Monday, July 27, 2015

Food, War, And The Decline Of England

You could be forgiven to think that I have it in for the English, but that’s not true, not really.  Mostly I find them . . . interesting. 

I watch Master Chef on the BBC Lifestyle channel and I am amazed that English people are still allowed to prepare food.  The menus are so ludicrous, and so pretentious, and so essentially unappetizing, that I wonder where they can find judges that would find anything nice to say at all. They try to defend the brand by sticking to items that represent traditional English cooking, like squab, haggis, and boiled meats, with strange jellied condiments, and vegetables that are essentially just heated up.  Making those things edible is a real challenge.

Food aside, there was a time, I readily admit, when England was a notable success, as a culture and as a country.  They were, for a not inconsiderable time, a world power.  Before that happy window opened, they were most notable for having been conquered and substantially altered by the Romans, some Germans, and the French.  The French did the most comprehensive job of it, providing most of what is now called “the English language” along the way.   Maybe the horrid character of English cuisine was part of an attempt to resist French culture.  Resistance to the language failed utterly; resistance to the food was a whopping success.  Did anyone benefit from that success?  It is not likely that anyone did.

The world-power window closed in the 20th Century, when the continued existence of England was enabled only by lavish financial, industrial and military assistance from a former colony, or, more accurately, from former colonies.  Australia and India, and others, helped a lot, but most of the help, the help that made the difference, came from the country that arose from thirteen former English colonies, the country now known as the United States of America.

By now, England barely exists at all, except in the world of sports.  England has become the United Kingdom, which now consists of England, six counties in Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands and the Isle of Man, with grudging and shrinking participation by Scotland and Wales.  Not that England is going away any time soon.  She has re-invented herself as some kind of multi-cultural island Switzerland, a financial center of some importance, small but prosperous, and still confident of the backing and protection of the United States.

There is still a monarch in once mighty England.  She performs her queenly duties well, in my eyes, and bears her reduced importance in world affairs with dignity.  I’m sure that the vast income that comes with the throne is considerable consolation.  That and the ownership of all of the sturgeon caught in a certain section of the sea, and all of the adult swans on the Upper-Thames.  Isn’t she also the nominal monarch of Canada?  That must be fun.

The English do seem to be getting a bit defensive about this diminution in importance.  They look for opportunities to tout their brand, venues where they can make it seem like they are still important.  When they do this on cooking shows, it is fairly bizarre; when they do this by hysterically backing Andy Murray at Wimbledon, it’s just sad. 

I also watch some of the history shows on TV, among them are shows produced in England, excuse me, the UK, about World War II.  Their lack of objectivity is disappointing coming from a country that makes a claim to ethical rigor.  Watching these shows, one could easily come away with the impression that the English, or British, army won the war against Hitler and the Japanese single handedly.  When British or Commonwealth troops accomplish anything, they are so identified and praised to the high heavens.  When American troops accomplish anything, they are identified as “allied forces,” and it is often hinted that the actions were too little and too late.  British successes, fewer and further between as the war dragged on, are emphasized throughout.  I guess that it was somewhat embarrassing being thrust into the role of junior partner by a former colony (or colonies) and a bunch of communists, but isn’t acceptance of reality the gold standard of maturity?  And isn’t it vaguely silly to be attempting at this late date to reconstruct a more flattering past? 

In the Pacific, against the Japanese, the English were largely absent, so those shows have no English successes to concentrate on.   It must be added that Australian troops performed admirably in the Pacific, and definitely punched above their weight, but their small numbers necessarily limited their contribution.  The English TV productions usually focus on any action or decision of American armed forces that could be considered a mistake of some kind.  This was the case in a recent show about the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  The battle was, in fact, a resounding defeat for the Japanese forces, which lost six or eight capitol ships, including their last four aircraft carriers, and accomplished nothing except burning up most of their remaining fuel oil.  In the English retelling, the American forces were repeatedly fooled by Japanese warfare-by-deception tactics and only came out ahead by the skin of their teeth.  Certainly there were a few dubious decisions made on the American side, but the battle was an unambiguous America victory, including one utterly heroic, and virtually unmentioned, aspect where the Japanese had vast material superiority.  A small American force of some destroyers and a couple of escort carriers left to protect the invasion fleet beat off a huge force of battleships and cruisers that included the IJS Yamato, the biggest, most powerful battleship ever built.  They did it with shear, ferocious energy and daring, and the American invasion fleet was kept safe, but do they get credit for it in this telling?  No, all we are reminded of is that leaving them there in such small numbers was a huge error.  The negatives must be mentioned, but to dwell on them alone betrays an agenda that does not flatter the English presenters.

