Not so long ago, everybody knew who the English were. They were polite, unexcitable, reserved, and had hot-water bottles instead of a sex life.
As the dominant culture in a country that dominated an empire that dominated the world, they had little need to examine themselves and ask who they were. But something has happened.
A new self-confidence seems to have taken hold in Wales and Scotland, while others try to forge a new relationship with Europe. The English are being forced to ask what it is that makes them who they are. Is there such a thing as an English race? Witty, surprising, affectionate, and incisive, Jeremy Paxman traces the invention of Englishness to its current crisis and concludes that, for all their characteristic gloom about themselves, the English may have developed a form of nationalism for the twenty-first century.
|Publisher:||The Overlook Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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OF LOST CONTENT
Ask any man what nationality he would prefer to be, and ninety nine out
of a hundred will tell you that they would prefer to be Englishmen.
Once upon a time the English knew who they were. There was such a ready list of adjectives to hand. They were polite, unexcitable, reserved and had hot-water bottles instead of a sex life: how they reproduced was one of the mysteries of the western world. They were doers rather than thinkers, writers rather than painters, gardeners rather than cooks. They were class-bound, hidebound and incapable of expressing their emotions. They did their duty. Fortitude bordering on the incomprehensible was a byword: 'I have lost my leg, by God!' exclaimed Lord Uxbridge, as shells exploded all over the battlefield. 'By God, and have you!' replied the Duke of Wellington. A soldier lying mortally wounded in a flooded trench on the Somme was, so the myth went, likely to say only that he 'mustn't grumble'. Their most prized possession was a sense of honour. They were steadfast and trustworthy. The word of an English gentleman was as good as a bond sealed in blood.
It is 1945. At last, the apparently endless war which has governed every waking moment of the British population is ended and they can relax. Everywhere in the industrial cities are gap-toothed mementoes of the Luftwaffe. In the towns that had survived relatively unscathed, the High Street is a jigsaw of different shop fronts, most of them little individual businesses, forthis is, in Napoleon's famously scathing condemnation, 'une nation de boutiquiers', a nation of shopkeepers. The vast retail chains which will within a few decades have driven the small tradesmen out of business are there, but if you dropped into the chain of Boots chemists, it might as easily have been to change your books at the library. In the evening, maybe a visit to the cinema.
There is a strong case for agreeing with Churchill that the Second World War had been his country's 'finest hour'. He was talking about Britain and the British Empire, but the values of that empire were the values which the English liked to think were something which they had invented. Certainly, the war and its immediate aftermath are the last time in living memory when the English had a clear and positive sense of themselves. They saw it reflected back in films like In Which We Serve, Noël Coward's fictionalized account of the sinking of H M S Kelly. As the survivors of the destroyer, sunk by German dive-bombers, lie in their life-raft they recall the ship's history. What they are really calling up is a picture of the strength of England. The captain and the ratings may be divided by their accents, but they share the same essential beliefs about what their country represents. It is an ordered, hierarchical sort of place in which the war is an inconvenience to be put up with, like rain at a village fête. It is a chaste, self-denying country in which women know their place and children go dutifully and quietly to bed when told. 'Don't make a fuss,' say the wives to one another during an air raid, 'we'll have a cup of tea in a minute.' As the Chief Petty Officer leaves home his mother-in-law asks him when he'll be ashore again.
'All depends on Hitler,' he says.
'Well, who does he think he is?' asks the mother-in-law.
'That's the spirit.'
In Which We Serve was unashamed propaganda for a people facing the possible extinction of their culture, which is the reason it is so illuminating. It shows us how the English liked to think of themselves. The picture that emerges from this and many similar movies is of a stoical, homely, quiet, disciplined, self-denying, kindly, honourable and dignified people who would infinitely rather be tending their gardens than defending the world against a fascist tyranny.
I have lived all my life in the England which emerged from the shadow of Hitler, and have to confess an admiration for the place as it seemed to be then, despite its small-mindedness, hypocrisy and prejudice. It fell into a war that it had repeatedly been promised it could avoid, and in so doing advanced its fall from world eminence by decades. The revisionists tell us that so much of the British achievement in that war was not what it seemed at the time. Certainly, the English have clung fiercely to heroic illusions about the war, the favourite ones being the Little Ships at Dunkirk, the victory of the Few in the Battle of Britain and the courage of Londoners and other city-dwellers in the Blitz. All right, the role of the Little Ships has been exaggerated, the Battle of Britain was won as much by Hitler's misjudgement as by the heroism of the fighter pilots, and the Blitz by the courage and ruthlessness of Bomber Command's retaliatory raids on Germany. It may be demonstrably false that the English won the war alone, as any reading of Churchill's desperate attempts to secure American intervention will attest. But the fact remains that the country did stand alone in the summer of 1940 and had it not done so the rest of Europe would have fallen to the Nazis. Had it not had the great benefit of geography, perhaps, like the rest of Europe, from France to the Baltic, the country would have found willing executioners to do the Nazi bidding. But geography matters; it makes people who they are.
