There is a well-known story that back in the 1990s Peter (now Lord) Mandelson dropped into a fish and chip shop while canvassing with local Labour Party members in his Hartlepool constituency and ordered haddock and chips; then, pointing to the mushy peas which are a favourite complement to that dish in the north of England, he is supposed to have added: “And I’ll have some of that guacamole too.”
The story is, of course, too good to be true, or at least too good to be true about Peter Mandelson. Apparently something of the kind did indeed happen to a young American intern working with the Labour Party around the same time and the story of her misapprehension came to the ears of Neil Kinnock, who found it highly amusing, could not resist retelling it and eventually had the bright idea of substituting as its protagonist his party colleague, a man whose cultural comfort zone was presumed to be strikingly at variance with that of his constituents in the safe northeastern seat that had been found for him after his successful stint as Labour’s director of communications (a post to which Kinnock had appointed him).
On one level this is simply a story of political fun ‑ somewhat spiteful fun perhaps, though at a fairly harmless level. But it also says something about how the British like to see themselves in relation to things culturally foreign, in this case particularly the British working class but arguably a broader swathe of society than that. In the Peter Morgan/Stephen Frears television film The Deal (2003), which revolves around the contest for the Labour leadership after the sudden death of John Smith, the wonderful Paul Rhys plays Mandelson as a softspoken, feline schemer, whose delicate transfer of his support from Brown to Blair proves to be decisive. Certainly Mandelson appears a strange fish to the hard-drinking Praetorian Guard of Scottish Labour MPs (remember Scottish Labour MPs?) surrounding Smith, one of whom stage-whispers just after he has left the room: “Were those socks yellow?” Gordon Brown’s chirpy cornerman Charlie Whelan meanwhile remarks: “That man smells of vanilla.” It is of course far from irrelevant that this exotic intruder into the macho political world of Westminster is gay, and perhaps not completely irrelevant that his family background is partly Jewish.
There is a long tradition of associating “sophistication”, particularly when that means a weakness for elegance or ostentation of dress or what is seen as a too refined or cosmopolitan taste in food or drink, with decadence, sexual licence, “effeminacy” and a decline in the homespun values (which have served us well). George Orwell, always a blowhard in such matters, routinely referred to some of the most accomplished poets of his era as “pansies”. Some of them were indeed homosexual or bisexual but Orwell, whom it would be inaccurate to call homophobic in the normal sense of the word, was thinking of many things other than sexual orientation. When he said that certain people (fashionable literary-political intellectuals) took their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow, he was referring to what he saw as an unfortunate deviation from the natural, plain and decent, healthy and normal virtues – virtues he perhaps overvalued. Auden, one of Orwell’s favourite targets, was, curiously enough, referring to much the same cultural gulf between the plain and the sophisticated in his oft-quoted lines “To the man-in-the-street who, I’m sorry to say, / Is a keen observer of life, / The word intellectual suggests right away / A man who’s untrue to his wife.”
