National Self-Mockery

Watching Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience on U-Tube reminds me that we shouldn’t take the Victorians too seriously – because they didn’t take themselves all that seriously. Patience mocks everyone, including the mockers themselves; not only aesthetes, its best-known targets, but also, for example, the military: the butt of much scorn, as well as admiration, in Victorian Britain generally. And there’s much more of this kind of thing in the other Savoy operas.

Elsewhere, for those who believe that Victorian Britain was defined by its empire, there was plenty of anti-imperial and anti-war mockery too. Take that famous ‘Jingo’ music-hall song of 1877/8:

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too!

We’ve fought the Bear before and while we’re Britons true

The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

This is supposed to mark the origin of the word ‘Jingo’ used in this context, and to be evidence of the ubiquity of British patriotism at the time. But what is often forgotten is that there was a contemporary mocking version of that song, which was also popular in the music halls:

I don’t want to fight, I’ll be slaughtered if I do,

I’ll change my togs, I’ll sell my kit, and sell my rifle too!

I don’t like this war, I ain’t a Briton true

And I’d let the Russians have Constantinople.

Indeed, the amount of anti-imperialism there was in 19th-century Britain, both satirical and serious, is not I think properly credited by historians. One of the points I make in my last book (British Imperial, £16.59 from Amazon and worth every penny) is that it was the Brits who effectively invented anti-imperialism, and so should be given credit for that. (The American revolutionaries weren’t properly anti-imperialists. They just wanted to free themselves from Britain’s empire, in order to go around doing some imperializing of their own. See my Empire and Superempire: £18.99 from Amazon.) This was because Britain wasn’t ever a homogeneous society, with what is sometimes called a ‘dominant discourse’, or anything like it. And because we Brits have always joked about ourselves. In difficult times, it’s what makes life bearable for us, and makes us loveable (I hope) to foreigners.

America may be the same just now: viz the glorious torrent of anti-Trump satire currently flooding the internet. It must make their recent disaster more tolerable to liberal Americans. And it’s why I still love the country so much.

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