How many attempts have there been to explain what the Second World War did to Britain? One thousand? Ten thousand? What none of them can undermine is that in that titanic struggle the English had the clearest idea of what they stood for and, therefore, the sort of people they were. It was nothing to do with Hitler's pride in his Fatherland, it was something smaller, more personal, and I think, more quietly powerful. Take David Lean's 1945 tale of forbidden love, Brief Encounter. The couple meet in the tearoom of a railway station, where she is waiting for the steam train home after a day's shopping. A speck of coal dirt gets caught in her eye and, without a word of introduction, the gallant local doctor steps forward and removes it. The following eighty minutes of this beautifully written movie depict their deepening love and the guilt each feels about it. Trevor Howard's tall, spare frame, strong nose and jaw, Celia Johnson's retroussé nose and clear eyes seem to embody the ideal Englishman and Englishwoman. They belong to the infinitely respectable middle class, in which strangulated scheme of things 'levly gels' wish only to be 'relly heppy'.
The doctor begins his seduction with the classic English gambit of commenting on the weather. A few moments later he mentions music. 'My husband's not musical,' she says. 'Good for him,' says the doctor. Good for him? Why is it good for him? It makes it sound as if he has managed to fight off a killer disease. It is good for him, of course, because it recognizes a God-ordained right to philistinism and the rectitude of individuals who please themselves in their own homes. As Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto comes and goes in the background, their affair unfolds, measured out in cups of tea in the waiting room of Milford station. Celia Johnson's husband is the sort of man who calls his wife 'old girl' and to whom sympathy is the suggestion that they do the newspaper crossword together. 'I believe we'd all be different if we lived in a warm and sunny climate,' she thinks to herself at one point. 'Then we shouldn't be so withdrawn and shy and difficult.' Being English, she feels no animosity towards her husband, whom she considers 'kindly and unemotional'. Trevor Howard, equally trapped in a dry marriage, also expresses no hostility towards his wife and children. But the two of them are in the force of a passion they can hardly control. 'We must be sensible,' is the constant refrain. 'If we control ourselves, there's still time.'
In the end, despite all the protestations of undying devotion, the romance remains unconsummated. He does the decent thing and takes a job at a hospital in South Africa and she returns to her decent but dull husband. The end.
What does this most popular of English films tell us about the English? Firstly that, in the immortal words, 'we are not put on earth to enjoy ourselves'. Secondly, the importance of a sense of duty: wearing uniform had been a fact of life for most of the adult population. (Trevor Howard had been a lieutenant with the Royal Corps of Signals, with a number of entirely imaginary acts of heroism credited to him by the film studios' publicity machines. Celia Johnson had been an auxiliary policewoman: they knew all about sacrificing their pleasures for a greater good.) Most of all, the message is that the emotions are there to be controlled. It was 1945. But it could as easily have been 1955 or even 1965; the fashions might have changed, but the weather would still be damp and the policemen still avuncular. It would, despite the post-war Welfare State, be a country where everyone knew their place. Delivery carts, driven by men in uniform, still brought milk and bread to the front door. There were things which were done and things which were not done.
One could assume about these people that they were decent, and as industrious as was necessary to meet comparatively modest ambitions. They had become accustomed to seeing themselves as aggressed against, steady under fire, defiant against the enemy. The image is of the British troops at Waterloo withstanding all-out assault by the French, or the dome of St Paul's emerging from the smoke and flames of German bombs. They had a deeply held sense of their own rights, yet would proudly say they were 'not much bothered' about politics. The abject failure of both left- and right-wing extremists to get themselves elected to Parliament testified to their profound scepticism when anyone offered the promised land. They were, it is true, reserved and prone to melancholy. But they were not in any meaningful sense religious, the Church of England being a political invention which had elevated being 'a good chap' to something akin to canonization. On the occasions when bureaucracy demanded they admit an allegiance, they could write 'C of E' in the box and know that they wouldn't be bothered by demands that they attend church or give all they had to the poor.
In 1951, the People newspaper organized a survey of its readers. For three years, Geoffrey Gorer pored over the 11,000 responses. At the end of which he concluded that the national character had not really changed much in the previous 150 years. The superficial changes had been vast: a lawless population had been turned into a law-abiding one; a country which enjoyed dog-fights, bear-baiting and public hangings had become humanitarian and squeamish; general corruption in public life had been replaced by a high level of honesty. But
what seems to have remained constant is a great resentment at being overlooked or controlled, a love of freedom; fortitude; a low interest in sexual activity, compared with most neighbouring societies; a strong belief in the value of education for the formation of character; consideration and delicacy for the feelings of other people; and a very strong attachment to marriage and the institution of the family ... The English are a truly unified people, more unified, I would hazard, than at any previous period in their history. When I was reading, with extreme care, the first batch of questionnaires which I received, I found I was constantly making the same notes: 'What dull lives most of these people appear to lead!' I remarked; and secondly, 'What good people!' I should still make the same judgements.
