ONE of the most endearing traits of the English is their tolerance – celebration is perhaps a more accurate word – of eccentrics. This goes a long way to explain the inexorable, ineffable rise of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in the face of odds that would daunt even the most optimistic punter.

Watching him burble and gibber after he became the new leader of the Tory party and, as a consequence, the latest tenant of No 10, was as painful – and entertaining – as listening to a hungover Bertie Wooster relate to po-faced Jeeves who he’d got plastered with the night before at the Drones Club. Johnson’s eccentric lineage includes the likes of Quentin Crisp, Screaming Lord Sutch and, perhaps most pertinently, Lord Redesdale, father of the infamous Mitford sisters who, as Sir Oswald Mosley said, was “one of nature’s fascists” and who, in order to keep his bloodhounds in peak condition, had them track his children.

So pronounced was Redesdale’s dislike of foreigners that he even dismissed Hitler – whom he otherwise admired – because he was “a Hun”.

This is not, of course, to say that the man charged to lead us to the promised land of Brexit, where there will be honey still for tea and nobody who needs a job will want for one, is a racist, though, given his more injudicious pronouncements, he might well be.

Rather it is to suggest that he is of that ilk of the English who believe that he can say what he wants, confident that his supporters will follow him come what may. He is like the all-powerful leader of a cult – the Pied Piper of Henley? – who can do no wrong. Not the least incredible aspect of recent history is Johnson’s ability to ride out any storm that besets him. In bygone days, the English were not so forgiving. All it took to end a political career was the merest whiff of scandal and resignation was not so much expected as inevitable. Thereafter exile – geographical or metaphorical – beckoned. Those who transgressed were despatched abroad in disgrace or obliged to devote the rest of their existence to doing good deeds.

None of this applies to Johnson, who has survived one scandal after another. Like Lazarus, he rises from the bier; like nuclear waste, he is difficult to bury. Shameful his behaviour may be, but his shamelessness is of another order.

This was first evidenced when he was made common market correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. It was in Brussels that his true talent for making things up was given free reign. While other journalists diligently filed copy that you wouldn’t read if it was all that was available in a dentist’s waiting-room, Johnson titillated his shire readership with tales taller than the Eiffel Tower.

They were the precursor of such recent nonsense as these isles being invaded by eighty million Turks. A personal favourite was his declaration that: “The Italian rubber industry has fallen foul of EC [European Community] rules by making undersized condoms.” Thus, from such small grains of truth, did much bigger fibs flow.

THUS, too, did the seeds of Euroscepticism sprout. The English have never really been comfortable with Europe. One cannot imagine, for example, an English schoolteacher telling her pupils, as Miss Jean Brodie does: “We are Europeans.” The English have never felt European. On the contrary, from Benny Hill to Monty Python, Europe is synonymous with comedy. Johnny Foreigner is the butt of countless pierhead jokes, some of which are better than others.

Which is all fine and well but there seems to be little reciprocation. The French, Germans and Italians have no tradition of pulling the legs of clog hoppers, Morris dancers and wassailers. “Why is Europe so feeble?” asked Johnson in 2003. “Why can’t Brussels pull the skin off a rice pudding? The answer is that Europe is not a natural political unit ... To put the problem in its crudest terms: I was once at a friend’s house in Brussels, and the television happened to be showing that flower of English comic genius, Fawlty Towers.

“Life must have been getting me down at the time, because I found the pratfalls of Manuel, from Barcelona, almost unbearably funny. I howled and retched with laughter. I then looked up to see that my friend’s husband was staring at me with an expression of real pain. He was an intelligent and proud Catalan.”

You read such stuff and are more or less amused. But one is also bemused. What has happened, one wonders, to the English that they can be taken in by such snake oil salesmen as Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their right-wing ideologues?

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Living less than an hour from the English border, I look southward and do not recognise our nearest neighbours. They seem alien, other, foreign, their behaviour, attitudes, beliefs, aspirations quite differ-ent from mine and many of the people I know.

This was most certainly not the case when I was growing up. My image then of England was a mosaic composed of Coronation Street, The Beatles, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his gannex raicoat, Morecambe and Wise, Tottenham Hotspur and holidays in Whitley Bay and Scarborough. I knew no English people until, aged 18, I travelled to London to take up my first job in the Civil Service. For several months I shared a room in Notting Hill with a Saudi Arabian student whom I’d never met before. He went once a week to watch Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia because it made him feel less homesick. I had a girlfriend in Maidenhead whose family invited me for Christmas. Over dinner they threw meringues at each other to enliven what, admittedly, had been an otherwise dull occasion. In the bath were ducks – real, quacking ones.

At work, there was an avowed atheist whose address my fellow civil servants forwarded to the publishers of religious tracts who inundated our poor colleague believing they had made a convert. One evening I was having a drink in the Ladbroke Arms, now Jeremy Clarkson’s watering hole, and the great comedian Tommy Cooper dropped by – for a pee, he said, not a pint.

