Spectator letters: England’s defining myth, and another forgotten genocide

Plus: Airline pilots answer back, David Starkey and his teeth, and a telling off from a tailor

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

Enemies within

Sir: I thought Matthew Parris was typically incisive in his last column, but perhaps not quite as much as the person who wrote its online headline, ‘Scotland knows the power of a common enemy. We English don’t’ (18 April). It is true that ‘the wish to be the underdog’ is a defining urge of our age, even in relatively prosperous polities such as Scotland and Catalonia. But Parris is wrong when he claims that the closest the English come to the ‘Braveheart feeling’ is in their collective memory of the second world war. If only that were true. Would any other country make so little of its crucial role in the defeat of the most evil ideology the world has known? Celebrations of the 70th anniversary this May are especially low-key, considering that it is the last time any substantial gathering of former combatants will be possible.

Instead, the historical moment that seems to define Englishness is the first world war. Witness the crowds flocking to the Tower of London last November to see the installation of poppies. But no common enemy of the English is evoked by the myth; certainly not Germany, which is widely admired. Despite the efforts of so many historians, the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ thesis of class war, of young working-class men sent over the top by toffs, is still the one that defines England’s past. We English, it appears, need to be victims as much as anyone else — but we find the enemy at home.
Paul Lay
London N5

Remember the Herero

Sir: While I hesitate to question the infallibility of either Matthew Parris or the Pope, I would challenge their description of the Armenian genocide as being the first of the 20th century (18 April). It was pre-dated by the genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of German South-West Africa in 1904–1907, giving Germany, incidentally, the distinction of being the only nation to have committed genocide twice within half a century.
Nick Ridout
Ingham, Lincolnshire

Pie in the sky

Sir: I’m sure my fellow airline pilots would applaud Tom Roberts’s suggestion of replacing us with computers (Letters, 18 April). There is nothing more irritating than being woken from a post-prandial snooze on the flight deck to deal with such irritants as engine failures or cargo compartment fire warnings or passengers having the temerity to suffer heart attacks on flights over Siberia. I’m confident that, with the aircraft pointing west and more than halfway across the Atlantic, the computer could deal with a message advising it that ‘US airspace is closed, state your intentions’, as happened on 11 September 2001. Captain Sullenberger and his US Airways crew might just disagree, however. He managed to ditch his Airbus safely in the Hudson River after an altercation with a flock of geese resulting in a double engine failure.
Robert Keith

In the teeth of the evidence

Sir: David Starkey is a perceptive historian, a wise man and an entertaining scourge of the left. But on dentistry he is wrong (Diary, 18 April). If British teeth are an example of the success of privatisation, I must review my belief that the NHS should be privatised. The British are impervious to vanity. They have the world’s best tailors and dress like Australians. Life in Britain suggests to me that if you want a good plumber, find a Pole. If you want a good dentist, find an Afrikaner.
Nigel Bruce
King’s Lynn, Norfolk

Levelling down

Sir: Rod Liddle tells us that he is to vote Labour to reduce the gap between rich and poor (18 April). He may well be right. Of course with the stewardship of the economy in the hands of Labour, we will all be worse off, rich and poor. This could result in some modest reduction in the rich/poor gap. So let’s join Rod and vote Labour. You know it makes sense.
Gordon Lane
Chislehurst, Kent

Signal virtue

Sir: James Bartholomew’s article on ‘virtue signalling’ (18 April) is spot on. A magnificent illustration of his thesis is the following recent outburst by an actor named Greg Wise: ‘I have actively loved paying tax, because I am a profound fucking socialist and I believe we are all in it together. But I am disgusted with HMRC. I am disgusted with HSBC. And I’m not paying a penny more until those evil bastards get to prison.’ Virtueballs, anyone?
Alexander Pelling
London WC2

Cutting remark

Sir: Hugo Rifkind’s article (4 April) and Ann Wright’s letter (18 April) have reminded me of a day 40 years ago when I walked into Dunn’s tailors and hatters in Oxford and suggested to the senior man there that I might be interested in buying a ready-to-wear suit. He summoned a younger assistant and said, ‘Take this gentleman to the ready-made rails — short and portly!’ It was my only attempt to buy a ready-made suit, and the inspiration for many diets.
Christopher Burton
Woodstock, Oxfordshire

Dead good

Sir: Julie Burchill’s heartening piece on living well (‘Fat chance’, 18 April) reminded me of a very Russian remark made by my boss when I worked in Moscow. She noticed that I was going through an abstemious phase and commented, ‘Rory, you are very lucky. You do not smoke, you do not drink; you will get to die healthy.’
Rory Buchanan

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Show comments
  • The Bogle

    Note to Paul Lay and Matthew Parris (who is British rather than English): the “crucial role in the defeat of the most evil ideology the world has known” was a British, not narrowly English achievement. The four peoples of the United Kingdom and the diverse peoples of the British Empire played that crucial role and it is the memory of those Britons that we honour on 11th November.
    Canadian and Indian citizenship date from 1947 and Australian and New Zealand citizenship from 1949. Before then, members of the Empire were all British subjects.

    • tjamesjones

      yes although if you look at contemporary WW1 evidence, the terms English and British are used pretty interchangeably (also by Germans etc). This is not to say that they are the same thing, but for the majority of Britons, the British/English distinction is not always a strong one throughout history.

      • The Bogle

        Even Lord Haig and the late Queen Mother, both Scots, referred to the UK as England. A German once told me that until 1920 the German word “England” comprised the whole of the British Isles.

        Messrs Lay and Parris, though, mean South Britain.

  • Emilia

    Help! I have a Polish dentist. But I do know an Afrikaner plumber.

  • little islander

    Rod Liddle is a man of convictions whereas Mr Gordon Lane is life’s monkey whose only concern is how well his pocket is lined. Pay peanuts, get monkeys. Pay more peanuts, get bigger monkeys.