The reasons for this unity are obvious enough the country had just come though a terrible war, which had required shared sacrifice. The population of England was still relatively homogeneous, used to accepting the inconvenience of discipline and unaffected by mass immigration. It was still insular, not merely in a physical sense but because the mass media had yet to create the global village.
It is the world of today's grandparents. It is the world of Queen Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. The young Princess Elizabeth married the naval lieutenant, Philip Mountbatten, in 1947. In an age of austerity (potatoes rationed to 3 lb per person per week and bacon to one ounce) the wedding brought a breath of spectacle and magic to a drab country. Philip wore his naval uniform for the occasion, Elizabeth had abandoned the forage cap she had been seen in during the war for a satin dress embroidered with 10,000 seed pearls. In the spirit of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, they might have expected to share a long life together. And they did. But they were the last generation to live by that code. Like one quarter of the couples who married in 1947, the royal couple reached their Golden Wedding anniversary in 1997, but by then, the predicament of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard had become little more than an anthropological curiosity: less than one tenth of the couples who married fifty years on were expected to complete the same marathon. By then, women made up almost half the workforce, an astonishing change in light of the meekness fifty years earlier with which most had surrendered their wartime jobs when demobilized men demanded employment. The best part of 200,000 marriages now ended in divorce every year, with proceedings more often than not initiated by women, unprepared any longer to think 'we must be sensible'. By the time of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth's celebrations, their four children had contracted three marriages, every single one of which had failed. The heir to the throne had divorced the woman intended to be the next queen, and she had met her death in a Paris underpass, alongside her playboy lover, Dodi Fayed, whose father, Mohammed, owned the most famous shop in the nation of shopkeepers, and made a habit of handing money in brown paper envelopes to Conservative MPs, who claimed to belong to a party based on English traditions of probity and honour. Diana's funeral had brought forth scenes of public mourning so bizarrely 'un-English' the lighting of candles in the park, the throwing of flowers on to her passing coffin that the wartime generation could only look on as baffled travellers in their own land.
The flower-throwers had learned their behaviour from watching television, for it is a Latin custom: the potency of the mass media can hardly be exaggerated. Fashions in food, clothing, music and entertainment are no longer home-grown. Even those customs which remain authentically indigenous are the fruit of a greatly changed 'English' population. Within fifty years of the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury, disembarking 492 Jamaican immigrants, the racial complexion of the country had changed utterly. Mass immigration to Britain had been concentrated on England and most cities of any size contained areas where white people had become a rarity. In those places, talking about immigrants as 'ethnic minorities' was beginning to sound decidedly perverse. By 1998, it was white children who had become a minority at local-authority secondary schools in inner London and even in the suburbs they made up only 60 per cent of the secondary-school population. Over a third of inner London's children did not even have English as their first language.
If the English people had changed, so too had the towns in which most of them lived. In his wartime celebration of Englishness, The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell managed to escape the dreamy right-wing pastiche about England being all hedgerows and gardens. Seeking to define a country that corresponded more closely to the reality of the lives of most of its citizens, he described a place of red pillar boxes, Lancashire clogs, smoky towns, crude language and lines outside labour exchanges. The picture is as recognizable as an L. S. Lowry painting, and like a Lowry, it is a period piece. The smoky mills have closed down as the textile trade has collapsed, the lines outside labour exchanges replaced by benefit offices in which clerks sit behind anger-proof glass screens. The red pillar boxes are still there, but the other red feature of the pavement, Sir George Gilbert Scott's telephone kiosk, has been torn down, to be replaced by a functional steel and glass cubicle. If one survives, it is there as ornament to a 'heritage site', as one shop after another is colonized by burger bars and pizzerias. In these places, the world the English live in is emphatically not Made in England. The High Streets are either jammed with cars or pedestrianized, the newly laid cobbles, wrought-iron lampposts and litterbins a self-conscious imagination of how the place might have looked in Victorian days, had the Victorians had the questionable pleasures of the Big Mac. In those cities most self-conscious about their claim to be part of English history, like Oxford or Bath, the shops where you could have bought a dozen nails, home-made cakes or had a suit run up, have shut down and been replaced with places selling teddy bears, T-shirts and gimcrack souvenirs. Elsewhere, the small traders have vanished, replaced by branches of retail chains specializing in anything from kitchen utensils to babywear: a nation of shopkeepers become a nation of checkout operators. The police cruise the streets in cars or sit in vans waiting for trouble.
