Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Countryby Joe Queenan
One semitropical Fourth of July, Joe Queenan's English wife suggested that the family might like a chicken vindaloo in lieu of the customary barbecue. It was this pitiless act of gastronomic cultural oppression,
In this hilarious romp through England, one of America's preeminent humorists seeks the answer to an eternal question: What makes the Brits tick?
One semitropical Fourth of July, Joe Queenan's English wife suggested that the family might like a chicken vindaloo in lieu of the customary barbecue. It was this pitiless act of gastronomic cultural oppression, coupled with dread of the fearsome Christmas pudding that awaited him for dessert, that inspired the author to make a solitary pilgrimage to Great Britain. Freed from the obligation to visit an unending procession of Aunty Margarets and Cousin Robins, as he had done for the first twenty-six years of their marriage, Queenan decided that he would not come back from Albion until he had finally penetrated the limey heart of darkness.
His trip was not in vain. Crisscrossing Old Blighty like Cromwell hunting Papists, Queenan finally came to terms with the choochiness, squiffiness, ponciness, and sticky wicketness that lie at the heart of the British character. Here he is trying to find out whose idea it was to impale King Edward II on a red-hot poker-and what this says about English sexual politics. Here he is in an Edinburgh pub foolishly trying to defend Paul McCartney's "Ebony and Ivory." And here he is, trapped in a concert hall with a Coventry-based all-Brit Eagles tribute band named Talon who resent that they are nowhere near as famous as their evil nemeses, the Illegal Eagles. At the end of his epic adventure, the author returns chastened, none the wiser, but encouraged that his wife is actually as sane as she is, in light of her fellow countrymen.
“New York writer Joe Queenan ventures into Bill Bryson territory with this amused and amusing look at Blighty.” San Francisco Chronicle
“The book is less a pilgrimage, more a voyage round Joe Queenan's head. . . . his extensive knowledge of popular music, his lovely reveries on books and reading, his occasionally nonchalant way with facts, and his sly humor.” Allison Pearson, The New York Times
“Very much a travel book, but a particularly funny and interesting one.” William Georgiades, New York Post
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A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country
By Joe Queenan
PicadorCopyright © 2004 Joe Queenan
All rights reserved.
It is widely agreed, at least by everyone I know, that the British people invented the concept of ambiguity. For example, the term British has no precise meaning. Some people think it refers to the English, but Great Britain includes Scotland and Wales, and nobody thinks of the rugged Scots or the cranky Welsh as "Brits." The terms Brits and British are suffused with a subliminal suggestion of latent ponciness: cucumber sandwiches, sticky wickets, cream teas, tasty bickies, getting all squiffy, Noel Coward. In making this assertion, I do not mean to suggest that the British, whoever they may be, are in fact poncey, or that there is anything wrong with being poncey. But the Scots and the Welsh definitely do not fit this description. Whatever Limeys are, they are not.
Others are under the impression that the term British applies to denizens of the United Kingdom. But this is equally untrue, as Great Britain does not include Northern Ireland.
Even if it did, no one considers Northern Ireland's seditious Catholics British, nor do that miserable country's fractious, bellicose Protestants conjure up the image of Wimbledon Collection refinement, impeccable taste, respect for tradition, and occasional silliness that we associate with the concept of "Britishness." The Northern Irish, with their balaclava masks and machine guns, are simply not Mikado material.
Still other people believe that the term Britain applies to the original inhabitants of England, whose descendants now live in Wales. But the residents of Wales are more likely the descendants of the Celts or the Druids, and the Celts and the Druids have nothing in common with the Brits. No Brit, not even a Manchester United supporter, would have ever stormed into battle painted every color of the rainbow and naked as a prehistoric jaybird, much less dragged gigantic monoliths all the way from the mountains of Wales to Stonehenge merely to placate a vengeful, heliocentric god. Whatever they are, the Brits are not show-offs. Norman Davies goes on for pages and pages about this subject in his fascinating, controversial, but fundamentally unreadable The Isles, which cautions that the term British should be used sparingly, if at all, because it does not really mean anything.
