Snippets 153. Over the last three years that Windows into History has been going, I have occasionally championed a particular favourite author of mine from the late 19th Century: Max O’Rell (1847-1903). He was a humourous French travel writer, whose work has now been all but forgotten, but he deserves to be remembered. I have compared him to Bill Bryson. He achieved that kind of level of popularity and critical acclaim. How quickly we forget.
In John Bull and His Island (1883), O’Rell focusses on Britain. “John Bull” was a slang term for somebody British, originating in the satirical character created by John Arbuthnot in 1712. O’Rell starts the book by looking at the British Empire, observing how so much was controlled by so few troops, in comparison with the other empires. He also looks at the motivations for empire-building, observing that “the French fight for glory; the Germans for a living; the Russians to divert the attention of the people from home affairs; but John Bull is a reasonable, moral and reflecting character: he fights to promote trade, to maintain peace and order on the face of the earth, and the good of mankind in general.” The British Empire, in O’Rell’s view, was a moral conquest: “Give me your territory and I will give you the Bible. Exchange no robbery.”
O’Rell goes on to observe how the British press took an indignant line about empire-building, somehow expecting conquest without loss of British lives, for example criticising the Zulus for “cheating” by decoying the British into a trap and massacring them, without sending “their cards to give notice of their arrival”.
So what human qualities led to the national character of “John Bull”, and the creation of the British Empire? O’Rell describes John Bull as “brave, calm, tenacious, and a consummate diplomatist”, and goes on to describe an encounter with a prime example of a “John Bull”, whom he met during his own childhood:
While I was at school in Paris, I remember a score of us schoolboys were one day gathered about the crossbeam of a gymnasium, jumping, one after another, on to a heap of sand. Among us was a young English boy, about twelve years old, watching eagerly for his turn. The poor child was suffering from hernia, and we tried to dissuade him from his purpose. “Why not?” said he: “you do it; why shouldn’t I?” And in spite of all our entreaties, he mounted the crossbeam, sprang, jumped – but to rise no more. We carried him to his bed. An hour after, he had breathed his last. “It shall not be said,” he murmured in his death throes, “that an Englishman cannot jump as well as a Frenchman.” Poor little hero!
A few days before, we had all done justice to the contents of a well-filled hamper that his mother had sent him from Devonshire. He had insisted upon our all tasting the nice things that came from his home. Home! This is a word that our language lacks. It is true we have foyer; but it is a word used chiefly in the elevated style, while in England there exists not a man, however lowly, but possessed of a heart to feel and love, who is not a little moved by the word home. This may be to a certain extent explained by the fact that every Englishman has his own little house, and that the climate, which does not foster open-air pleasures, makes the intimate joys of the fireside better appreciated. Go and try to feel poetically inspired over the subject of the domestic hearth, when you live on a fifth-floor back!
That’s an interesting observation isn’t it. We have this word “home” and it means something subtly different to “house” or “abode”. According to O’Rell, the British concept of “home” was a consequence of our climate, probably like most things!
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