Tuesday, March 04, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About England

I feel that we're going to get a lot more talking about England over the next few months, if only as a counterpoint to the Scottish independent debate. In a curious piece in the Observer from David Vann talks about his mother's "ideal place" being a thatched cottage in Devon. Its perhaps not only Americans of a certain age who see England through its most ridiculous clich├ęs. Bill Bryson's ironic travels round England offered a curious mix of nostalgia and condescension that we don't mind because Bryson is so obviously a certain type of Anglophile. Yet it got me thinking how absurd that this non-typical version of England is still seen as "typically" English. Perhaps we do the same when we go to America, though I'm not sure - that country-continent is so vast that we surely don't talk about New York and mean America? (Though the "Great American Novel" is often a West Coast Jewish novel...)

Those writers who to my mind seem to write best about the country - E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy - are often one kind of outsider or another, so there's much to be said for that outsider's perspective. "Howard's End", "The Woodlanders" and "St. Mawr" for instance, are of a particular time and place, that nonetheless resonate with a timelessness. They do not need to even mention England to reek with it. (All are to a lesser or greater extent about class, for a start, and about outsiders.) Rather T.S. Eliot's England than John Betjemans. Being English, of course, is different if you're from the home counties than the English Midlands or further north; though as a Midlander I've always felt that we are comfortable in our Englishness in a way that eschews any unhealthy nationalism. An invaded England would see the Midlands conquered as it was during the Norman invasion, but we are far enough away from the borders that such a takeover is never, to my mind ever going to change our Midlandsiness. Kent may be forever French, Lancashire Irish and Northumberland Scottish, but the Midlands is always Mercia.

In Vann's piece, that he's rewriting "Beowulf" made me smile - this is as mythical a part of England as the perfect cream tea. For "Beowulf" only reappeared a couple of hundred years ago. "The English no longer care much about their older tongue" he says and I'm not sure if its meant to be a rebuke. The English language is one of our great marvels, an Anglo-Saxon infected by French, that in some ways is as adaptable as the English spirit, and its origins, I think, are less interesting than what we've done with it since. This Old English epic was only published in 1815, so remains a strange kind of myth - one that opens a window on the past, that we then know was shut closed. For if there is an England it exists surely in the gap between our myths and our history, and perhaps more so than other nations, exalts that gap. Our patron saint, George, is himself a cipher, as "real" as Captain America or Spiderman, whilst our most exalted king, Arthur, is mired in myth, was king of a region not a nation. England, in this reading, exists before the Norman invasion, and the English, as opposed to Celts or Britons, existed in the centuries before William the Bastard, when we were in turn ruled by a series of invading kings, often from the further north. Auden's view that the north was one country crossing the North Sea, is one that gives an alternate seeing of England, that nonetheless would have resonated before the 11th century.

We existed before the Normans, and didn't become them, though the nature of our country changed.The Anglo-Saxon chronicle, that Old English history of ours, survived a little after 1066; but our lands, our monasteries, our territories, our religious sees and secular fiefdoms were handed over to leaders and priests who prayed in Latin, who spoke in French. When our literature reemerges in the 14th century, it is recognisable to a contemporary reader. England and its language have survived, and will thrive. 

Yet though the English language is part of what I think of when I think of England it is only part, after all we bequeathed it to the United States, Canada, Australia, India and elsewhere - increasingly we have bequeathed it to the world as its second language; yet this version - and I write this after four days in Rome, where our colleagues from round Europe converse exclusively in English - is not the language that I grew up with. It has less colour, is more functional; if anything it lacks the variety that the spoken English of an England of distinct regional identities had.

For language is also political. Whether its the "received pronunciation" of the old BBC presenter, or the more recent "estuary English" of TV soaps, there is always a determinism in official forms. Once, it was the written form that would be seen as the language of officialdom, and it still exists in our laws and bureaucracies, but mass consumption media such as radio and TV mean that our dialects may well merge or die out entirely in the next generation or two. Out of this, and if Scotland became independent, it is not hard to imagine that a new England would emerge, that would be increasingly dominated by London and the South East. English nationalism in this instance becomes an oxymoronic southern English nationalism.