In another essay, George Orwell described the perfect city pub, a place called The Moon under Water. It was down a side-street, busy enough to be welcoming, but quiet enough to have a conversation. It was unmodernized Victorian in style, had friendly barmaids who called everyone 'dear', served soft, creamy stout on draught, and good lunches in a room upstairs. Liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels and cheese and pickles were always available on the snack counter. At the back was a large garden, where children played on swings and a slide. At the end of his piece, Orwell came clean with what most of his readers must have suspected: The Moon under Water did not exist. It does now. There are fourteen Moons Under Water, all owned by a vast brewing conglomerate with headquarters in Watford. Its Manchester Moon Under Water claims to be the biggest pub in Britain, with 8,500 square feet of drinking space spread over three bars on two floors. There are sixty-five staff and an effigy of the Coronation Street character Ena Sharples, brooding over the place like some fertility goddess. It is noisy, in-your-face and on a Saturday evening packed with hundreds of young men and women getting aggressively drunk on frothy, imported American beer.
To outward appearances, England is changed utterly from the place it was. There is no shared endeavour or suffering, service in the armed forces has become a rarity, and austerity is a distant memory. Only a small minority subscribe to the old pieties about not spending money on personal enjoyment or adornment.
And yet this elusive, oblique identity is all the English have. The sheer embarrassment of it struck me in the early nineties when I had to attend the funeral in South Africa of a friend and colleague killed when his car ran off the road as he was trying to make a deadline. The church was in a prosperous white suburb, where the roads were lined with BMWs and every house had a sign hanging on the razor-wire warning of 'Instant Armed Response'. The service was conducted by a liberal Afrikaner minister who had not, I imagined, known John particularly well. The choir was made up of cleaning-ladies from the building where John had his office. They were poor, shoeless people (some literally), but when they sang 'Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika', the black anthem, the cavernous mock-gothic church rang with sweet passion. It wasn't just that they enjoyed singing. They were singing something they believed in. Then the minister spoke a simple tribute and, turning to a photocopied sheet, announced the next hymn. It was to be 'Jerusalem', Blake's strange British Israelite poem beginning, 'And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?'
'Sing, you English,' he boomed from the pulpit, 'sing!'
We did our best, in a self-conscious kind of way. But our music had none of the sweetness, or ardour, of the cleaning-ladies'. 'Jerusalem' is the closest thing the English have to an anthem, with a stirring tune and enigmatic words. But we couldn't manage it with any conviction. I guess we were embarrassed, but the truth is, the English have no national song, as they have no national dress: when national costume was a requirement of the Miss World pageant, 'Miss England' appeared ludicrously decked out as a Beefeater.
England's national day, 23 April, passes mostly unnoticed, while invented British ceremonial events like 'the Queen's official birthday' (her what?) are marked by artillery salutes, flag-flying and parties at British embassies around the world. The closest thing the English have to a national dance, Morris-dancing, is a clumsy pub-sport practised by men in beards and shiny-bottomed trousers. When the English play Wales or Scotland at soccer or rugby, the Scots have 'Flower of Scotland' to sing, the Welsh, 'Hen Wlad fy Nhadau', or 'Land of My Fathers'. The English team must mouth along with the British national anthem, that dirge-like glorification of the monarchy whose job it is to unite the disparate parts of an increasingly tattered political union. At the Commonwealth Games the organizers have adopted 'Land of Hope and Glory' as the English anthem. (But in early 1998 when Gillingham football club, languishing in the Second Division after failing to win thirteen consecutive games, began playing 'Land of Hope and Glory' on the public address system before matches to try to boost morale, they received furious protest letters from fans, on the grounds that the only people likely to be motivated by the song would be fascists.) There are over 500 other distinctly Scottish songs, many of which are widely known: go into an English pub and ask for a verse of 'There'll always be an England', 'The Yeomen of England', or any other of the old national songs and you will be met with baffled silence. Or worse. The only song an English sports crowd can manage with any enthusiasm is the slave spiritual 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' at rugby matches, and a few superannuated pop songs, often with obscene lyrics, at soccer games.
What does this paucity of national symbols mean? You could argue that it demonstrates a certain self-confidence. No English person can look at the swearing of allegiance that takes place in American schools every day without feeling bewilderment: that sort of public declaration of patriotism seems so, well, naïve. When an Irishman wears a bunch of shamrock on St Patrick's Day, the English look on with patronizing indulgence: scarcely anyone sports a rose on St George's Day. This worldly wisdom soon elides into a general view that any public display of national pride is not merely unsophisticated but somehow morally reprehensible. George Orwell noticed it as long ago as 1948 when he wrote that
In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman, and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse-racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God Save the King' than of stealing from a poor box.
