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When I die, the gravestone should say: "She never understood the imperial pulse of this country."

For I don't, and I now have to accept that I never will.

This week, as almost every week, some event happens to reveal this obstinate legacy of imperialism, and I look at my country and wonder if it has really changed in the way I like to think, or if it ever can.

Tim Collins, head of the Royal Irish Regiment was, until now, a hero of the illegal US/UK sacking of Iraq. Strangely, what I first noticed about him was how American he appeared.

He looks a little like George Bush, wears those hard, American shades, and made a stirring speech to the troops about needing to behave with care in Iraq so the people of that blighted country would not turn against their colonisers.

It turns out that the injunction might not have applied to him, as he has now been accused by an American officer of threatening Iraqis and of "war crimes" which include pistol-whipping a local headmaster.

My, my, how the jingoists have risen to defend their man, even if it means kicking the shins of our only and bestest friend, the US.

Flag-waving papers went on the rampage, page after page, almost appearing to claim that American soldiers are all bastards and the country knows no rules of engagement.

But the sentiments of "our" side are absurd and depressing.

Up goes the ululation. How dare they criticise our man, a British colonel; what do these Yanks understand about honour, propriety, excellence?

Anyway, they have been barbarians on the killing fields, shooting their allies, journalists, women and children on buses, anyone who annoyed or scared them. As we all know.

I, too, think the Americans need to be making their own, open investigations into things that were done in Iraq and elsewhere.

They need to answer questions about the journalists, translators and others killed in suspicious circumstances and the humiliation they often inflict on civilians.

I accept, too, that there are soldiers in developing countries who commit horrendous crimes against the population.

But my Britishness isn't the old-fashioned sort where I have to proclaim with absolute confidence that our boys can never do any wrong.

Reports about how some of "our" soldiers have behaved in Bosnia, in Cyprus and elsewhere should cause us concern.

Allegations are coming from Kenya where Masai women with mixed race children claim British soldiers raped several of them over 20 years.

The last reported case was only five years ago. The Army did nothing.

Believing things shouldn't happen is vital to the moral life of any nation. Insisting things can't possibly be happening is dishonourable and permits this nation to make up different rules for itself.

Dip your finger deep enough into the national psyche and out they come - memories, desires, ambitions, pretences and judgments which have descended from those glory days when to be British was to have global might and an invincible moral superiority, both thought to be divinely bestowed.

And when you read the fashionable modern revisionist historians - Niall Ferguson, for example - you realise how this spirit is alive and still kicking.

The old colonial spirit is also afloat in Nepal this week as the world marks the 50th anniversary of the climb to the top of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing Norgay.

The first really serious, really screaming row (so the glassware rattled) I had with my English husband was over this crowning achievement.

(Dear readers, you have no idea how many times my husband has to answer charges about the Empire even though, as far as we can ascertain, none of the Browns of Brighton played any part in keeping us natives down.)

All my life I have been incensed that so much credit went to Hillary -- Tensing Norgay was not knighted but expedition leader John Hunt, who did not reach the summit, was -- and how unfair that was.

This week Pemba Dorjie, a sherpa, climbed to the top in a day, and a 15-year-old girl, Ming Kipa, also made it to the summit.

African wildlife trackers, or the fixers and translators for our media, get no credit either.

No, it is the Westerners we are meant to admire, the zoologists, the climbers, the named and photographed explorers and journalists, not the people who take them there, often carrying their luggage too.

It all reminds me of a poem by Ben Okri:

Souls of nations do not change;

Merely stretch their hidden range

As rivers do not sleep

Spirit of empire runs deep



- INDEPENDENT

Herald Feature: Climbing Everest - The 50th Anniversary