The English

The English

And crossing the Channel, one cannot say much
Of French and the Spanish, the Danish or Dutch
The Germans are German, the Russians are red,
And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed!

The English are moral, the English are good
And clever and modest and misunderstood.

And all the world over, each nation's the same
They've simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they've won
And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!

The English, the English, the English are best
So up with the English and down with the rest.

 

 

The story

 

Some lyrics for you, courtesy of Flanders and Swann, from A Song of Patriotic Prejudice, originally performed in their 1963 show 'At the Drop of Another Hat'. It's OK, it's satire, and they don't mean all the terrible things they say in the earlier verses about the Welsh, Scots and Irish.

Every Brit of a certain age remembers Flanders and Swann, and surely every Brit of any age is familiar with their biggest hit, The Hippopotamus Song ("Mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood" etc.)

Michael Flanders (1922-1975) and Donald Swann (1923-1994) had been friends at Westminster School and both went on to Christ Church Oxford, though their studies were interrupted by the War. Flanders contracted polio in 1943 while serving in the Navy and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Meeting after the War they started collaborating as songwriters for other artists. They were a popular turn at parties and so took to performing in public together, becoming a huge success in the late 1950s and early 60s. Along the way, Flanders became an early campaigner for improved access to theatres for wheelchair users.

Donald Swann, half of this quintessentially English duo, was the son of a Russian (of British ancestry) father and an Azerbaijani Muslim mother, and was born in Wales. During the war he had registered as a conscientious objector and served with the Quakers' Friends Ambulance Unit. The partnership was dissolved mostly at his instigation because he didn't enjoy touring, and because he became increasingly uneasy with the wealth his career brought him. He preferred to compose more serious and religious music, and later visited South Africa to perform to audiences of mixed races.

Flanders, meanwhile, remained a major celebrity, particularly on the stage, though his voice alone would have guaranteed him a good living working for the radio. Like Swann, his solo work was much more serious, though he could do political satire with the best of them, such as his songs Twenty Tons of TNT or his loose translation of Georges Brassens' song extolling the virtues of the 1914-18 war: "No doubt Mars, among his chattels, has got some really splendid war/Full of bigger and bloodier battles that we've ever seen before/But until that time comes, Sir, when that greater war comes on the scene/The one that I on the whole prefer, Sir, is the war of 14-18."

 

Eugene Byrne

Eugene Byrne is a freelance journalist and author, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine. You can read his online blog at http://eugenebyrne.wordpress.com/

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