My advice to my English cousins is to get over it.  England is still a place with much to recommend it.  Not English food necessarily, but with all of your new diversity there’s plenty of good food in the country for a change, you know, curries and the like.  Of course the weather is still rotten, but all of that rain makes the island nice and green.  As long as the Gulf Stream doesn’t turn south, it’s not as cold as it should be at that latitude either.  That’s a good thing. 

And yes, I call them my English cousins advisedly.  My great grandfather, Robert Ceely, was the last Ceely in my line to be born there.  He died in New York City, the city of my birth, and to my knowledge he never mentioned England at all in conversation or in song, although he did sound like a Londoner until the day that he died.  It’s my heritage, and I’m not unhappy about it.  The land of Shakespeare and all.  I just wish that they’d stop trying to prove to themselves and others that it’s still a greater place than it is.  It’s only England.  


Unknown said...

Within the British psyche there is a certain wounded pride concerning their diminished role in world affairs. This causes a bit of anti-Americanism, as deep down they can't help thinking that they are still superior and that if the U.S. never existed they would still be relevant. Of course they generally repress this feeling or keep a stiff upper lip, but occasionally it bubbles to the surface. It's ugly and ill considered when it does, and it makes me almost want to mention the battle of Yorktown or the fact that we saved their bacon twice on the last century. Or three times counting The Cold War) However, I withhold such comments; partly because it's polite, and partly because America is now clearly in decline too.

The sun is setting on our much briefer empire, and I'm planning to enjoy it. I'll be roasting marshmallows on the fire.

The decline phase of an society is often it's most interesting era. It's much more entertaining to consider the demise of the Roman Empire instead of it's rise to power. The kinky excesses of despotic rulers and barbarians at the gate make for great drama. Britain's decline was perhaps less tumultuous than others, (although it would have been fun to see them surrender at Yorktown) but in the post war period, they did come up with The Beatles and A Clockwork Orange, so that's something I guess.

There's a poem by a modern Greek-I've forgotten the name-in which the residents of some ancient city are surrounded by savages bent on their destruction. In the end, the savages move on and the city is saved, but the people are disappointed. I think that's kind of where the American psyche is today. Our internal problems seem insoluble, and we're bored to death of them. If there is no external enemy to threaten us, we'll just create or invent one. Also, we sense that China and others are on the rise, and we too are slowly losing relevance.

I'm not too worried about it I've met some young Chinese students, and they seem very astute and clear headed to me. They don't have the religious hang ups of the West. There's hope that the coming dominance of China will be gentler and more peaceful than it's Western predecessors. Plus, the American decline should be fun to watch. We'd don't hide our feelings as well as the British do, and we're unused to accepting help. When we have a real quandary, we often respond by bombing somebody, so there could be some fantastic fireworks. It's a situation that's bound to create some buffoonish leaders; hence, the current Republican frontrunner, who is already complaining that China is beating us. Wouldn't it be fun to have Donald Trump in charge of the Nuclear arsenal? I know, I know it'll probably never happen, and it would be tragic if it did. But it wouldn't be boring.

However our falls occurs, here's hoping that some more great art results. I think what we'll be remembered for is the music, and, thanks almost entirely to African Americans, we did a pretty good job of it. We might do an even better job of it when we become a minor players and our art is all we have left, so I say, bring on the fall. But, if nothing else is created, and the penultimate scene of the American movie has a soundtrack of Barack Obama singing a few bars of Al Green, well, it's not Beethoven, but it could be worse.

fred c said...