This is my England of fond memory. It appears, though, to have been replaced by another country that bears little resemblance to its predecessor. In this benighted, cantankerous place, language is debased, facts disregarded, debate reduced to demagoguery and the advice of experts disregarded.

Meanwhile, anyone seeking to expose wrongdoing, correct errors or reveal misrepresentation, such as the mystical sum of £350 million a week promised to the NHS when we leave the EU, is denounced as a purveyor of fake news. In this warped cosmos, the hyenas of the Twittersphere roam unchecked.

Everyone, however ill-informed or ignorant, has an opinion. One watches the news through one’s hands as politicians weasel their way through interviews and “ordinary people” repeat ad nauseam the catchphrase “take back control” invented by the “mastermind” of Brexit, Dominic Cummings, who is now the Prime Minister’s puppeteer-in-chief.

What, you wonder, do such folk expect will happen after October 31 when Britain is rescued from the beastly, corrupt foreigners who are bleeding us dry? There again, they don’t mean Britain, do they. What they mean is England. As a poll recently revealed, an unhealthy majority of the English would be content to see Scotland leave the Union if it helps expedite Brexit.

This has been coming for some time, as Boris Johnson noted in 1999. Then – while still pretending to be a journalist – he interviewed a Lincolnshire man who had been licensed by the BBC to make a programme in which he argued that it was time to take England back. You can’t be black and English, opined Alan Ford. Nor you can you be Indian and English. “Can you be Jewish and English?” asked Johnson. “Quite possibly,” said Ford after some hesitation, “because of the Eastern European background, and as my wife partly is, yes. They’ve suffered enough. Cromwell, who was a hero of mine, let them in.”

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FORD’S views, barking two decades ago, have today become commonplace as I discovered over the past couple of years touring book festivals. In London, as I attempted to cross Piccadilly, I was stopped by a march of the English Defence League. The aforementioned Mosley’s Black Shirts came to mind. Bare-chested men with shaven heads and making fascist salutes snarled at passers-by. Several carried banners with the slogan “England Love It Or Leave It”.

In an upmarket hotel bar in Northumberland two middle-class men hurled racist abuse at England’s Colombian opponents during the 2018 World Cup, likening one player to the golliwog on the Robertson’s jam labels.

Meanwhile, during the EU referendum campaign, I saw a plethora of posters all urging people to vote Leave. Whenever I asked anyone – be it in Lewes on the south-east coast or Manchester or Chipping Norton – why they wanted Britain to divorce from the EU, I usually received a diatribe about the Poles or Romanians stealing jobs, or the changing face of their neighbourhoods, where Asian families outnumbered those of the natives. When I pointed out that the latter had nothing to do with our membership of the EU the conversation dried up.

England, it seemed to me, was in a state of crisis, traumatised by change it found hard to comprehend. In those areas suffering most from deprivation, dysfunction and austerity there was frustration and anger. The people of Sunderland, say, or Nottingham or Stoke-on-Trent were desperate to find someone or something to blame, at whom they could point an accusatory finger. The EU and its “unelected bureaucrats” fitted the bill perfectly.

During weekdays high streets were home to what William McIlvanney once called the “urban bedouin”; the aimless, jobless, disabled, drug-dependant and elderly. Often, such shops as there were looked on the brink of closing down. Charity outlets and betting franchises proliferated.

Few places stocked food that required the intervention of a cook though it was relatively easy to get a tattoo or have your toe-nails painted. Post offices, banks and public libraries were so last century. A few churches survived, many advertising food banks. These were not towns likely to feature on a happiness index. There was nothing pleasing about them. On the contrary, they felt abandoned either in reality or spirit. I was always relieved to leave.

On my journeys I often packed books by previous travellers who had tried to understand what has happened to England over the past hundred or so years, writers like Jon Hillaby, Dervla Murphy, Beryl Bainbridge, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson and Nick Danziger. Writers who alight on a place and describe what they’ve experienced are often decried for kicking it when it’s down. Like toothache, the truth can hurt. But the best writers are those you can trust, who – unlike Boris Johnson – do not try to dupe readers.

One of my favourite companions was HV Morton, whose English Journey, first published in 1934, still resonates. What Morton witnessed then was a country eerily similar to that of today. Decaying towns and workless people. Problems with the benefit system. London bleeding the rest of the land dry. Airy-fairy plans to help the most needy. “The whole thing is unworthy of a great country that in its time has given the world some nobly creative ideas,” concluded Morton. “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

What he would have made of Brexit and its consequences is beyond conjecture. Many of the places he visited voted to leave and, given how they’ve been treated, it’s hard not to sympathise.

But what David Cameron’s referendum has done is divide even deeper a country that was in many respects already disunited. That is the immediate fallout of this current debacle as we are led toward the abyss by an Old Etonian who, when quizzed as to what his stance was on negotiations with the EU, said: “Our policy is having our cake and eating it.” Now that’s what I call eccentric.