In the summer of 1986, when radioactive particles from the recent Chernobyl disaster were reputed to be sweeping across the mainland of Europe, I attended an international workshop on computational lexicography in the pleasant Italian resort of Grosseto. There were probably about fifty of us: Italians (of course), Americans, British, French, Germans, and so on, many of whom knew each other from past conferences and symposiums in what was then a new and burgeoning field of research.
It was a memorable few days for several reasons. The organizers had chartered the whole hotel where the workshop was held, so we had it to ourselves. The weather was sunny and swelteringly hot, and each day we sweated our way through presentations (OHPs—no PowerPoint back then) and discussions.
Mealtimes were exciting, as there was no menu—course after course arrived, but you never knew, if you skipped one, whether you had missed the main course and would be faced by dessert after having had only soup. But as the week wore on, there were fewer courses, so you had to adopt a less risky approach.
One of the delegates was a former Soviet citizen, who regaled us with stories of how he’d been trained in the Army of the USSR to invade specific targets in western Europe. As an émigré settled in the US, he painted the grimmest picture. Somehow, what with Chernobyl, this had us quite scared. We had no idea that the end of the USSR would come within a few years.
Anyway, towards the end of the workshop there was a dinner and a party with various entertainments, and everyone relaxed and had fun. Then came a suggestion. Let’s have each national group sing a song from their own country. This was greeted enthusiastically by the majority. Most groups set to with alacrity, if with varying degrees of musical proficiency. Some performers produced instruments to accompany themselves with. We had Italian folk songs, Spanish folk songs, probably even Russian folk songs. The Americans came up with something, maybe Stars and Stripes Forever (I can’t remember). A Frenchman, or perhaps it was a French Canadian, got us all to join in Alouette, gentille Alouette, which, as you may know, is one of those incremental songs where you add a bit on each time round. A very plucky Scotsman, with great verve and confidence, sang a heart-rending Scots ballad solo.
At last the British, or rather, the English (since Tom the Mac had done his bit), were called upon. We were one of the largest contingents, a dozen or more. I looked round and saw a row of my compatriots, nervously swigging from their wine glasses and shrinking into their shoes at the very back of the room. They looked white and trembly. They couldn’t think of an English song. Or not one everybody knew. They didn’t think they could sing anything. Could they perhaps be excused?
I’m not a natural leader but I must say I was ashamed at my countrymen’s pusillanimity. For heaven’s sake, I said, surely we can do something? I thought of the last night of the Proms. Come on, we can manage a verse of Jerusalem! So, in a wavery, And-did-the-something-something-someth-upon England’s-something-someth sort of way, we performed it. To an incredulous crowd of foreigners who couldn’t imagine that English folk songs could sound like this.
I’m telling this story because just possibly—and I may be quite wrong—it says something about the English character, or perhaps English culture. As a group, we’re sometimes not very keen on joining in. We feel self-conscious about dropping our reserve and surrendering our autonomy to a bigger community. We’re afraid that we might lose our fragile identity in the crowd. We’re not sure we’d like it. Or, we have tried it but we didn’t really enjoy it.
And I wonder if, in the last analysis, this—not, ideological, political, or even economic factors, and not xenophobia or racism—is what underlies the draw of Brexit.