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Culture Wars: Clean-cut Englishman?

Nigel Jones on Rupert Brooke and the makings of a modern myth

Look closely (if you can bear to) at the chiselled features of Hugh Grant, displayed on cinema screens across the country in Notting Hill and Mickey Blue Eyes. That carelessly floppy hair, those sky-high cheek bones, those vacuous blue eyes...where have we seen them before? In a million other movies, plays and books that have appeared over the course of the twentieth century whenever a model young Englishman has been called for. Rupert Everett in Another Country, Dirk Bogarde in the Doctor series, the youthful Laurence Olivier: all have played this generic role to perfection.

When Hollywood thinks English, it thinks in a number of stereotypes - flannelled fool (played to perfection by Wilfred Hyde White in numerous incarnations), muddied oaf (a working-class version of the above, often played by Michael Caine) - and clean young Englishman.

How did this stereotype originate? It came, as did so many ills that still afflict this nation, from the age of Empire - and specifically from that great bloodletting that tolled the knell of Europe's imperial hegemony - the First World War. The war that burst like a thunderclap from the blue skies of August 1914 came after a century of 'peace'. It rapidly became clear to the Empire's rulers that this would be a new type of war: a bruising, Darwinian struggle for sheer survival in which all the resources available - women, the colonies, new technology, dodgy money, 'unsporting' weapons - would be utilised.

Above all, what would be required would be male bodies - hundreds of thousands of them, forming the cannon fodder necessary to actually fight and die in the war. In weeks, Britain's traditionally small professional army had been decimated on the fields of Flanders. To replace them, the call went out for volunteers. Kitchener's famous recruiting poster, 'Your country needs you!', with its accusing, guilt-inducing pointing finger, was the first shot in the campaign to attract the masses into khaki. But to reach the officer class, something more sophisticated was needed.

What the rulers - in the shape of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill - came up with was a dead poet. Conveniently Rupert Brooke ('isn't it a romantic name?' trilled Lytton Strachey) was a public school (Rugby) and Cambridge (Kings) chap, as well as being a personal friend of half the cabinet. A dab hand with bat and ball, devastatingly good-looking (WB Yeats called him 'the handsomest young man in England'), charming, and the author of a clutch of patriotic poems ('If I should die/Think only this of me...') celebrating the coming of war and foretelling his own demise - which came about not on the battlefield, but on a hospital ship en route to Gallipoli via a toxic mosquito which dared to bite those luscious lips. Right on cue Brooke timed his death to perfection - passing away on 23 April 1915, St George's Day and the birth- and death-day of Shakespeare. No more suitable symbol of a nation at arms could be found. Here were the makings of a modern myth, replete with classical overtones: the gallant young warrior slain on Achilles' island of Skyros en route to the plains of Troy.

Swiftly, the government's PR machine went into overdrive: led by Churchill's tribute in the Times, in which he hailed Brooke as 'deeply instructed...with perfect symmetry of mind and body - he was all that one would wish England's noblest sons to be'. There followed a deluge of similar guff as the nation went into a paroxysm of breast-beating grief and lamentation of Dianaesque proportions. An army of would-be Rupert Brookes trooped off to join the colours in emulation of their hero's words: 'Like swimmers into cleanness leaping' - little knowing that the 'cleanness' they were leaping into was the slime-filled shellholes of the Somme and Passchendaele.

Rupert Brooke was the first 'star' of an increasingly media-obsessed century; the first pretty face in an age when 'look' and 'image' came to be all-important. He himself, like all the most successful stars, was acutely conscious of the effect his stunning looks and all-consuming charm created. Raised and educated in the all-male environment of Rugby and Cambridge when the contrasting creeds of muscular Christianity, muscular imperialism and muscular homosexuality arm-wrestled for dominance, he deliberately set out to win friends and influence people with a single-minded attention to the details of his own hype that would make Peter Mandelson green with envy. 'Oh yes, I performed the fresh boyish stunt - and it worked', he told friends after punting 'the master' - Henry James - down the Cam. James joined an ever-lengthening role of the great and good who fell under Brooke's Peter Pannish spell: HG Wells, Hugh Dalton, Asquith, Churchill, Lytton Strachey, John Middleton Murry, DH Lawrence were just some of those he wowed and won. So his death was like a collective bereavement of Britain's ruling caste.

Only his closest friends knew the secret and shameful truth - and they weren't telling. At a time of enormous pressure to avoid rocking the collective boat, they practised the public school virtues of silence, gritted teeth and starched lips. This, perhaps, explains both the enduring appeal of the clean-cut English type, and why it is a sham, a chimera, that dissolves upon examination.

There was always something rotten hidden in the river shallows at Grantchester. It comes as no surprise that the real Rupert Brooke was, beneath the golden halo, paranoid, clinically insane, anti-Semitic, misogynist, hysterical, and ludicrously self-obsessed. We can almost guess it from those too perfect features, just as Hugh's Hollywood encounter with Divine Brown came as no surprise. The decline of the chisel-jawed young Englishman set in when he quit building his Empire and taking cold showers to discourage masturbation and began to examine his own sad self in an orgy of introspection. For when he tried to find himself, there was nothing there.

Nigel Jones is assistant editor of History Today magazine.
His biography Rupert Brooke: life, death and myth is published by Richard Cohen Books

Too perfect - Rupert Brooke

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999



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