But how easy is it to establish what is plain and healthy and decent? Is an apparent lack of sophistication or intellectuality, a sturdy normality, an essentially English trait? Certainly it is one that can pay a political dividend: while poor Ed Miliband showed to the satisfaction of many through his inability to convincingly eat a bacon sandwich that he was not prime-ministerial material, Nigel Farage loves to be photographed with a pint of beer in his hand, and sometimes a cigar, just like a normal bloke. And the camera normally does not follow him into the restaurant, where it is said he has been known to polish off a bottle or two of Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Have the British, or the English, always been enthusiasts for plain “unmucked about with” food or is this merely a result of conditioning that derives from the introduction of mass-produced (highly spiced and salted) industrial branded grocery goods in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? One of the earliest English cookbooks, A Boke of Cokery, written about 1440, suggests that there may have been a considerable complexity and delicacy associated with English cuisine in the late medieval period, at least in the houses of the more prosperous. Here is a recipe for “custarde” ‑ not custard as we know it, rather something like a meat quiche:
Take Vele (veal), and smyte hit in lituƚƚ peces, and wassℏ it clene; put hit into a faire potte with faire water, and lete hit boyle togidre; þen̄ (then) take parcelly, Sauge (sage), Isoppe (hyssop), Sauerey (savory), wassℏ hem, hewe hem, And cast hem into flessℏ whan hit boileth; then̄ take powder of peper, canel (cinnamon), Clowes (cloves), Maces, Saffron̄, salt, and lete hem boyle togidre, and a goode dele of wyne witℏ aƚƚ, And whan̄ the flessℏ is boyled, take it vppe fro þe (the) brotℏ, And lete the broth kele. Whan̄ hit is colde, streyne yolkes and white of egges thorgh a streynour, and put hem (them) to the brotℏ, so many that the broth be styff ynowe, And make faire cofyns (pie crusts), and couche iij. or iiij. (three or four) peces of the flessℏ in þe (the) Coffyns; then take Dates, prunes, and kutte hem; cast thereto powder of Gynger and a lituƚƚ Vergeous (verjuice), and put to the brotℏ, and salt; then̄ lete the coffyn̄ and the flessℏ bake a lituƚƚ; And þen put the brotℏ in the coffyns, And lete hem bake till they be ynogℏ.
One of the main tropes of contemporary academic study (of almost anything in the humanities field, it often seems) is the notion of “the other”, the other being the people who are not like us, the uncivilised, the savage, the sinister, the threatening. For “Westerners”, a wide category extending from ancient Greeks to modern Canadians, the other has over time included any number of peoples, the Persians, the Scythians, the Mongols, the Arabs, the Ottoman Turks, “native peoples” of many hues and body shapes, the Russians, the Arabs (or simply Muslims) again, the Russians again. And as well as real others there have been mythical others, always lurking just beyond the known world: in Shakespeare’s words “the Cannibals that each other eat, / The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders”. Of course it will usually be the case – and this seems to be less often emphasised in academic discourse – that those we consider to be other may very well look on us in the same way. Medieval travellers believed that the apparently well-attested race of dog-headed men lived somewhere in the Far East and when they first arrived there they asked where they might find them. But their hosts replied: “The dog-heads? We’ve heard of them of course. But we thought they lived among you, in the West.”
The Greek geographer, traveller and historian Strabo (64/63 BC – AD 24) believed that a people’s degree of civilisation could usually be measured by its degree of proximity to the Mediterranean (he himself was born nearer the Black Sea, in what is now Turkey). This said a lot about the Britons, but of course even more about the Irish, wilder yet, who according to Strabo ate their dead fathers and had sex with their mothers and sisters. And yet civilisation and its antithesis ‑ savagery, uncouthness, or, seen in a somewhat different and more positive light, simplicity of manners ‑ can be viewed in more than one way. Thus we can construe the Mandelson fable to suggest that a man who likes to wolf down a helping of mushy peas with his fish and chips is a man you can trust, while a man who mistakes it for some foreign muck he eats up in London is one you cannot. There can be virtue, it seems, in a lack of sophistication (or pretension), which should not of course be mistaken for a lack of intelligence: if a Yorkshireman tells you “I’m a plain man, me” that should not lead you to think that you are likely to best him in a financial transaction.
The historian Tacitus (AD 56 – c117) used his accounts of the military campaigns against the northern tribes and nations (Germans, Britons) to teach his Roman audiences some moral lessons: chiefly that their society was too decadent and soft and that if it wished to survive it might possibly learn something from the rude barbarians. Cassius Dio (AD 155 – 235), writing in the same vein, has the British warrior queen Boudica (Boadicea) encouraging her soldiers with reflections on the softness of their Roman enemies compared with their own sturdiness and adaptability: “They need bread and wine and oil, and if any of these things fails them, they die. For us, on the other hand, any grass or root serves as bread, the juice of any plant as oil, any water as wine.” She may well be just a woman, she tells her troops, but the real woman, she insists (in Charlotte Higgins’s translation), “is the emperor Nero, playing the lyre back in Rome, smeared in make-up. Free us from these Roman men, she begs – if they are men at all, with their warm-water bathing, their wine-imbibing, myrrh-perfumed homosexuality.”