But if character can survive the Normans, I think it can survive Alex Salmond and the Bank of England. Its always ridiculous to allocate verbs to a diverse people, yet as the comedian Al Murray - Pub Landlord so acutely skewers, there are certain recognisable English traits that we laugh at their absurd truth. I do think that though I relate to our national creation myths - Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his Merry Men - our contemporary fantasies, Harry Potter et al, are recognisable only as shadows of a wider tableau of English storytelling that seem more about a surface England of boarding schools and country houses, that are only "mine" from a distance. Our ruling classes have always been adept at changing the story. Whether its the adoption of Windsor by our Germanic monarchy or the popularity of Downton Abbey as an "upstairs downstairs" soap opera for all. England's ability to absorb outside influence, in language, in nationality, remains one of its defining traits - but here, I can see that Scottish friends would have be as making the cardinal sin of using English and British interchangeably. Where England doesn't exist it is because it has taken on the mantle of that larger version. It was the British Empire, it is the OBE that a colonial writer might rightly object to, not an "order of England".

From my perspective; Midlands born and bred, Northern-inhabiting, I am comfortable with "an" idea of England. But is it real? Am I equating a white, working class, provincial Protestantism with an idea of "nation"? Yet all of those terms I would have issues with myself - yes, they are part of the mix, but the whole of "England" is more than that. Our create intellectual heroes are still rarely celeberated; I'm thinking of Tom Payne as much as Alan Turing; whilst our artistic heroes are often those who gave us the official version: the German Elgar, Gainsborough's horses and Constable's countryside; the William Blake of "Jerusalem", the Tennyson of "Charge of the Light Brigade"; the Kipling of "If." The underplaying of our radical inheritance remains, too, an English trait. For a revolutionary England is always not far away, and as much a myth as St. George and the dragon. For England is also Orwell, whose twin satires "1984" and "Animal Farm" are quintessentially English in that they are "couldn't happen here" yet are "about" here. It is why our greatest writer's greatest works are about a Dane, a Scot, a Moor, and two Italian lovers. Shakespeare, my Shakespeare, is not part of my Protestant inheritance, his plays are set anywhere other than Stratford, yet we visit his birthplace and say "yes, this is England", the same as in the Parsonage at Haworth or the beach at Aldeburgh or looking out across Grasmere.

England contains multitudes, and yet becomes reduced, sometimes, to images of London buses, and Devon teas, of thatched cottages and Policemen, of the First world war soldier and the khaki-clad squaddy at Camp Bastion, of Gazza and Rooney and Bobby Charlton, of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, of David Bowie and Morrissey, of Mr. Bean and Alan Partridge. Any attempt to create another pantheon becomes either subsumed (the punk replacing the beefeater) in the official record, or becomes an alternative narrative that runs only in parallel, part as laugher track, part as barely audible hum. Yet it is the hum that I sometimes hear more clearly. Whether that's Derek Jarman, Wyndham Lewis, Louis Macneice, Cornelius Cardew, George Eliot, Alison Lapper, Gillian Wearing, David Hockney, Marc Bolan, John Peel, Mark E. Smith, Barbara Castle, Bruce Chatwin, Emily Pankhurst, Tony Benn, Magnus Mills or Brian Eno.

For England is no longer an island, it has borders, and even borders within its borders; yet we have characteristics of an island race. We speak only our own language, and refuse to teach our children any other, whether French, German or Mandarin; we are confident enough to set our art anywhere in the world, and call it our own, but strangely weak enough to want our incoming artists to become English as T.S. Eliot did. Then they become our own.  The greatest sin an Englishman can do is leave; which is why we've never forgiven Auden; yet beautiful as the land is, we don't even notice how many millions of us now choose to live abroad. Whereas the Irish diaspora can always be welcome back home, ours are not even acknowledged. Yet, our "ambassadors" are often best let go - after all what good does Tony Blair do us sitting at home brooding over what might have been? What role could we find for David Milliband that could use his skills for us? If Rebekah Brooks escapes censure, do we really think there's a job for her here? But these mega rich aren't likely to be the ones who want to come back on their death bed, though I imagine they will continue to pontificate on England from afar. 

When Michael Gove or other Conservatives talks about our history it is a partial, simplified one that seems to see history as a grand narrative, punctuated by battles and statues. Yet, as we see in more fraught areas of the world, nation is as much about character as it is about language, location or political organisation. It is why self-determination remains such a key demand from people across Europe and elsewhere, for culture and custom may become subservient, but character seems to stubbornly remain. I can't imagine living anywhere else, if only because I feel English, yet is my own little Englands, and Little Englanders I have frequently tried to get away from. England and Europe are the two poles to my identity and they don't seem particularly contradictory; though I wonder whether like someone checking my horoscope I am looking for those traits in myself that are most obviously Piscean or those Piscean traits that are most obviously me. My England, its safe to say, will not be the same as yours - it will certainly not be Michael Gove's, and that described by David Vann is no more real than Coronation Street to a Salfordian.

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