I disagree. And apparently, so do the British people. I think the British — whoever they are — embrace the term British because it conveys a vivid sense of not being American or French, of remaining somehow above the fray in a venomously coarse world. Moreover, it perfectly captures the intrinsic randomness and confusion that is at the epicenter of the British character. Unlike Americans, who want everything to be cut and dried, the British people — who may or may not exist — are quite comfortable with a civilization that is a complete mess. The British people do not seem at all put off by the idea that national identity is fluid, malleable, and vague, that history is simply a vast jigsaw puzzle where many of the pieces are missing. Thus, even though a cohesive unit that can be called the British People probably does not exist, there can be no denying that they invented the concept of ambiguity, because it is obviously not the work of fiercely straightforward people like the Germans, the Russians, the Japanese, the Americans, or the French. And it is certainly not an invention of the Canadians.
Several years ago, the English historian Paul Johnson hit upon the clever idea of doubling America's heritage by declaring that the noble experiment known as the United States did not begin in 1775 at Concord and Lexington, much less in 1776 at Philadelphia, but in 1607 in Jamestown. While the approach adopted in his iconoclastic A History of the American People is not without methodological merit, it is just the sort of thing no sensible American academic would ever think of doing, because Americans already have enough history to keep track of, and don't need any more inventory.
But it is hardly surprising that an English historian should make the mistake of thinking that culturally deprived Americans would yearn for more history and more mythology, because this is one of Great Britain's greatest problems. It has entirely too much history. It has too many legendary historical figures. And it has too many legendary historical figures that the British people have never crystallized their true feelings toward.
The record is clear. Or, rather, let us say that the record is unclear, but the record of the record is pristine and limpid. Henry II was a truly great king who dragged Saxon Britain out of the Dark Ages, but he is mostly remembered for murdering his best friend, Thomas a Becket (seeBecket), and for mistreating his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (see The Lion in Winter). Also, he was French. Therefore, his stature in British history is ambiguous. Edward I is widely viewed as one of the greatest English kings, yet no one thinks his treatment of William Wallace was particularly classy; having subjected him to being hanged, drawn, and quartered, did he also have to throw in the additional humiliation of ritual public castration? (This was left out of Mel Gibsons Braveheart because the studio wanted a PG rating and most actors view it as career-threatening to either kiss another man or be gelded on screen.) And while we're on the subject of the Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie remains the focus of many colorful myths (see Kidnapped), yet most historians, and a good many Scots, regard him as an idiot.
The verdict on Henry VIII is similarly confusing. By making the fatal break with Rome in 1 532, Henry VIII threw off the insatiable demands of a corrupt Catholic Church. (Five hundred years later, Boston still has not.) He also made an immense contribution to British tourism by destroying every monastery and abbey worth pillaging. No one today would make an arduous side trip to Glastonbury, which is teeming with hippies, warlocks, neo-Druids, and people looking for Merlin so they can buy some drugs off him, or Tintern Abbey, a rambling wreck that is all the way out in the middle of nowhere, merely to see a standing house of worship. But for some reason ancient ruins exert an almost hypnotic power over the hoi polloi.
Yet Henry VIII is remembered as a deranged porker who murdered two of his wives, one of whom had six fingers and three breasts, which in and of themselves would have persuaded most red-blooded males to go easy on her. It was quite a family: Anne Boleyn, winner of the mammarian trifecta, was sent to the scaffold by her husband for not producing a male heir — at least not one that would have resembled him, as she clearly got around. Yet Anne gave birth to the greatest potentate of them all. Ironically, Elizabeth Regina herself was nearly executed by her bloodthirsty half sister Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and, perhaps in revenge for this slight, wrote the death warrant for her much-admired cousin, the flashy but addled Mary Queen of Scots, whose own son James I signed off on her beheading, only to have his own son, Charles I, dealt the exact same fate by Oliver Cromwell.
Actually, none of this is particularly ironic.
Mary, Queen of Scots is marinated in so much romance that it is difficult to draw a bead on her. To the great unwashed, she has earned her niche in the Pantheon of the Immortals as a vaunted heroine, a feminist role model and a tragic figure, a Boadicea in ermine, pitied because she was executed simply for being Catholic. But she was also a scheming, traitorous tart who married the man who murdered her first husband. And she went bald early. (This is probably why she is viewed as a feminist role model.)