No one stands for 'God Save the Queen' any more, and any cinema manager who tried to revive the custom of playing the national anthem would find the place empty before he'd reached the end of the first verse. At the time of Orwell's irritation, left-wing intellectual disdain was cheap because the English didn't need to concern themselves with the symbols of their own identity: when you're top dog in the world's leading empire, you don't need to. And since 'Britain' was essentially a political invention, it was necessary to submerge the identities of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom within it. The beleaguered tribe of Protestant settlers transplanted to the north of Ireland clung to the British identity fiercely because they had nothing else, but in other places on the Celtic fringe, traditional identifies could easily co-exist with being British, a fact the English were happy to acknowledge, since it rather proved the Union was what they said it was, a Union of distinct places. Hence, the nicknames: Scots are Jocks, Welshmen Taffies and Irishmen Paddies or Micks, but another sign of their dominance it is noticeable there is no similar designation for the English.
The comic history book 1066, And All That decided 'the Norman Conquest was a Good Thing, as from this time onwards England stopped being conquered and thus was able to become top nation'. The authors had recognized that the history of the United Kingdom is the story of the advance of England. Written in 1930, it finishes with the Treaty of Versailles ending the First World War, which decreed that 'England should be allowed to pay for the War', and that there should be many more countries 'a Bad Thing as it was the cause of increased geography'. The final sentence reads, 'America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a.' The British have been trying to adjust to that full stop for three generations.
The problem is a lot less acute for the Scots or the Welsh because they never fully extinguished their identity within the idea of being British. The model Englishman and Englishwoman was available to anyone who chose to aspire to it, hence the success of Eton and her imitations in seducing the children of new money, and hence the proliferation of imitations of Eton from India to Malawi. But a successful Scot could always turn to (and the two were by no means mutually exclusive) an ancestral identity which was quite distinct. Scotland maintained its own legal and educational systems. As a compensation, perhaps, for the loss of independence, the Scots kept alive a vibrant feeling of their own history, 'a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation', as Robert Louis Stevenson puts it in Weir of Hermiston. A 'traditional' dress, the kilt, had been reinvented for them as a variant of the Highlanders' belted plaid (possibly by an Englishman, incidentally, the Quaker iron-foundry owner, Thomas Rawlinson, to clothe his workers). At the very time that the English were becoming most regimented to meet the demands of industry and empire, Sir Walter Scott was hymning the wild romanticism of the Highlander. Is it any wonder that when the Empire disintegrated, the Scots had plenty to fall back upon?
The English had no alternative identity to rescue them. It is hardly surprising that they have taken the collapse of British power harder than most, for the rest of the kingdom comforts itself with the chippy consolation that the English are the authors of their own nemesis. When the novelist A. S. Byatt was editing a collection of English short stories, she looked at a recent series of essays, Studying British Cultures, designed to promote an understanding of the different intellectual traditions of the islands. She found 55 page references to Scottishness, 20 pages on Caribbean cultures, 27 pages on the Welsh and 28 on the Irish. The three mentions of Englishness were all in the preface and only concerned with challenging 'the hegemony of England'. 'You get the feeling', she commented, 'that the English only exist to be discarded and challenged.'
The English have, characteristically, taken this disdain to heart, because they have such a strong streak of natural gloominess. There's no need to exaggerate the personal significance of this the country has one of the lower rates for suicide in Europe, only a small fraction of the rate in Hungary or even Switzerland. But, in the old saying, 'every Englishman is born a double Scotch below par', and the English find comfort in a belief that the place is doomed. The popular novelist E. M. Delafield gave it as her belief that the English Creed included four elements: firstly that 'God is an Englishman, probably educated at Eton, secondly that all good women are naturally frigid, thirdly that it is better to be dowdy than smart', and lastly that 'England is going to rack and ruin'. When Nirad Chaudhuri visited England in 1955, he told a politician how welcoming and civilized he found the country. 'You are seeing it at a very favourable time,' came the Eeyoreish reply. When Richard Ingrams, the former editor of Private Eye, tried to compile an anthology of writing about England he was so struck by the prevailing pessimism that he decided it would have been as easy to pull together a collection called Going to the Dogs.
This curiously retiring, unintrospective, pessimistic people cannot continue as they are for much longer. They find themselves governed by a party whose organizing principles come from across the Atlantic and whose leadership caucus comes from north of the border. They have seen Scotland and Wales given forms of self-government, and an overweening European Union which believes the future of the continent to lie not so much in nation states as in a complex of relationships between a federal heart and regional pulses. The disintegration of empire is at last hitting the British Isles: the first colonies will be the last to gain their independence. At the same time, the pressures from outside the British Isles are irresistible: 'We are now coming to the end of the British story', writes the left-wing author Stephen Haseler. 'A thousand years of separate development (in which the last 300 or so have seen a strong, self-conscious and highly successful nation-state) is finally drawing to its close under the twin forces of globalisation and the dynamic of European unity.'
