The cover art of your book is inspired by the “Keep Calm, Carry On” meme. What informed that aesthetic decision?
The emblematic World War II poster is shorthand, in many American minds, for that effortless unflappability that some of us find so admirable in the English character. Joseph Epstein nails it in his essay “Anglophilia, American Style.” He tells a story about Evelyn Waugh emerging from a bunker in Yugoslavia, during a Nazi bombing raid. According to Epstein, Waugh glances up at the falling bombs, then quips, “Like all things German, this is vastly overdone.” The “Keep Calm” meme captures that imperishable cool. Then, too, the poster’s stiff-upper-lip-ism has, over time, taken on a kind of Monty Pythonian self-parodic quality — which is, in itself, very English.
The royal wedding had 22.8 million viewers in America. What makes the royal family so alluring to Americans? There’s obviously a fairytale-like quality to it, but is there more to it than that?
The Windsors: a cautionary tale about the dangers of do-it-yourself eugenics. I touch on the subject of royal worship only briefly in my essay, since I’m no supermarket-tabloid monarchist. Another reason I touch on it only briefly is because my essay is in part about taking Anglophilia back from the Diana-philes. Since I’m a man of the Left, I cast a jaundiced eye, in my argument, on the elitism and Windsor worship that clings to Anglophilia, leaving it in bad odor with the Left. The American infatuation with the inbred members of a small, stunted Anglo-Teutonic family, sustained as a kind of a curiosity by the good-natured charity of the British people, is as complex as it is perverse. It has something to do with the comparative brevity of our history, as opposed to the storied traditions of the mother country, and something to do with a yearning, weirdly, for the feudal hierarchies swept away by capitalism and industrialism (as Marx famously noted), which result in a sociocultural disorientation — a class vertigo, so to speak — that makes some Americans yearn for a world where everyone knows his place, even if that sense of community and identity is purchased at the price of a boot on your neck.
Do you visit England frequently? What spots feed your Anglophilia?
I’ve only ever been to London and, incalculably, Newcastle, on a brief lecture tour for my first book, in 1996. But since this is an essay about the idea of England, rather than the actual place, that’s hardly a hindrance. Kafka’s America is the better for his never having been here, and Ballard’s Hello, America is thick with the fog of myth, which visiting a place tends to dispel. The Romantic poet Gerard Nerval lamented, after visiting Egypt, that for him perfumed visions of The Orient had been swept away by the flea-ridden realities of the Middle East, whereas for his opium-eating Parisian friends it was still a fabled place. My England is the England of the Anglophile, which is to say: an England that can’t be found on any map, and is largely unrecognizable to any Brit.
4. Who are your favorite living Brits?
As it happens, my favorite Brits are dead (not that I prefer them that way!): Hitchens, Orwell, Waugh, Graham Greene, Jessica Mitford, J.G. Ballard, the timeless Dr. Johnson, and of course the Incomparable Oscar, who, yes, was proudly Irish, but would readily admit that the Wilde we know was largely a product of the London scene. Actually, speaking of Wilde makes me think of a living Englishmen I adore: Stephen Fry, not only because his portrayal of Wilde in the film of the same name was simply delicious, but because he’s as charming as the day is long, offstage, and an unapologetic atheist, to boot. What’s not to love? Oh, and I like Martin Amis the critic and essayist — not Amis the novelist, since I haven’t read any of his fiction — and Will Self in all his manifestations. I’ve written about my Bowie fandom, but Bowie is a special case, since he was always a fervent Ameriphile and is now as American as he once was English. Even the famous snaggletoothed vulpine grin, a dissertation on the limey psyche all by itself, has been replaced by the regulation-issue American smile. Some day soon, nothing will be left of Bromley’s famous son but an accent with the edges filed down, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile hanging in mid-air. By contrast, Ray Davies is unimprovably English, especially the Ray Davies of Arthur and Village Green Preservation Society. And then there’s Morrissey, most of whose music I’m largely indifferent to, but whose quintessentially English eccentricities and piss-taking wit, not to mention charmingly unapologetic narcissism, I fall for without firing a shot.
All men but one, it turns out, but there’s no accounting for taste.