After English pilots started dropping bombs on me I began to reconsider my Anglophiliaby Aleksa Djilas / April 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Jorge luis borges noticed how English friendships begin with avoiding intimacies and are soon transformed into occasional exchanges of books and journals. I was an Anglophile long before I first arrived in England in the early 1970s-to discover with delight that the cliffs of Dover really were white and the police unarmed.
As the son of the Yugoslav writer and political prisoner Milovan Djilas, I grew up believing in western democracy. Civilised parliamentary England seemed its mother and father. And what about France, where the rights of man and citizen were proclaimed in 1789? For us dissidents in communist Yugoslavia, the word revolution did not rhyme with liberty. Piecemeal English-style reforms were what we wanted. Tito’s regime referred to all pro-western intellectuals as “bourgeois liberals” and this was not entirely wrong. We were the successors of those 19th-century Balkan leaders who wanted to limit the power of kings and often cried: “Anglia docet.” (Vladimir Jovanovic, the father of liberalism in Serbia and a friend of Gladstone, even invented for his son a new name: “Slobodan” means “a free man.” It is, of course, carried by the Serb leader Milosevic-in his case a misnomer.)
Britain does not have a written constitution, as every child knows (“used to know,” my very English friend Edward Pearce would say), but the British parliamentary reforms of the 1830s were actually incorporated into many 19th-century European constitutions, including Balkan ones. The constitution of Serbia from 1903 was a rather English compromise between the monarchy and a parliament based on popular representation. This was one reason why it actually worked.
I lived in London for almost ten years, mostly in the 1980s, as a graduate student and writer (the Home Office granted me asylum after an unnerving six-month silence following my letter of application-and several attempts by the Yugoslav embassy to prevent it.) In the small group of emigr?s with which I was associated, the question of re-establishing the monarchy in Yugoslavia would occasionally be raised. After all, Britain was impeccably democratic and the British loved their queen. I resisted the idea, because the ways of our kings were not very English. I am still against their restoration, but I now have an added argument: what if our royals turned out to be like the Windsors?
What I used to admire most was English political maturity. We Yugoslavs had quite a few talents and we were often generous friends. But in politics we were juvenile, with a tendency towards serious delinquency when it came to Serbian-Croatian-Muslim relations. So I wanted Yugoslavia to be more English. Now there is no Yugoslavia and Britain is being Balkanised-the word is “devolution,” but it can’t fool me.
When I lived in Britain, the English seemed physically frailer and less macho than Yugoslavs. However, a Yugoslav doctor working in a London hospital told me how his patients endured a rather nasty procedure called liver biopsy without all the moaning, complaining and unnecessary questions he had put up with back home. And I myself have had the sad privilege of witnessing the impressive stoicism of more than one English friend facing death. My fellow students, I noticed, were less frightened before exams than in Belgrade, and not so inclined to believe tales about incredibly difficult questions. And I soon realised that the sexual revolution in Britain was not only hedonistic but also heroic-it took place in cold bedrooms.
Since then, the English have become obsessed with their health, and their renowned scepticism has succumbed to a belief in miracle cures. This, of course, comes from the US and is spreading to every corner of the world. But not so long ago Americans were regarded as Englishmen gone wrong.
The English used to be proud of being good losers. Now they cannot even win gracefully. When British troops marched into Kosovo last June (after all, Serbian forces had withdrawn) they encountered no opposition and did not suffer a single casualty. Yet they were hailed in the press as heroes; the media competed with stories about dangerous minefields and Serbian paramilitaries running amok.
During the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher criticised both the BBC and ITN for their lack of patriotism. Although like most Serbs I cheered for England against the Argentinians, I admired the devotion to objective reporting. Small facts are more valuable than the big Truth-isn’t that what liberal English politics was all about, and what we also wanted in Yugoslavia? During the two and half months of Nato bombing in Serbia last spring, only one journalist, the BBC’s John Simpson, was attacked by Tony Blair.
The main source of England’s greatness was that it was an island, both geographically and in time. Its ideas, institutions and way of life were either more traditional or more advanced than in Europe or the US. Sometimes, most admirably, they were both. Now the English internal clock has become synchronised with the rest of the world-or at least the rest of the west. The millennium dome may become a symbol of a defeat worse than the one at Hastings.
The English have become our contemporaries and they can’t cope with it-it is destroying their individuality, the basis of their liberty. English politicians have always been specifically English and thus somehow better-even English fascists were less fascist, English Stalinists less Stalinist. You could not imagine Disraeli as a German chancellor or Attlee as the president of the French republic.
I can easily imagine Tony Blair as a politician in any western country. Indeed, a leader of an opposition party in Serbia is his counterpart. (Come to think of it, another one resembles him, too.) That is why I find it so regrettable that he is the British prime minister. Once I could talk for hours about British politics. Now I have to force myself to do so. I feel like the dim-witted heroine of a short story by Chekhov, who sees things happening, but can’t say anything about them “even if you gave her a thousand roubles.” When someone mentions Tony Blair, something silly usually comes to mind-like his small breasts protruding from the T-shirt in which I once saw him on television, or his wife’s huge mouth.
I am obviously not being fair. But I was bombed in Belgrade and I don’t have anything but words to bomb back. Samuel Johnson, exalting his wife Tetty on her gravestone, said that in lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath. Nor am I, when writing an epitaph to a friendship with a country.