Everyone is so damned apocalyptic. Anyone for England?, a 247-page philippic from Clive Aslet, the editor of Country Life, sought explanations for the national identity crisis in predictable targets from the use of metric weights and measures and the replacement of the old hard-backed blue passport by the floppy burgundy European Union travel document, to feminism, the redesign of Harris tweed, fast-food restaurants and the rise of youth culture. 'Day and night the ogres of Brussels can be heard stamping about the corridors of the European Union, as their cry of "Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell the traditional habits, tastes and foodstuffs of an Englishman" reverberates across the Channel', runs a typical sentence. Can the author really believe the identity of a people is no more than its weights and measures, or the side of the road on which they drive their cars? Does either of these authors Haseler from the left or Aslet from the right believe that other countries in the European Union, from Portugal to Sweden, do not face the same pressures?
Everywhere I went while researching this book, I heard the same comparison. The English glance across the Channel at the traditional enemy and they're jealous. 'Look at the French,' said a Conservative MP. 'Their problems are as great as ours. But they know who they are, even if they don't know where they're going. Not only do we not know where we're going. We don't even know who we are any longer. Haven't a clue.' Evidence to support him came in a comparison of the attitudes of English and French primary schoolchildren which appeared in the Times Educational Supplement under the banner 'English and not very proud of it'. This was the headline-writer's characteristically gloomy way of encapsulating the results of a study of 850 ten- and eleven-year-olds who had been asked how they felt about their countries. More precisely, they had been asked to say whether they endorsed statements like 'I feel very proud of being French'. Fifty-seven per cent of French children strongly agreed with the sentence, against a mere 35 per cent of English children posed a similar question about England. When required to amplify their feelings about their country, the English children cast around for reasons to be glad they were English and said things like 'It's not too hot or cold, we have clean food and water ... English people are good and healthy ... being an independent country ... Manchester United come from England' and so on. The French children, by contrast, talked about 'notre beau pays' (our beautiful country), 'parce qu'on est libre' (because one is free), or said things like 'nous sommes tous égaux' (we are all equal). One even wrote 'car la France est un pays magnifique et démocratique et accueillant' (because France is a magnificent, democratic and welcoming country). The difference is interesting, although not necessarily for the reasons the headline-writer supposed. By the age of eleven, the English children had developed the pragmatic, question-answering skills which characterize the English intellectual tradition, while their French counterparts were reciting a lot of hand-me-down slogans. A more sceptical person might ask why an absence of jingoism is held to be a bad thing, why the French authorities have found it necessary to brainwash their young children about the glory of France, and whether a country was more sure of itself because it needed to make that effort.
But it is typical of the English to ignore the silver lining and to grasp at the cloud. The belief that something has rotted in England is widely held: a people cannot spend decades being told their civilization is in decline and not be affected by it. One political party after another has made promises to restore the integrity and standing of the country, which have turned out to be outrageous lies. It would not matter in Italy, where they don't believe in the state anyway and where the institutions which do matter to them family, village, and town remain demonstrably alive. The English put their faith in institutions, and of these, the British Empire has evaporated, the Church of England has withered away and Parliament is increasingly irrelevant,
And it is not merely that the external sureties have gone, so, it seems, have internal certitudes. I once asked the author Simon Raven what he thought being English meant and he replied with a disconsolate caveat, 'I'd always hoped it meant gentle manners, cricket, civility between the classes, lack of malice towards others, fair dealing with women, and fair dealing with enemies. But now I wonder.' John Cleese, who looks increasingly like the crusty old colonels he once parodied, is also beginning to sound like them. 'We could have made all sorts of generalizations about England if we had been talking thirty years ago,' he told me. 'Nowadays, it seems to me that you can't assume anything.' The diarist, gadfly and gardener Roy Strong amplified the philippic: 'Families are falling apart, religion's discredited. So where does our sense of identity come from? What holds this country together? Not bloody much!'
When I started thinking about this book, I wrote to the playwright Alan Bennett. He was once introduced to a New York press conference as 'what we in England call a national treasure', as if he were the gardens of Sissinghurst or a pot of Women's Institute home-made raspberry jam. If anyone could understand Englishness, he surely would. What makes plays like Forty Years On, The Old Country, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution so distinctively English as well as being about England are the layers of ambiguity with which they are constructed. (I had been particularly taken by a scene in The Old Country where Hilary, the spy who has defected to Moscow, muses about England: 'We're conceived in irony. We float in it from the womb. It's the amniotic fluid. It's the silver sea. It's the waters at their priest-like task, washing away guilt and purpose and responsibility. Joking but not joking. Caring but not caring. Serious but not serious.' It captures one of the essentials of Englishness.