As the anti-European ultras, well-organised and likely to be supported by two or three major newspapers, gird up in their campaign to take Britain out of the EU we can expect to hear a lot more about the unique qualities of the island race, its toughness, resilience, independence, robust common sense and contempt for Jesuitical or bureaucratical scheming, not to mention wine sauces. Curiously, the modern Boudica, Mrs Thatcher, was a lot less isolationist than many of those who would now claim her as an inspiration might like to think. “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community,” she told the College of Europe in Bruges in 1988.
Charlotte Higgins, in her wonderful study Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, tells of the public reaction which flowed in 2011 from an article in Antiquity and subsequent coverage in the Daily Mail of the discovery in York of the skull of a young woman who became known as “the ivory bangle lady”. Under the headline “Revealed: The African queen who called York home in the fourth century”, the Mail quoted archaeologist Dr Hella Eckardt, who said: “We’re looking at a population mix which is closer to contemporary Britain than previous historians had expected. In the case of York, the Roman population may have had more diverse origins than the city has now … [The bangle lady’s] case contradicts assumptions that may derive from more recent historical experience, namely that immigrants are low status and male and that African individuals are likely to have been slaves.”
The readers of the Mail, or of its website, were not going to take this lying down. “More mult-cult propaganda and lies,” wrote “Oppenheimer” from Dartford. “Derrick”, in Nottingham, described the research as “insidious, neo-Marxist, multi-cultist propaganda”. And while “David” from Nottinghamshire thought it was all a “desperate attempt to fool us into thinking we’ve always had a multi-racial society”, “Ste” in Middlesborough took some comfort from the thought that “if we were multicultural once and managed to reverse it, we can do it again”.
There is a problem, however, in regarding the York find as a fake or as something insignificant freighted with too much meaning by academics with an agenda, for the evidence of the cosmopolitanism of Roman Britain – the thoroughgoing internationalism of its military and administrative machine – is lying about everywhere. In northwest Glasgow, Higgins, following the traces of the Antonine Wall, moves from New Kilpatrick Cemetery, full of the graves of Curries, Gillespies and Capaldis, to the prosperous suburb of Bearsden, where a set of Roman bathhouses can be found among the large gardens and adjacent to a 1970s block of flats. “When the archaeologists analysed sewage deposits from the Roman latrines,” she writes, “they found that the soldiers had been eating raspberries, strawberries and figs, and poppy- and coriander-seed bread. As were, I suspected, the middle classes of today’s Bearsden.”
It is, of course, possible to shut one’s mind to all of this cultural complexity and hybridity, to see Roman Britain as just a top layer, and Norman Britain another one, under which the unchanging life of the sturdy common people ‑ first Britons then Saxons ‑ went on uninterrupted and largely unchanged throughout the centuries. For the island-race ultras this is a comforting theory, but theories can often be undermined by evidence.
For the people that made itself great and painted the globe pink on a plain diet of roast beef and ale, wine, one can affect to believe, was until very recently a drink for toffs only, while hummus, tapenade or guacamole were, and are, indulged in only by funny folk. But in 2011 excavations in the buried Roman town of Silchester in Hampshire reached down below the Roman stratum to the ancient British settlement underneath, dating back at the very least two thousand years. Perhaps the most remarkable object they found there was an olive stone. And thus the idea of Britain’s “natural” cultural isolation from Europe seemed, yet again, to be compromised by a tiny piece of detritus half the size of a fingernail, casually tossed aside no doubt by some Iron Age metrosexual.
Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky is published by Vintage at £9.99.