More decades ago than we care to remember, a young reporter was wandering about Europe with emaciated ribs, sleeping in youth hostels, eating black bread and gruel and talking to people. Everywhere he went—Holland to Germany to France to Italy—he was told that Mother England was making a vast mistake. By refusing to enter this new-aborning experiment called the European Common Market, the ignorant young scribe was told, the Brits would be left behind and forever would be in the outs.
It is now 1991 and the Dutch town of Maastricht, and Churchill’s idea of “a United States of Europe” is still an aborted dream— because yet another Little Englander wants to get elected around the prejudices of the dart board and the bangers and mash.
Because John Major is afraid of Maggie Thatcher—the self-advertised Backseat Driver—Britain wants to be part of Europe, sort of, but not sort of—rather reminiscent, when you think of it, of Quebec and Canada.
The major difference is that Britain is an island (while Quebec is only a cultural island). People who live on islands are licensed eccentrics. Being completely surrounded by water does something to the brain. Atrophy may be the proper word, as witness Vancouver Island—or the speckled Gulf Islands in the waters on the way to Vancouver, Jack Webster being the prime exhibit of the specimen.
It has been a staple of the Brit dart boards for centuries that “the wogs start at Calais”—a mantra that has sustained English smugness from war to war. The most famous sentence in English sportswriting appeared in The Guardian of Manchester when, the day before the World Cup soccer final between England and West Germany at Wembley Stadium in 1966, a story began: “If, on the morrow, the Germans should best us at our national game, let us remember that we have beaten them twice at theirs.”
The English essentially do not like foreigners. If you want to understand the English, you must study the recent survey that found most
English people live within 50 miles of their parents. It’s a tight little island. Maggie Thatcher typifies the breed, and John Major— who must call an election by June—is afraid of Maggie Thatcher (most men are).
It is no secret why Major’s Little Englanders, at Maastricht, alone resisted the idea of a European federal union and the move to the disastrously named ecu—the new European currency. One needs only to stumble upon the Costa Brava in Spain or the Rimini coast in Italy where the Brits, on charter tours, demand chips-with-everything with gravy on the side. This is a xenophobic tribe that takes its insularity abroad, rather like Aspirins.
We all know the famous Fleet Street headline: “Storm over Channel—Europe cut off.” Why, we’ve always wondered, is it the “English Channel”? Is it not the “French” or the “Dutch” or “Belgian” or “European” channel as much?
The inability of the Brits to keep up is illustrated well by the Channel tunnel which, as we type, has been hooked up and the rail lines are being laid. The bullet trains developed in France will zoom passengers and freight at close to 200 m.p.h. from Paris and beyond and then hit Little England—where no equivalent modernity has yet even been started and the eye-rolling Europeans will then chug on up to Victoria Station at perhaps 40 m.p.h. on a good day (no strikes being scheduled that shift).
The Brits do not like the idea of the ecu because, attached to Dickens, they still like their pounds and pence—especially liked by tailors since the ridiculously heavy coins wear out the trouser pockets in six weeks. (The English like to suffer, which is why they abide the food they are served.)
The English think the French are uncivilized because they don’t have neat lawns and have abominable toilets. The French think the English are uncivilized because they can’t organize their recreational sex lives on a rational, Thursday-afternoon basis. Never the twain shall meet, as the Chunnel mess demonstrates.
It does not worry the Brits that Brussels, as home of the European Community, is destined to be forever the bureaucratic rabbit warren of paper-pushing and nit-picking. By its thumb-sucking cohesion to pounds and pence, the Brits have ensured that Frankfurt will be the new banking capital of the new Europe, not the pin-striped City of London.
What is important is that John Major’s father used to be a trapeze artist in the circus, in a previous incarnation. Major junior, spooked by Mother Maggie’s parting pledge that she would be a good Backseat Driver for her protégé, is dragging his heels as Churchill’s heirs were, back when the scribe was starving in cheap cafés in Marseilles.
Major, playing to the dart boards, will have his election by April on a plank of standing up to all those funny people across the pond who reek of gar he and have mistresses. It is a great appeal to the pubs of Leeds and Chumleyunder-Mud.
It is the English way. They will go on believing that meat cooked to boot black and veggies boiled to oblivion can still masquerade as food. They will never understand the look of disbelief on the faces of France’s rugby squad when confronted with the post-banquet dish of fare put in front of them at the Cardiff Arms Hotel.
It is an island, populated by Little Englanders. Progress marches on. The Brits remain the Brits. Veggies, well done.
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