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More Sex, Please, We’re British

3 minute read
Calvin Trillin

I am not enthusiastic about Tony Blair’s plans to create a youthful and stylish New Britain, where people are less formal and more willing to express their emotions. I’ve always been fond of the stodgy and overly formal Old Britain, where people don’t have any emotions to express.

Unlike the Prime Minister, I treasure the image of English men’s clubs, full of dozing old gents who have names like Trevor and refer to their wives in tender moments as “old thing.” I would be unhappy to see Jeeves and Bertie Wooster get on a first-name basis. I don’t even want to think about the possibility that Jeeves, given the new atmosphere, may feel it necessary to confess tearfully that beneath his awesomely capable exterior he often feels himself lacking in self-esteem.

If Jeeves and Bertie Wooster did get on a first-name basis these days, Jeeves probably wouldn’t call his employer Bertie, the diminutive of Bertram. That name is strictly Old Britain. He might call him Scott. According to a recent Washington Post article by Dan Balz, the Prime Minister’s advisers asked a chef from Cambridge to cook for an English-French summit meeting and then asked if he could change his first name from Anton to Tony for the day, presumably because it sounds zippier.

Blair himself insists that his aides call him Tony. Will English schoolchildren in history classes now be referring to one of his predecessors as Sir Tony Eden? I hope not. Sir Anthony Eden was my idea of a proper British Prime Minister. His policies weren’t much to speak of, but at least he looked and sounded the part. The same was true of Harold Macmillan, another stiff old bird who mumbled through his mustache and never heard of anyone getting in touch with his inner self. Any aide who referred to that Prime Minister as Hal would presumably have found himself transferred to a social-services suboffice in Leeds.

Yes, I realize that I’m living in the past. I realize that the England of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster was a thing of the past even when P.G. Wodehouse wrote about it 75 years ago. So what? I can live in the past in someone else’s country. I’m not ashamed to say that when men in London began to realize some years ago that they actually didn’t have to wear heavy wool suits in August, I was critical of their willingness to cast aside standards of proper dress. After all, I hadn’t been the one doing the sweating.

I don’t think I should have to concoct a whole new stereotype of England at this stage of the game. The same is true of other European countries. For instance, we’ve come to count on France to be the sort of place where any transaction, from registering the name of a baby to checking out a volleyball, requires the approval of some sour time server who will straighten the carbons between eight copies of the appropriate form and begin his questioning with “Granmuzzer’s maiden name?” I think it would be irresponsible for Lionel Jospin to transform French functionaries into cool guys who cut corners. Remember, we helped all these people out during the war. The least they can do is conform to our prejudices.

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