many have assumed. Promoted by a faction, patriotism became associated with particular policies, and therefore tended to divide rather than to unite the party; in electoral terms, it proved a rather dubious asset. Jane Mackay and Pat Thane argue that whereas masculinity was characterised through Englishness, and Englishness through masculinity, women were thought to represent the race or the species. This did not exclude women from patriotism, since the race was the nation in its biological and its spiritual aspects, but rather allotted to them a specific role, as the ‘vase of life’. Thus Girl Guides were taught how to scout, but only so that they would be able to track down the wounded after a battle. They were advised not to whistle too much, in case they developed a man’s mouth, ‘and perhaps a moustache’. Distinctions had to be preserved, even (or especially) between patriots.

Nobody reasserted Englishness more emphatically than Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, hero of Mafeking. No organisation transmitted Englishness to a wider audience than the Boy Scout movement he founded in 1908. The extraordinary fame of the soldier made the extraordinary success of the movement possible. Both testify to the superb theatricality of Empire.

After Mafeking, Baden-Powell was the most famous soldier in Britain. But he had waited a long time for his war. His career began in India, where he served for 12 years without seeing any serious action (there was a skirmish, in Afghanistan in 1881, during which he shot himself in the leg). The letters he wrote to his mother reveal his impatience: ‘altogether, I am having good fun – but – it isn’t work: it does not get me on: if only the Boers or the Zulus would kick up a row I should be happy.’ The Ashanti eventually obliged. But it was the Boer War which enabled him, as Michael Rosenthal remarks, ‘to invent himself’.

Ordered to raise two regiments of mounted infantry for the protection of Rhodesia and Bechuanaland, Baden-Powell withdrew one of them into the strategically insignificant town of Mafeking, and was surrounded. The Boers showed little enthusiasm for the siege, but hung around anyway in fairly large numbers, thus ensuring that it became an event. The event soon found its master of ceremonies. Baden-Powell realised that boredom would prove more of a danger than the enemy. He communicated urgency. ‘I have already got the jail full of suspected spies etc and I keep them there with no proof of guilt, etc, I forbid public houses to be open other than at certain hours and [in] cases of disobedience I confiscate their whole stock.’ He diverted the garrison with cricket matches and the besiegers with devilish ruses. Men were instructed to walk around the perimeter, stooping every now and then as though under formidable barbed-wire fences. He did, however, manage to make life dangerous for the native population of the town by reducing their rations drastically.

After the relief of Mafeking, Baden-Powell led his regiment out to harass the enemy. But he soon thought better of it, retired smartly into the nearest town, and was once again surrounded. Lord Roberts spoke exasperatedly of his ‘strange fancy for being besieged’. Both Roberts and Kitchener clearly regarded him as a liability. But being besieged had already made his name. Brilliantly laconic despatches from Mafeking had passed easily enough through the dozing Boers, and created an unforgettable image of British pluck and resourcefulness.

Rosenthal adds little to Brian Gardner’s account of this miraculous self-creation, in Mafeking: A Victorian Legend (1966). His concern is rather with what made it possible. Scouting for Boys (1908), the sacred text of the movement, reiterates the lesson of Mafeking. Just as the heroic defenders had remained constantly alert, ‘so, too, we ought to be prepared in Britain against being attacked by enemies’. Like Baden-Powell himself, scouting was all about being besieged. Its raison d’être lay in the degeneracy of youth, a moral and physical unpreparedness which would make the fight to the death between nations a painful business for Britain.

Woodcraft and drill would renew the bodies of lower- and middle-class boys. The values of the public school – loyalty, self-sacrifice, playing the game – would discipline their minds, and instill patriotism: ‘in the Boy Scout Movement we are trying to give the mass of boys something of the sense of honour and tone that are at present the attributes of the Public School boy.’ Baden-Powell envisaged scouting as a programme of moral and physical regeneration:

Play up! Each man in his place, and play the game! Your forefathers worked hard, fought hard, and died hard, to make this Empire for you. Don’t let them look down from heaven, and see you loafing about with hands in your pockets, doing nothing to keep it up.

Hands removed from pockets could usefully be applied to tent-pegs and triggers. A youth regenerated by exercise and discipline would not disgrace the defenders of Mafeking.

The promotion of public-school values looks like an attempt to encourage a ‘unity of identity and purpose’ among boys from very different backgrounds. There was, however, more than one way of playing the game. Scouts were taught that they ‘should not kill any animal unnecessarily, even if it is only a fly’. Yet Baden-Powell himself had been killing animals unnecessarily for years, partly because he believed that blood sports would reinforce the prestige of the ruling élite (or, in India, the ‘dominant race’). One class learnt to be English by showing respect, even to animals: another by showing lethal disrespect.

Rosenthal’s familiarity with archive material and with the ephemera of militant Imperialism enable him to excavate rather than map. His study of the Boy Scout movement shows that strenuous efforts were indeed made to reassert Englishness, and that the anxiety which provoked them was specific to a time and place, perhaps even to a pressure-group. One of the pleasures of The Character Factory is its generous quotation from commentators who make Henry Ryecroft look distinctly SDP.

Some of them had no doubt been educated at Oxford, where Englishmen were still taught how to play the game. A poem in the Oxford Magazine described the relief of Mafeking as the end of the Boer innings. After touring India in 1903 with the Oxford University Authentics, Cecil Headlam was able to conclude that cricket ‘unites the ruler and the ruled. It also provides a moral training, an education in pluck and nerve and self-restraint far more valuable to the character of the ordinary native than the mere learning by heart of a play by Shakespeare or an essay of Macaulay.’

Richard Symonds summarises what Oxford had to offer – through the initiatives of men like Jowett, Curzon and Milner – to the theory and practice of Empire. He describes the efforts made to transform it into a great Imperial University, by the study of Indian culture and history, and by a more rigorous training of lawyers and scientists and administrators. The most ambitious of these efforts was the establishment of Rhodes Scholarships. (Ambition seems to have been sharpened on occasion by local rivalry: the Imperial Forestry Institute was claimed for Oxford on the grounds that there weren’t any decent trees in Cambridge.) In his final section, Symonds discusses the influence of Oxford on the graduates who went out to the Imperial territories, and on the institutions they founded.

It is an intriguing story, amiably told. Rather too amiable, perhaps, is the attempt to characterise Oxford’s nourishing of Empire as ‘the last lost cause’. The end of Empire does not seem to have reduced the national supply of lost causes. Anyway, the idea explains little, since one person’s lost cause has usually turned out to be another’s gain. This is true even of a cause as definitively lost as that of Oxford missionaries in India and Africa. Often slightly mad before they got there, and completely dead soon after, they don’t appear to have converted anyone. Yet their lost cause sometimes became Empire’s opportunity.

The career of Bishop James Hannington, a Baden-Powell among missionaries, is instructive in this respect. Despatched to East Africa, he took a wrong turning at Lake Victoria, and was captured and executed by the Baganda. His diary records the ‘hearty thrashings’ he had administered to his porters on the way; the official biography records his last words: ‘I am about to die for the Baganda and have purchased the road to them with my life.’ These last words proved useful when a reason had to be found for extending British rule to Uganda. In Anthony Hope’s The God in the Car (1896), the cynical Lord Semingham is asked about his latest colonising project. ‘Everything’s going on very well,’ he replies. ‘They’ve killed a missionary’. However regrettable, such martyrdoms could be seen as ‘the first step towards empire’.