Monday, December 12, 2011

When Britain was great

After David Cameron's astonishing behavior at last week's summit in Brussels, the UK is henceforth wandering around on the fringe of the EU, and it's not at all clear whether the nation will indeed stay in or rather get out. Maybe get kicked out. See this article.

Once upon a time, Britain had an empire. In down-to-earth real-estate terms, it was no doubt the most vast empire that had ever existed, since it covered a quarter of the land surface of the planet Earth. When I was a child out in my native Australia, we used to persist in celebrating this majestic empire, even though it had been growing faded and starting to crack at the seams, particularly since the defection of India in 1947.

The English—who adore misty fairy tales—were told that the following photo showed King George V and Queen Mary leaving Buckingham Palace for India, a century ago.

On 12 December 1911, there was a so-called durbar in Delhi: that's to say, a fabulous ceremonial parade, involving Indian princes and maharajahs, through the streets of the imperial city. The English monarch and his wife had arrived there, to pursue the celebration of their coronation, which had taken place on 22 June 2011 at Westminster Abbey in London. Back in those days, the English had a right to take themselves very seriously. And they did, indeed.

I found the above image this afternoon on the Gallica website, which is an emanation of the French national library. I was amused by a French-language comment, in modern slang, concerning this old photographic reminder of British greatness. To express his feelings towards George V, a young French viewer of the above image said: "Il se la pète grave." Impossible to translate in a word-for-word fashion. (My daughter Emmanuelle would be able to help me, but she phoned me this morning to say that she was leaving to interview somebody in the USA.) The French verb péter means "to fart" and the adverb grave means "ultra-seriously". The bizarre but delightful construction "se la péter grave" means that somebody appears to be taking himself extravagantly in a pompously serious fashion.

Hey, wasn't that what the Victorian/Georgian Poms and their British Empire were all about? Besides, my native land, Australia, has not yet fully emerged from that antiquated dream and the obsolete ideals of a long-abandoned "empire"…

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