So I wrote to Alan Bennett, asking if he would like lunch or tea to talk over the subject. Back came a picture postcard of Peny-y-ghent.
Thank you for your letter. I'm hopeless at this kind of thing, though. If I could put into words what I mean by Englishness (and what I like and detest about it) I wouldn't write at all, as coming to terms with it is what gets me going. I really wouldn't be any help, but good luck with it. I used to stay in your village thirty years ago. I hope it hasn't changed.
Did he really believe he was 'hopeless' at 'this kind of thing'? What kind of thing? Was he just finding a polite way of telling me to get lost, blaming himself for not wanting to waste my time when he thought it would be a waste of his? Was he genuine in claiming he wouldn't write if he knew what Englishness was, when his life has been spent anatomizing it? And that final comment about the village and the hope that it hadn't changed: that too was essentially English, the prayer of a people marching backwards into the future, for whom change always means change for the worse.
Instead, I started from scratch and decided we might as well admit that the English are not an easy people to love. They have none of the charm of the Irish, the affability of the Welsh or the directness of the Scots. You have only to spend five minutes in a foreign bar where a group of English are gathered to feel at best indulgent of their monoglot cringe and at worst ashamed as they shout for food and drink which reminds them of home. Even the quieter English possess that veneer of manners which conceals an infinite capacity for contempt: you can really only feel above your neighbours if you don't know them very well. The English resort to an entirely unjustified pretence at superiority at the drop of a hat, yet produce the vilest football hooligans in Europe. To be fair, they have a more attractive side to their character, as well. They tend not to proselytize aggressively about their way of life any longer. And does any other society put such a premium upon having a sense of humour?
If you want to find out about what makes the English who they are, you quickly make two discoveries. Firstly, that this offshore island has been sufficiently intriguing to attract quite awesome numbers of foreign visitors eager to share their impressions with the rest of the world: there are libraries filled with books of reminiscences and travellers' tales. Secondly, very little at all has been written on the subject of English nationalism. This is mainly because, while you can find nationalist movements aplenty in Estonia or Ethiopia, they scarcely exist in England. Some of the reasons you can guess at quickly no foreign occupation, no attempt to extinguish indigenous culture. And there is the obvious point that, apart from at a few football and cricket matches, England scarcely exists as a country: nationalism was, and remains, a British thing.
So, as Britain declines, all sorts of nasty things are crawling out from under stones. Not long ago I received a brown manila envelope. The address was written in block capitals, a nondescript if not particularly educated handwriting. There was a postmark: 'Hull'. Mercifully, I opened the envelope with the point of a biro. It was just as well. The top edge of the single sheet of paper inside had been sewn with razor blades. On one side was a cartoon British soldier in World War Two tin helmet lying in a slit trench, rifle to his shoulder. Underneath, the same hand had scrawled, 'Don't move, nigger.' Overleaf was a gallows and a hangman's noose. My initials had been drawn inside the rope. At the bottom of the page was scratched in giant letters PROUD TO BE BRITISH. I forget quite what inspired this attack. A similar nasty smell used to hang over the anti-Semitic mail I received when another dunderhead got it into what passed for his mind that I was part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to destroy the British state. There is nothing uniquely British about these comparatively very anodyne experiences, as any victim of German, French or Swiss racism could attest. My point is only that this sort of prejudice is attached to the idea of Britain rather than England.
For a while after the Act of Union some people and acts of Parliament called Scotland 'North Britain' and England 'South Britain', self-consciously referring back to a time before England. The hugely ambitious took to calling Ireland 'West Britain'. All were making a political point and the terms are almost unheard-of now: the North British call themselves Scots, while the South British are as or more likely to say they are English or Welsh as British. The only place where this rule does not apply is the north of Ireland, where Catholics will tell you they're Irish and Protestants will claim to be British. But they too are making a political point. The Orange parades in Northern Ireland, those booming, swaggering marches every 12 July, are almost the only popular rituals to celebrate Britishness in the British Isles. (The others are official events like Trooping the Colour or semi-official, flag-waving sessions like the last night of the Proms.) But the sight of thin-lipped old men in bowler hats and orange sashes marching to their pipe-and-drum bands means nothing to the rest of Britain. The paradox is that this great proclamation of belonging, that the Ulster 'loyalists' are in some deep sense the same as the rest of us, merely serves to make them look utterly different.
