England in my dreams

I DON'T recall precisely when I fell in love with England. But then, that's in the nature of lasting, post-adolescent love. The ``green and pleasant land'' had no particular hold on the imagination and affections of this son of the American Midwest during my youth or early manhood. Then, as though by a nighttime visitation, I awakened one morning in my late 20s a full-blooded Anglophile. In this, I quickly learned, I was far from alone. Anglophilia is found in every corner of the world. Of course, Britain is not the only country that engenders strong loyalty in the hearts of foreigners. There are Francophiles, Russophiles, and Westerners for whom the Orient holds a profound attraction. The United States exerts a gravitational pull on countless people around the globe. But in no hearts does cross-cultural love burn more fiercely than in those that have been given over to the ``sceptered isle.''

What happened, looking back, is that I became a loyal subject in what might be called the Third British Empire. It is an empire not of gunboats and pith-helmeted sahibs, but of telecommunications. Thanks to the BBC and some superb British television and film studios, the sun never sets on broadcasts of high-quality productions emanating from the United Kingdom.

It was in the TV presence of ``The Forsyte Saga'' that I recall initially surrendering some of my cultural sovereignty. Then came ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' with its captivating productions of ``Upstairs, Downstairs'' and ``Poldark,'' on and on through ``Churchill: The Wilderness Years'' and ``The Jewel in the Crown.''

My allegiance was subsequently deepened through literature. I rushed through Galsworthy's recounting of the Forsyte tale. Then I gobbled up other English novelists, from Dickens and Trollope in the last century to C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell in this one.

There are different degrees and styles of Anglophilia. Some people fasten onto what they regard as the quaint aspects of English living - the England of thatched roofs and tea shops and endearing eccentrics. Such people tend to affect mangled British accents and such locutions as ``lorry'' and ``pram.'' They also have a strong interest in the British royal family.

For other Anglophiles, a ``Made in Britain'' label is the ultimate insignia of consumer taste and sophistication. They wear Savile Row shirts and Burberry raincoats, they order Christmas presents from Harrod's and marmalade from Fortnum & Mason.

My own Anglophilia has not affected my style so much as my recreation. In addition to my predilection for British entertainment and literature, I spend hours nourishing a keen interest in British history and politics. I get much of the news of the day from The Economist. And I may, through assiduous map study, know the streets of London better than some natives do.

But an irritating thought keeps tugging at my mind. Is it truly England I love? Or is it an idealized portrait of a country based on images that have themselves been filtered through the imaginations of novelists and screenwriters? It's not that I fear that my picture of England is blindly romantic (I have, after all, read Dickens at his ``Bleak [House'']-est), so much that I know my picture is selective.

I've visited Britain on just three brief occasions, and most of my time was spent in London. What would I think of a foreigner who professed himself a devoted Americanist on the basis of short visits to New York and Washington, together with a passing familiarity with American literature and popular culture?

What, I ask myself, do I know - other than in a glib, surface way - about conditions in England's impoverished north, or in Scotland and Wales? Or about the day-to-day workings of England's obstinate class system? Or about the psychology of a once-dominant world power whose glorious memories are mocked by a circumscribed present?

I chide myself that ``my'' England is really just Oxbridge writ large and is even more attenuated by reason of being so dependent on the images produced by Britain's opinion-molding elite. As such, is my Anglophilia truly more bare of affectation, subjective overlays, and even subtle condescension than the pseudo-Englishness of Americans who observe Boxing Day or take pride in knowing the difference between an earl and a viscount?

I will go on loving England. I recognize, though, that my Anglophilia is at once a promise and a rebuke. It testifies to people's willingness to break the barriers of parochialism and to reach out to other cultures. But it is also a reminder of the deep humility and cleareyed self-awareness required to understand another culture - lest, when we look at that culture, we find ourselves staring only into a mirror erected by our own fantasies and preconceptions.

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