God Bless the English

Why is it, I wonder, that Australians are so easily roused to jollity by the word Pom? Refer to someone who comes from southern Europe or Africa or indeed from Redfern or Bourke by one of the terms favoured by bar stool philosophers of limited vocabulary, and you are accused of being racist, yet it is all right to call someone a Pom.

It would be nice to say that it is usually employed as a term of affection and perhaps it is; but even then, there is an undertone of disparagement, a hidden adjective with its own sting.

A disproportionate number of Australian leaders in the arts, politics, sport, business and the churches are either British by birth or by descent, yet we readily attribute disdain to their origins. I accept that some of this may be down to the Irish, getting their own back for many years of being portrayed with limited intelligence, simian features and the sharing of accommodation with farm animals, but surely that is in the past.

There is one other point worth making here. We are not talking about the Scots who make the second-best whiskey in the world or the Welsh who can sing harmony even at brutal, muddy football matches: we are talking about the English.

How could you not love a country that produced Ronnie Barker and Eric Morecambe? Or Tommy Cooper who could make us laugh at his very incompetence. Frank Spencer and Alf Garnett were not real people: they were comedy creations by a people mature enough to laugh at themselves.

Add The Beatles, Procul Harum, Queen, Dire Straits, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers – world properties that transcend nationalism but happen to be English.

”Great wits are sure to madness near allied.” Dryden’s aphorism is nowhere more elegantly demonstrated than among his fellow countrymen, and the eccentric English genius is almost a cliché. Think Henry Cavendish, the man who discovered hydrogen and was so terrified of women that he would not allow any of his female domestics to enter his company under pain of instant dismissal. Or Lord North, the Prime Minister who lost America, who took to his bed every October and did not get up again until March. Many of the great eccentrics were members of the upper classes and indeed the current heir to the throne may be as endearing an example as any.

But a race that produced the Magna Carta and habeas corpus, Newton and Darwin, Maxwell and the gentle Faraday, the tragic Alan Turing and the crippled Stephen Hawking, can surely be allowed eccentricity.

Bobby Charlton made football beautiful, Nick Faldo made golf simple, John Betjeman made poetry readable.

And I haven’t even mentioned Shakespeare and Joseph Lister and John Keats. And Lord(!) Ian Botham.

Frank O’Shea (these are Frank’s thoughts as he takes a well-earned break.)