The English have never been unduly admiring of their own great men. All of Thomas Carlyle's efforts failed to establish Oliver Cromwell securely in the Victorian pantheon. The names of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington summon up public houses rather than heroes. Winston Churchill in this century, like the Elder Pitt in the 18th and the Younger Pitt in the 19th, was buried with ceremony then swiftly consigned to history: which means that for the bulk of the population he became irrelevant. Forced to choose last year between cattle and Sam Johnson as a subject for commemorative stamps, the Post Office opted for rumination rather than reputation. Even our soap operas dwell on the working classes and the drab, not - as in the United States - on the rich, the gorgeous and the powerful. It would be nice if this national indifference to glamour and achievement derived from a sturdy and egalitarian refusal to be impressed. But since our only national cult is the Royal Family, James Agate's less flattering verdict may also be more appropriate: 'The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.'
LRB 18 April 1985 | PDF Download