The King’s Speech Oscar victory. The Royal Wedding. The continued existence of Pippa Middleton.
There’s a lot to like about the English: P. G. Wodehouse, the parliamentary system, those guards with the peculiar hats. They coined so many memorable phrases — or perhaps we only think they’re memorable because of those accents. They have a lot of very old universities. They swap the spellings of the ends of words for no particular reason and like to sprinkle their commentaries with U’s, just to add colour. They wear fascinators and they make a lot of good television based on other good television they made back in the 1970s. They have names like Benedict Cumberbatch, unless he’s Scottish or something — ooh, an excuse to Google Benedict Cumberbatch at work!
I wouldn’t describe myself as a rampant Anglophile. “I am more of a dormant Anglophile,” I tell people, hoping to impress them with my command of heraldic attitudes. I am not one of those people who saunters about telling people to keep a stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on, lie back and think of England, or fight them on the land and on the beaches.
When people tell me I’m drunk, I do not charge over to them insisting that they are ugly but tomorrow I will be sober. I do not sneak to The Gap at night and spraypaint “Mind” in front of it.
It is not that we regret getting our independence — as the Tea Party likes to demonstrate, we’d do it all again in an instant, in exactly the same attire. And an added perk of being a country is getting to sit at the adults table with Great Britain or the United Kingdom or whatever it’s calling itself these days, to see if that uncle is really as cool as we thought.
So the riots in London came as something of a shock.
Perhaps inaccurately and stereotypically, this is not how we think of Britain. We’re aware of class — we can say “notepaper” and “writing paper” with impunity, and they might not be able to — but we don’t think of them as a boiling kettle of barely contained strife, unless that boiling kettle might be used later to make tea.
“Why are you rioting?” we demanded. “Why aren’t you sitting at home stiffening your upper lips and addressing cookies as biscuits?”
It was with horror that we watched violence unfold across the country — London, Birmingham, Manchester. This didn’t just seem wrong. It seemed worse than wrong. It seemed — un-English.
“Resolving your disputes with violence?” we inquired. “We thought you agreed to stop doing that in 1642. Never mind that incident in 1985.”
The rioters may come from a group that feels disenfranchised, but that’s no excuse for such “wanton criminality,” as Greater Manchester Police’s Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan called it. There is no greater social point in these rioters taking cell-phone images of themselves in front of the blazes as trophies, saying that they are “showing the police, and showing the rich, that we can do whatever we want,” and looting small shops — it’s “mindless opportunistic thuggery” as one Camberwell resident put it.
But for all that, it’s still a good time to be an Anglophile. As Prime Minister David Cameron said, “We have seen the worst of Britain, but I also believe we have seen some of the best of Britain — the million people who have signed up on Facebook to support the police, coming together in the clean-up operations.” They marched through the streets with brooms to clean and set things right. They kept calm and carried on. Thousands of them — inspired by YouTube and Real World personality Sam Pepper — even showed solidarity by drinking tea.
There will undoubtedly be more trouble. Riots have a way of spreading, and just as police forces move to handle one, another springs up from whence the police just came. But if anyone can get through it, it’s the British. They coined all the terms for remaining calm during moments of crisis. Except for sang-froid, and that was probably a Frenchman who saw someone British responding to trouble.
They are now working to get a handle on things, debating the underlying social issues that might have inspired such a rapid breakdown of the fabric of society. Cameron calls it a “moral problem as much as a political problem.”
It’s not tragic — that would imply it was somehow inevitable. It’s a damn shame. It’s reckless and vicious hooliganism. It is possible to attribute this despicable behavior to any number of root causes — why does anyone commit crimes? — but as many Britons are insisting, it is wrong to respond even to life’s most brutal disappointments by destroying the lives and livelihoods of others.
And it’s not the British way.
Now we across the pond can only watch and hope and do what we can to show solidarity — defend the Oxford comma, slip a U in somewhere, hope the authorities can get things back under control. Uncivilized behavior — in the heart of civilization, where people only stop what they’re doing if they hear tea is in the neighborhood.
Despair-inducing as the images are, it’s impossible to give up hope. If anyone can get through it, it’s the British. After all, they have the franchise.