This schizoid mind-set is very different from the way Americans treat their legends. Basically, all sensible Americans regard Washington, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt as saintly figures, and opinion is similarly undivided on Sitting Bull, Robert E. Lee, and Calamity Jane. FDR was such an important historical figure that not even Republicans dare deny his greatness. And despite occasional revisionist efforts to demean the character of both Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, these are the spurious efforts of a few mean-spirited academics, the sort Dickens derided as "the insects of the moment," and no one takes them very seriously. The American people like their history to be black and white, fixed for time immemorial. Plenty of people living in Britain today honestly believe that Henry VII, not Richard III, killed the little princes. Others do not. But everybody in the United States knows that Richard Nixon, our own evil little hunchback, was capable of any crime, no matter how monstrous. Even people who voted for Nixon hated him; he rarely smiled and when he did it frightened even Republican children. In saying this, I mean no offense to American hunchbacks, few of whom are explicitly evil, and most of whom are probably Democrats, as the Republicans cut off benefits to hunchbacks decades ago.
A BRIEF VISIT TO WESTMINSTER PROVIDES US WITH A VIVIDexample of the ambiguity, indecisiveness, and general confusion that animate British history. Outside the Houses of Parliament stand two visually arresting monuments: a statue of Oliver Cromwell, leaning on his mighty sword, and an equestrian statue of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Not far away stands a massive statue of Winston Churchill. These three titans are fixtures both of British history and of British mythology, yet in all three cases the British people display feelings toward them that are decidedly mixed.
Richard I is the romantic crusader, champion of the common people, and boon companion of Robin Hood, who is forever linked with his malignant younger brother, the scheming King John, and his nefarious henchman, the Sheriff of Nottingham (see Costner, Kevin).A snappy dresser who once dined with Saladin, the Yasser Arafat of his time, Richard was a fearless warrior who died when felled by an archer after wandering too close to the walls of Chaluz in order to better taunt his besieged adversaries. Owing to his jaunty image and unparalleled sense of occasion, Richard the Lion-Hearted is rivaled only by Camelot's King Arthur (see Excalibur) for sheer mythological power, and possesses the additional advantage of having actually existed.
But Richard I was an irresponsible king who bankrupted his kingdom through his inept campaigns and the huge ransom that had to be paid for his release when he was imprisoned by scheming Teutons. During his entire ten-year reign, he spent only six months in England, returning just long enough to raise more cash so that he could go back to his foolish gallivanting on the continent. In this sense, he resembles Fergie, another gluttonous, improvident royal who spends a great deal of time overseas, occasionally returning home to raise more cash through modern scutage when the revenues from Weight Watchers International have dried up.
These are not the only charges that can be leveled against Richard the Lion-Hearted. His campaigns in the Holy Land were largely unsuccessful. His sexual predilections were highly suspect. It was his brother, not he, who signed the Magna Carta, the document that laid the foundation for the Anglo-American democratic system, the greatest innovation in all of history. Worst of all, he was French.
Oliver Cromwell's place in the heart of the British people is even more tenuous. By deposing and executing the profligate Charles I, he sounded the death knell for the divine right of kings and can arguably be called the father of the English Republic. Well, perhaps more like the stepfather. But he was a morose, vindictive butcher, and it was unpleasant to live in Britain while he was alive. It was even less fun to live in Ireland, where Cromwell carried on a near genocidal war of terror, and is hated to this day. Centuries after his death, one still encounters Irish-Americans who use the term "May the Curse of Cromwell be upon you," though most of them are frat boys at McSorley's who grew up in suburban Ohio. Though not French, Cromwell ended his public career by having his festering corpse exhumed, dismembered, beheaded, and tossed onto a dung heap, which is basically the same thing. Though rumors0020persist that his skull, which hung on a spike for twenty years, can be seen in a museum somewhere in East Anglia, no one knows for sure what happened to the rest of his body. Quick: Name another society that would erect a statue outside the headquarters of its principal legislative body memorializing a tyrant whose corpse was thrown onto a dung heap. Take lots of time with your answer.
