It is often when we are abroad that we see the best and the worst of people. There is a reason for the enduring stereotype of the Ugly American, after all.
Even at our best overseas, we are a rough-and-tumble sort of people, and it shows: rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising. Indiana Jones might be an excellent example.
But let us examine the virtues of another stereotypical nationality in the larger world. Let us examine and appreciate the abiding image of the Englishman abroad.
We all have a picture of what this looks like in our minds, this creature from the days of colonialism, when the Empire was still at its height.
Someone dressed impeccably, tall top hat, or perhaps pith helmet. If the latter, the uniform or khakis are in good order, unwrinkled and unstained. Otherwise, he is dressed in a proper three piece suit, often with gloves, cane, and pocket watch. His spats are always clean.
He is never fazed, be he in the middle of the desert, or jungle, or the Himalayas. His accent is crisp and clean, his punctuality legendary; his gallantry and expectation of good order the stuff of myth. No matter the circumstances, tea time is not to be put off and he always has a handkerchief ready for the ladies, although actually being in the presence of tears rather embarrasses him.
He may seem a dandy, being capable of expounding at great length on the philosophical importance of proper dinner attire and insisting on tea at precisely four o’clock. Yet for all that, he knows his way around firearms, and under the right circumstances does not hesitate to use them.
A general knowledge of the sciences, history, and culture also come in handy, and he uses these in sudden, unexpected bursts of ingenuity that leave his enemies dumbfounded. He is equally comfortable dining with foreign monarchs as with cooking a day’s catch over an open fire.
Some of those characteristics may seem a bit silly, especially in this day and age. Certainly such a man is out of vogue with the politically correct set, as he comes off as distinctly superior to the natives he is around, who tend to look on him with either wonder or child-like awe and respect. The image is romanticized.
But there are also a rather intimidating number of real-life examples of such men, or men that come close to this stereotype: “Mad Jack” Churchill (wandered about Burma and fought in WWII with a longbow and Scottish claymore), T.E. Lawrence (popped off on personal leave to go start the Arab Revolt since no one else seemed to be working on that at the moment) and John Pendlebury (one-eyed archeologist on Crete who had to interrupt his dig to lead the island in guerrilla warfare against the German invasion), just to name a few.
Such men and their fictional counterparts set an impressive standard for conduct and are something too few people aspire to be. They accomplish the very difficult feat of blending polish, style, and elegance with staggering competence and a remarkable ability to do the ruggedly impossible.
What they wear does matter to them, but it doesn’t get in the way of the work they have to do. Following cultural tradition does matter, but should not compromise one’s own identity and culture.
They know how to dance and socialize and quote Milton while still being able overthrow tyrants and save the helpless. What could be taken for dandyism is really an insistence on principle; on, whenever possible, doing things correctly despite rough circumstances.
So let us take a moment to appreciate these gentlemen of international renown, fastidious, gallant, and ingenious. The world may never really see their like again, but it would probably be a better place if it did.