“Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real.” — recent news item
Of course the British grip on reality has always been tenuous. Consider Royal Family members such as: Henry the 8th, George the 3rd, or Edward the 7th. Bonkers, the lot. The Duke of Edinburgh has about as much class as the Dukes of Hazzard.
Then there’s Prince Charles, now 60, who plans to fly his private jet on a multi-nation tour to promote the reduction of carbon footprints. Good thinking, Chuck. The man who preferred Camilla to Diana will inherit the position he’s waited for all his life just as everyone else his age is superannuated. And these few are but the merest lunatic fringe of the whacko ruling class that has carried on madly for centuries at British public expense.
England is a country where cross-dressing is considered high comedy. Bangers and mash passes for haute cuisine. They drink their beer warm. And the Spice Girls are thought of… at all. The best-known British ambassadors worldwide are the football hooligans who bash and brawl wherever they travel.
British neurosis is embedded in their language. “Balmy” is a British word that applies to much of British culture. Only a society of whingers and wankers could come up with words like “whinger” and “wanker.” But by now any Brits who may be reading this screed will have their knickers in a knot. Or maybe, a twist.
England is currently suffering “the highest teen pregnancy rate in western Europe, a binge drinking culture that leaves drunk teens splayed out in the streets and rising knife crime that has turned some pub fights into deadly affairs. The number of robberies carried out with knives rose 18 percent for the third quarter of 2008 compared to the year before, according to government figures released in January,” writes Gregory Katz in The Huffington Post. “In the latest symbol of what some are calling ‘broken Britain,’ 13-year-old Alfie and his 15-year-old girlfriend Chantelle became parents last week,” says Katz.
The British are enduring an ongoing identity crisis. In The Guardian recently, Paul Kingsnorth called his country’s dilemma “the fate of an imperial power which long ago lost its empire, became home to many of its former victims, and as a result was both ashamed and unsure of itself.
“What is Englishness’?” asks Kingsnorth. “Having to constantly answer this question is a key feature of our national identity… Englishness, in other words, can be identified by a need to constantly ask what Englishness is…” Sheesh.
Which brings us to Winston Churchill and Sherlock Holmes.
The British are not entirely wrong about their cultural icons. Churchill was a mythic figure, as well as a flesh and blood human. He wrote history and enacted it. As both an author and a public official he was a maker of myth. His rhetoric elevated historic moments into legend: “Blood, sweat and tears… Our finest hour… Never have so many owed so much to so few… An Iron Curtain has descended…” etcetera
Perhaps the British already considered Churchill mythical when they turned him out of office, just after he’d brought them through World War Two. Maybe they wanted to put the war’s suffering behind them. And Churchill – who personified their struggle – was too strong a reminder. Turning the man into myth put a salutary distance between those dark days and a more hopeful future.
But how could most Britons believe Sherlock Holmes was real? While it’s true that Arthur Conan Doyle invented Holmes in the 1880s, he could not kill him off. He tried, but then had to resurrect him by popular demand. First incarnated on the stage by American actor William Gillette, Holmes has proved a remarkably durable creation.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Holmes is the “most portrayed movie character” with at least 70 actors having played the part in more than 200 films. Such ubiquity lends him credence, as do the societies formed in his honor, like The Baker Street Irregulars. Members play what they call “The Great Game,” pretending Holmes is real. In 2002 the Royal Society of Chemistry inducted Holmes as an honorary member, the only fictional character so honored.
If the chemists can claim him as one of their own, why not the British public? A brilliant observer and deductive reasoner, Holmes liked to say, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Considering the absurdities and corruption that pervade modern political and cultural life, it is comforting to think that a man of Holmes’s superior powers of thought, however arrogant, quirky and addicted (he’s still a Brit!), once helped steer society straight.
The “Churchill myth” and “Holmes reality” may be wishful thinking. But Americans can sympathize. Any day now I hope to find out the Bush years were just a bad dream. What I think our country really needs next is the kind of iron-fisted leader who has served us so well in eras past: Philip Marlowe say, or maybe Popeye.