Winston Churchill is another majestic figure whose overall record generates considerable dispute. Though no one, not even Christopher Hitchens, denies that he single-handedly saved Western Civilization from the marauding Hun, he was voted out of office before the war was over because working-class people viewed him as a reactionary. The implacable enemy of social progress, a legendary strike breaker, and the architect of the Allied disaster at Gallipoli, the opportunistic, self-promoting Churchill would have died forgotten and unloved had Adolf Hitler not presented him with a golden opportunity to rescue Western Civilization from the marauding Hun. Thus, even though he is universally admired — except by Christopher Hitchens — for compelling the maruading Hun to stop marauding, Churchill's legacy is somewhat mixed.
TO THE OUTSIDER, IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND British history, because the British people themselves do not understand it. I have lost track of the number of evenings I have lain awake in a mildewy Cotswold attic baying at the moon, disconsolate because I could not figure out whose idea it was to kill Lady Jane Grey, why Lady Guinevere bedded down with an unreliable mercenary, or why Scottish kings named James kept accepting invitations to their sworn enemies' foreboding castles after what happened to William Wallace when he showed up for a similar rendezvous. And, for the life of me, I have no idea what precipitated the War of the Roses. It does not help that York was a stronghold of the House of Lancaster, not the House of York. Nor does it help that the city of York, despite its traditional leanings toward the House of Lancaster, mourned the passing of the Yorkist Richard III, even though he was from the south, and technically the duke of Gloucester, the largest city in Britain without a professional football team, though it does hold the British record for indoor mass murders. It is as if Ulysses S. Grant hailed from Virginia and Jeb Stuart from rural Maine. It is simply impossible to keep things straight.
Inevitably, this brings us to the true focal point of this chapter, a legendary figure who straddles English society like a colossus and who, like so many other colossi of the nation's richly perplexing history, is both loved and hated. Saint and sinner, genius and cretin, hero and traitor, no figure in recent British history elicits such conflicting emotions as this man. A tyro who brought the British people as much joy as Charles II, yet who betrayed them as wantonly as Guy Fawkes; an enigma who combined the radiant charm of Elizabeth I with the perverse dowdiness of Elizabeth II; a youth who shone with the brilliance of Henry V at Agincourt, before succumbing to the senescent foolishness of a Henry VI anywhere, he is a historical anomaly, the one individual who embodies all the disparate strands of love and hate that typify the British people.
I am speaking, of course, of Paul McCartney The saga of Paul McCartney is too well known to repeat. Nevertheless, I shall repeat it here, because this is what sagas are for. McCartney was a working-class lad from grim, despondent Liverpool who formed a group called the Beatles, which took the world by storm in 1964, just shortly after John F. Kennedy's death, events that are probably not unrelated. For the next three or four years, the entire planet had a song in its heart and a bounce in its step due to the ministrations of the Fab Four and the carefree era they inspired. But then the world turned evil and personal antipathies involving dueling consorts caused the band to fall apart. Popular mythology holds that McCartney went on to make an uninterrupted series of revoltingly sappy records, both with Wings and as a solo performer, while Lennon took the high road and made a number of very entertaining, very adventurous, somewhat less commercially successful LPs.
But this is a deliberate falsification of the historical record. Not all of McCartney's solo music is awful; he made a very fine throwback record (Run Devil Run) in 1999, and an equally interesting record (CHOBA B CCCP: The Russian Album) in 1987. While it's true that Wings studio LPs are generally quite flatulent, there are a number of solid tracks on the band's live record Wings over America, and a few snappy tunes like "Veronica" and "The World Tonight" on subsequent McCartney releases. I am not arguing that McCartney's post-sixties work even vaguely compares to his collaborations with his fellow Beatles; I am merely saying that it is nowhere near as bad as the critics maintain.
Excerpted from Queenan Country by Joe Queenan. Copyright © 2004 Joe Queenan. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Meet the Author
The bestselling author of True Believers and Balsamic Dreams, Joe Queenan is a contributing writer at Men's Health and writes regularly for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Tarrytown, New York.
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