English nationalism, when you can find it, tends to take other expressions. They are more confused, because the English are no longer quite sure what it is that makes them what they are: the self-confidence of the imperial years was the enemy of introspection. It is elusive because it has no defining racial or religious boundaries. It is bloody-minded, quiet and often private and is, deep down, an elective identity. But something is stirring out there. In 1995 the greetings-card retailer, Clinton's, began producing the first cards to celebrate St George's Day. Within two years, the shops were selling over 50,000 every April. In the summer of 1996 there was a noticeable increase in the number of English football fans at the European championships, 'Euro '96', who had chosen to daub their faces with a red cross on a white background, instead of the more commonplace Union Jack. By April 1997, the Sun had leapt on the bandwagon, printing a half-page cross of St George in its English editions and asking readers to stick it in the window. It was an idea which did not catch on, but it was interesting that someone in Rupert Murdoch's empire which has not grown rich by overtaxing the higher faculties of its customers should have noticed the way the wind seemed to be blowing. The following year, the English Tourist Board was organizing a week of events across the country entitled 'St George Invades Britain' on the grounds, a spokesman explained, that 'People have been embarrassed to be English'. At the soccer World Cup that summer, the cross of St George seemed to outnumber the Union flags. When St George's Day came around in 1999, the Sun marked the occasion with a four-page pullout, '100 Reasons Why It's Great to be English'. They included the Weather (23), Pork Scratchings (28), Page Three Girls (45), Charles Dickens (55), the M25 motorway, 'the world's biggest circular traffic jam' (71), Agatha Christie (88) and 'Deidre' the newspaper's own agony aunt (95).
But what are the English supposed to be celebrating? The author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles, has thought deeply about the difference between being British and being English, and concludes that while the colours of Britain, to which the marching loyalists swear allegiance, are red, white and blue, the colour of England is green. 'What is the red-white-and-blue Britain?' he asks. It is
the Britain of the Hanoverian dynasty and the Victorian and Edwardian ages; of the Empire; of the Wooden Walls and the Thin Red Line; of 'Rule Britannia' and Elgar's marches; of John Bull; of Poona and the Somme; of the old flog-and-fag public-school system; of Newbolt, Kipling and Rupert Brooke, of clubs, codes and conformity; of an unchangeable status quo; of jingoism at home and arrogance abroad; of the paterfamilias; of caste, cant and hypocrisy.
He doesn't care for it, and apologists for the achievements of the Empire could doubtless recite as long a list of positive qualities the rule of law, exploration, scientific advance, individual acts of courage, Burton and Speke, Livingstone, Florence Nightingale and Captain Scott with which to fight back. But two things seem unanswerable. Firstly, that Britain (as opposed to England, Scotland and Wales) is a political idea. Secondly, that once it had been invented, it consistently sought to justify its existence by exerting influence elsewhere. The proof of the success of the red-white-and-blue flies on flagpoles from the Orkneys to Fiji. The green England is something quite different. John Fowles thought that the fact England was virtually an island had created a people who 'watch across water from the north', a people who were observers rather than experiencers. And their geography had given them the freedom to be pioneers in law and democracy.
But first we have to define what we are talking about. Some aspects of Englishness remain constant over the centuries, others are forever changing. Just as they can no longer be identified by their language, nor can the English be defined in racial terms: I consider myself English, but am a quarter Scottish, and who knows what else further back. But we could all make lists to challenge that of George Orwell. Off the top of my head, mine would include 'I know my rights', village cricket and Elgar, Do-It-Yourself, punk, street fashion, irony, vigorous politics, brass bands, Shakespeare, Cumberland sausages, double-decker buses, Vaughan Williams, Donne and Dickens, twitching net curtains, breast-obsession, quizzes and crosswords, country churches, dry-stone walls, gardening, Christopher Wren and Monty Python, easy-going Church of England vicars, the Beatles, bad hotels and good beer, church bells, Constable and Piper, finding foreigners funny, David Hare and William Cobbett, drinking to excess, Women's Institutes, fish and chips, curry, Christmas Eve at King's College, Cambridge, indifference to food, civility and crude language, fell-running, ugly caravan sites on beautiful clifftops, crumpets, Bentleys and Reliant Robins, and so on. They may not all be uniquely English, but the point about them is that unlike the touchstones of Britishness, which tend to be primped, planned and pompous, if you take any three or four of these things together, they point at once to a culture as evocatively as the smell of a bonfire in the October dusk.
So before the English submerge themselves in gloom again, it is worth noticing that there is something positive about the fact that the English have not devoted a lot of energy to discussing who they are. It is a mark of self-confidence: the English have not spent a great deal of time defining themselves because they haven't needed to. Is it necessary to do so now? I can only answer that it seems something the English can no longer avoid, for the reasons outlined earlier. Those countries which do best in the world the ones that are safe and prosperous have a coherent sense of their own culture.
Table of Contents
1 The Land of Lost Content 1
2 Funny Foreigners 24
3 The English Empire 43
4 'True Born Englishmen' and Other Lies 60
5 We Happy Few 77
6 The Parish of the Senses 93
7 Home Alone 115
8 There Always Was an England 141
9 The Ideal Englishman 176
10 Meet the Wife 207
11 Old Country, New Clothes 232
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