Farewell to ‘this other Eden’

REX MURPHY

The England of pageant, chivalry, order, reserve and stoicism — the noble England — is no more.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea ... This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

– Richard II, Act 2 Scene 1

It is not likely, after the jackals of every class and colour loosed themselves upon the streets of England's major cities this week, that anyone will be reading the Bard's immortal tribute to his country. If they did, they might be weeping from the thought that all it so majestically celebrates is dust and reverie. The England of pageant, chivalry, order, reserve and stoicism – the noble England – is no more. That England lives only in the vaults of decaying memory. That England is the Cleese parrot.

The parade of violence, mayhem, callousness, petty greed and ignorant arrogance that has torn through the "other Eden" and roiled the "happy breed of men" is really quite beyond any ready or rational comparison. Some demi-paradise – where people leap out of buildings deliberately set on fire by the yobs and chavs (Brit terms for thugs and gangsters), where the oppressed wander in and out of street shops to liberate their merchandise, terrify the staff and smash everything they cannot steal.

Some precious stone, some seat of Mars. Seat of Posh Spice and Piers Morgan. What the world has watched is an England gutted of its most characteristic, time-wrought virtues. The new England is hollowed out; its spirit of community, which Shakespeare's lines celebrate so eloquently, and which Winston Churchill, three centuries later evoked, both in his person and his speeches, is no more.

The sense of self-sacrifice and deep concern for the neighbour that was so much of the spirit of those who lived through the Blitz; the virtues and practices of those times – times of real danger and real want – were viciously parodied by the rioters, who cared nothing for others, sought to hurt not help, burnt out their own communities and gave a finger to every other citizen in their country.

They would walk all over t heir neighbour in hobnailed boots and gladly kick him in the head on the way by, if it meant picking up a "free" cellphone, or any other tacky gimcrack of our time. Consider the now-famous Malaysian student who, lying on the ground bleeding, after having been attacked, was picked up by five or six guys (ostensibly to help him – it's on YouTube) who then rifle his backpack and steal his wallet and leave him still bleeding and unattended. The good Samaritan doesn't show up wearing a hoodie.

These vicious riots were a parody in another sense, too: a savage parody when you consider real misery, the absolute darkness of hunger and fear facing people in Somalia right now. And a parody, too, of some of those demonstrations in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere – where brutal governments set tanks upon their citizens and gun down those who are only asking for something as simple as a vote, or as innocent as democracy. Let us hear less and less of the "dispossessed" and "disenfranchised" of First-World countries. As I gather from footage of the riots, being "dispossessed" seems to be a condition curable by waltzing off with some store's plasma TV and a couple of iPhones.

What the world has watched is an England gutted of its most characteristic, time-wrought virtues.

Some exceptions there were: the Turkish shopkeepers lining up to protect themselves and their work – a great display. The Muslim father in Birmingham, who lost his son to the hooligans, himself imploring for respect and order – he was a monument of virtue and great-heartedness. ("I lost my son. Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home.")

But these are ordinary citizens. Not one politician stands out.

One message I take from this week: England has no leaders. And in that, she is much like the rest of the Western democracies. David Cameron wears a good suit, and speaks ever so carefully. It's not enough. There is nothing about him (or Nick Clegg or George Brown or Harriet Harman or Ed Bland – that last name is talismanic) to suggest he or they have anything to say in this time that will not be a fudge and an evasion. They are no better on the riots than they are on the financial crisis. They are all temporizers as are the majority of politicians of the Western world.

This goes double for the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who came back from a continental holiday three days late to his burning city and then whizzed clumsily about to various locations like some puppet getting tangled up in its own strings.

There is no one in England fit to lace Churchill's boots. But even to bring up that hallowed name is far too much. His name summons to mind another order of being, alien to the England of our time.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rex Murphy, "Farewell to 'this other Eden'." National Post (August 13, 2011).

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column for the National Post.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism – delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers – that makes Points of View a must-read."

Copyright © 2011 Rex Murphy




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