London Britches Falling Down

“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.

James is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Documentaries (Praeger 2006), and Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, (2015). He lives in Quito, Ecuador. Read other articles by James.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Tree said on February 16th, 2009 at 9:16am #

    Great piece. Although I think England really needs Miss Marple. She’d get everyone to straighten up and fly right.

  2. Lijandra said on February 16th, 2009 at 9:41am #

    Thanks for this very entertaining article.

  3. Ramsefall said on February 16th, 2009 at 9:48am #

    Ah, those poor Brits. How difficult it must be to have owned the world only to eventually have lost it prior to becoming a laughing stock.

    I like that definition of Englishness…what is it again? lmao.

    If Popeye’s not available for the job of leading the nation down the drain, with so much up in the air at present, how about contracting the Little Rascals? Couldn’t hurt to ask.

    Nice piece, thanks for the lighter side contribution, James.

    Best to you.

  4. mary said on February 16th, 2009 at 12:35pm #

    We are generally quite good as having the mickey taken out of us and yes I needed a laugh today as our economy continues to collapse at an alarming rate because our bankers connived in your bankers’ crookedness and deceit. Our politicians are also in your pocket and we are eternally ashamed for what Bush and Blair got up to in Iraq and Afghanistan in spite of protests from MILLIONS of us. Even today I read that a US air strike has killed 31 more people on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.

    Not so amused are the 850 car workers dismissed this morning in Oxford by BMW with an hour’s notice and with no redundancy money as they were employed by an agency. They join the ever growing dole queue estimated to be 3 million by the end of the year. Their plight is nothing to be laughed at as they have no hope of getting another job yet have mortgages and utility and food bills to pay.

    BTW I thought that London Bridge was now in Arizona! And which one of us will have the last laugh?

  5. Ramsefall said on February 16th, 2009 at 1:15pm #

    From the looks of it, Mary, the bankers will be the ones to have the last laugh. Unless of course, the people decide to take matters in to their own hands…thus proving to the elite that their blood isn’t so blue after all.

    Best to you.

  6. King David said on February 16th, 2009 at 1:17pm #

    The cincher in getting me to read this article was the riotous comment re: “The Dukes of Hazard.” There cold be not a more aprapoe commentary about the ovely self-indulgent cracks in the long-overdue descent of this Royal facade of totally weak mortals.

    Viva Karl Marx.

  7. Hue Longer said on February 16th, 2009 at 2:57pm #

    “or maybe Popeye”?! lol… good stuff

  8. Don Hawkins said on February 16th, 2009 at 5:16pm #

    I sent this to The Guardian a blog this morning on an article about the government spying on the citizenry of England doing peaceful protests and making it seem like they are the enemy.

    Now color me crazy and you probably will after I write this. England is it like the States where you have very rich people and poor? The middle class maybe 10 around and headed into poor. The people who peacefully protest are they poor? There is nothing wrong with being poor it is a very good way to live the best way if you know how. You must understand it fully to work right. These very rich have you taken a good look at them as I have and they seem to be disturbed not only in there lives but how they think of others. Books are free knowledge is free all you have to do is want it. The World needs philosophers, painters, pottery makers, writers, thinkers. You get the idea. For me to think like these so called elites is a place I don’t want to go. Somehow we need to turn this around where the poor are looked up to not the rich. I guess we need to not think of using your mind not for profit but something you want to do as poor but the best way to live.

  9. Jeff said on February 16th, 2009 at 5:46pm #

    What rubbish is this. Empires come and go. The human condition continues. What does not leave humankind alone is the absurdity that men can control men. Only those men with godlike aspirations will lead us to our frui (extinc) tion. Those of us that desire to follow. What path have you looked down lately?

  10. Brian Koontz said on February 17th, 2009 at 1:21am #

    People never continue with what doesn’t work. When a rational life leads to poverty (any of several types) and despair, the culture becomes irrational. Irrationality is a hopeful randomness, which compares favorably against a grinding willful life of rationality when that will no longer functions in a positive manner.

    In an irrational culture, such as is found in the US, Britain, and Japan, there is no longer debate, social organization, communication, intimacy, solidarity, or humanity as we know it. Society becomes something else entirely. Society becomes something to fear, instead of something to welcome and partake in. It becomes something to hate, something to instigate nostalgic memories, something to long for.

    Atomization follows from this change in conception of society from positive to negative. After the fear, hate, longing, and nostalgia take hold there is television, video games, drugs, internet browsing, “being busy”, working long hours, among other obsessions.

    Likewise, totalitarianism follows from this reconception of society. The elite seizes upon the newly weakened populace and takes advantage of it.

    It doesn’t work to simply tell people to be rational. They tried that already, and it failed. That’s why they are irrational now. What needs to be undertaken is a rational plan, a rational goal and context, a point A to point B so that people can once again see value in rationality, and see the type of rationality to have faith in.

  11. Don Hawkins said on February 17th, 2009 at 5:07am #

    I just sent this to a financial channel as they ponder if the car companies will make it.

    James Hansen new. Then of course we could ask our selves the question is it knowledge we are looking for and of what knowledge is the wisdom or is there another way.

    Can’t we just suppress freedom of expression for people that don’t agree with us?

    I see no possible downside…

    The sword of Damocles
    Dionysius was a fourth century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse, a city in Magna Graecia, the Greek area of southern Italy. To all appearances Dionysius was very rich and comfortable, with all the luxuries money could buy, tasteful clothing and jewelry, and delectable food. He even had court flatterers (adsentatores) to inflate his ego. One of these ingratiators was the court sycophant, Damocles. Damocles used to make comments to the king about his wealth and luxurious life. One day when Damocles complimented the tyrant on his abundance and power, Dionysius turned to Damocles and said, “If you think I’m so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?”

    Damocles readily agreed, and so Dionysius ordered everything to be prepared for Damocles to experience what life as Dionysius was like. Damocles was enjoying himself immensely… until he noticed a sharp sword hovering over his head, that was suspended from the ceiling by a horse hair. This, the tyrant explained to Damocles, was what life as ruler was really like.

    Damocles, alarmed, quickly revised his idea of what made up a good life, and asked to be excused. He then eagerly returned to his poorer, but safer life.

    Revised his idea of what made up a good life. Call call now, take a pill, listen to your leaders and watch your parking meters, ten minute attention span, how old is Earth in years, I love Gold, a good cup of coffee.

    Then of course we could ask our selves the question what box with wall’s made of lies am I in the one where the people have there heads up and you can see them and see no downside in suppressing freedom of expression for people that don’t agree with them if they could or the box with the people that have there heads down and we can’t see you because you don’t agree with us? Remember no matter which one still a box of lie’s and soon many fly’s as the ocean’s rise and who is wise among the lie’s that is the question to surmise. Anyway what about those car companies?


  12. brodir of mann said on February 17th, 2009 at 7:04am #

    1 balmy is correctly spelled barmy.2 whinger is an australian word.3 nothing wrong with the word wanker;it can be conjugated and is flexible.let`s see you conjugate jerk-off.4 sheesh!what kind of a word is this?oh,yes.1950s kids tv cartoons!