On Leaving England 1949

On Leaving England


How easy it is for the visitor to England to record general impressions. And how false those impressions are liable to be. For perhaps the one thing that is true of England is that Gorer-like generalisations cannot be applied with truth to England as a whole. Yet despite this the temptation to make notes cannot be resisted.

 I come from a new culture that maintains a strong English tradition. Though not as much as in generations, most of us still call England “Home”. Our newspapers devote half a page or more to English news. Our interest in politics is almost as much in English politics as it is in the outcome of the local election. The history taught in our schools is primarily that of England, secondarily that of Europe and the Commonwealth, and hardly at all that of our own land. Our literature is almost exclusively that of England, the United States and France —- our own writers, those self—conscious few, are almost completely neglected.

This however does not mean that we are English.

 Indeed, the first impression of England is entirely that of a strange, bewildering, foreign mass. The houses, buses, taxis, trains, the mists and deciduous trees, the uniform 0f the City and the speech of the Cockney ——  all these have been known to us in picture or through description since we were children. But intellectual knowledge is no substitute for  direct experience, and all these different things impinging at once is exciting, refreshing, and almost always unexpected.  It takes us at least six weeks to adopt the outward demeanour of  habitués.

 It takes us much longer to feel that we are English. By this I mean to feel that we could pass in most circumstances as English, without challenge; that we know what the English are talking about, even if we do not always understand the nuances of idiom; that we can judge correctly the response of English people in given circumstances; that we can take part in the same amusements and pursuits as English people without deliberate affectation; and yet that we retain those of our own values and habits that do not seem incongruous. I would say that the period is roughly three years. If I had left this country six months ago I would not have claimed to know even those few sectors of English life that I think I do know.

 It is often said that this difficulty of “getting to know” the English is somehow a fault of the English themselves. How falsely trite is that is. There are few friendlier and no more helpful people in the world. My wife and I have lived in a working class and a middle class district in London: in both cases we have depended totally and successfully upon our immediate neighbours for security in times of trouble -—   those neighbours so often characterised as being frigidly reserved.  I doubt if any other country in the world possesses a junior civil service ——   those clerks behind the desk in the Food Office ——   of such integrity and genuine friendliness. The much maligned bus conductor is in reality almost as indispensable for his assistance as the policeman. True, there are frigid elements in English society -—   some of the gentlemen from the public schools seem to have been coached in coldness of attitude which becomes reprehensible in the higher civil service and funny in the City.  But if we don’t know the English, it is entirely our own fault. For we tend to forget that there are fifty million people in the United Kingdom, that the variety of life is such that the individual Englishman is already living in the midst of an intellectual plenty, and that therefore he has no need to turn to us for amusement. The stranger who wishes to know the English must be prepared to contribute to English life in an interesting way. He will not succeed if he is only a nosey-parker.

It is a common—place that English culture consists of a number of sub—cultures. It is indeed amazing that there is such a thing as a British nation at all, so diverse is it even within the confines of England, let alone the Commonwealth. What is it that holds the Lancashire man to a common destiny with the Cockney, and the Battersea trader to that of the Chelsea type?   Is it that each of these sub—cultures is now so definitely established that it is of a conservative character?

Is it that the members have common ground in regarding the State as the instrument for maintaining the position of the sub­culture in relation to the others —   a vested interest as it were in the aspects of civilisation?

 How else can one explain the interesting anomalies that confront the observer of the English scene? The myth of flexibility, adaptation, and compromise as essentials of the island character contrasts with the fixed habits, immobility, and sometimes lack of enterprise of most sections of the community. The approved eccentric, that justification of English freedom, lives in harmony and understanding with the prosaic shop-keeper. Shortage of manpower cannot remove the artist from the pavement, the commissionaire from the entrance to the emporium,  the flunkey from the front right—hand seat of the Rolls—Royce ——   and few if any demand that this should be so. From all middle class lips come loud complaints of loss of privilege, and difficulties of maintaining a standard of living. In some fields, such as education, this seems to be obvious, though even here the approaching tragedy seems to be nation—wide, not that of a class. For in its national aspect it has remained hidden for generations, and is now gaining publicity, one would think, because for the first time it is affecting the vocal section of the community. In other fields the proposition is only relatively true —— compared with the situation before the war. The observer who cannot make this comparison is left a  little bewildered by such complaints —— for it is still apparently the case that money can buy the best of anything, and it is certainly the case that differences in net income are fantastically greater than anything known in my own home town across the sea.

 New Zealanders who come to England may be divided into three groups, on the basis of the impact of English society upon them.

In the first place, let it be admitted, there are many of us who are affected practically not at all. Our just pride in “God’s Own Country”, in our social development, in our perhaps mythical toughness without crudity, is not unique in these days of nationalism-within-the-Commonwealth. But when the conservative effects of the British tradition, the small population, and the antipodean position are added to this pride, it can be understood that many of us are bred into a smug and unreceptive pattern. English emigrants are not the only ones who return to their native shore disillusioned, unadapted, hurt because society refuses to flatter their ego or to accept them as welcome reformers. How often the New Zealander goes home in the belief that England is nothing more than a gigantic slum, the people reaping the reward for the sins of the past, the country inhabited by a peculiar race of unreceptive hypocrites, wedded to a backward social organisation and inefficient technology.

 The second group is respectful of English ways of life and proud of English achievements. Yet withal they will have none of it for themselves. Their task is to return home, to give to New Zealand the fruits of their experience, to remember their visit with affection. These perhaps are the true New Zealanders, the citizens who may protect our land from the stagnation that seems to be its lot, who are good ambassadors and the salt of the earth.

 The last group is small in numbers but complicated to describe. It consists of those who love England and who have left New Zealand for the main part of their lives. In part it consists of those who were driven by ambition or by economic depression to seek their fortune abroad: paralleled in a sense by the English who migrated from the countryside to the town. In part it consists of those who, with an exaggerated sense of social prestige, come to ape the dialect and mannerisms of the dons, the dress of Chelsea, or the night life of Mayfair.

 And in the final part it consists of those who just love England. Very little more can be said than that. They admire the countryside, the variety of life, the ability to satisfy desires with the utmost taste and quality, the stimulation of the cosmopolitan element, the concentration of intellectual and technical power, the serene tempo of living -— yes, even in the face of atomic power and middle class disillusion -— and the excitement of social change in a fundamentally conservative society. Only the most compelling need makes people who share this view leave England, more than ever now.

Cyril Belshaw