Before I went to live in England for a few years, I actually believed that a very significant proportion of the British population did inhabit enchanting villages where there were very few cars, no chainstores - but always at least one flourishing pub and usually a good village shop/post office plus an antique and/or bookshop - where foxgloves were eternally flowering and women spent much of their time cycling to and from sorting out the church hymn books, riding old-fashioned bicycles with wicker baskets.
Despite the gruesome events at the centre of each episode, the impression created by television series like Midsomer Murders, Rosemary and Thyme, Morse, its successor, Lewis, et cetera et cetera, is that rather than there being the odd, self-consciously lovely, much-flagged-in-the-tourist-books village here and there, there are lots and lots of them. Viewers come away with the idea that masses and masses - perhaps the great majority - of English people enjoy cozy lives in pretty, harmonious (apart from the odd, distressing but, in plot terms, necessary murder) communities, where the churches are still well-attended each Sunday and, rather than most of the villagers being time-poor commuters who barely spend any time in the place, everyone is in and out of each other's houses and everyone knows everyone else.
When I'd spent a bit of time in Britain, I realised that this was an illusion. At first I thought it was an illusion created to please foreigners but after a while I began to wonder whether it wasn't actually an illusion intended for domestic consumption. If you actually have to live in contemporary Britain, it is comforting to watch programmes depicting the kinds of villages that are shown in Midsomer Murders and to pretend to yourself that this image of your nation is actually real.
I thought of this the other day, when I heard Will Self say that he thought the most longlasting legacy left behind by Britain in the regions of its former empires was the habit of hypocrisy. I remembered then that, according to Harold Nicholson, hypocrisy fulfils for the British the same purpose as, I believe, Midsomer villages.
'Our hypocrisy,' said Nicolson, intending by his use of the first person plural to encompass not humanity but the English in particular, 'derives not from any intention to deceive others but from an ardent desire to comfort ourselves.'
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