Monday, 23 April 2012

St George's Day and Englishness: a few thoughts

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s 23 April. Which means it’s Bill Shakespeare’s birthday – and St George’s Day too.

In the case of the latter, that means celebrations of some sort for the people of many countries, since he is the patron saint of more than one nation – and plenty of other things besides, including archers and sufferers of syphilis.

But national days have little to do with the historic reality behind the saint in question.

In this case, there seems to be some confusion as to where he even came from, although there is support for his having been a Roman soldier from Syria Palæstina.

The Catholic Encyclopedia is of the opinion that, while there seems to be no ground for doubting the historical existence of St George, that doesn’t mean that we should believe some of the more fanciful tales.

Which conclusion struck me as showing a certain lack of self awareness.

But the mythical nature of St George seems rather apt in many ways.

You could start with the very nature of nationalism: anyone who really thinks that the country they hail from is better than any other is daft – just as daft as anyone thinking the reverse.

My parents were very much in the camp of thinking that England was absolutely finer than absolutely anywhere else on planet Earth. ‘God is an Englishman’, they commented more than once – presumably, given their devoutly held religious beliefs, without entirely meaning it.

So convinced of this innate superiority are they that they have been rendered incapable of actually seeing the satire in things such as Flanders and Swann’s Song of Patriotic Prejudice – or even some of what WS Gilbert wrote – and treat such songs with utterly gleeful relish.

Which rather means that the joke is on them – even if they can’t understand this.

My mother used to comment loudly – and god, how embarrassing it would be – when people left the cinema before the national anthem was played. We obviously had to wait – and stand for it.

Yet in spite of growing up in such an atmosphere, I could never understand what it was I was actually supposed to feel.

I mean – why be ‘proud’ of where you’re from? Why would you take pride in something over which you have had not an iota of control or influence?

It’s as daft as being ashamed of where one comes from.

They really are the two sides of a single coin.

It took me years to work out what my own Englishness meant – and it has more in common with that Flanders and Swann or Gilbertian strand of disguised satire.

Like much English humour, they seemed to be either of the Establishment or at least rather tame, yet the reality was more complex.

They were observers, sitting slightly apart and recording the quirks of the English, often with a slightly surreal edge.

The same could be said of a vast number of talents, from Joyce Grenfell to Eddie Izzard and Alan Bennett to Victoria Wood.

Equally, I doubt my mother, for all her liking Shakespeare, is aware of many aspects of the Bard’s writing.

Take A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance. It’s long struck me as more than a tad amusing that it’s the first Shakespeare play that children are introduced to.

It’s about sex. An Elizabethan audience would have understood that Puck transforms Bottom into an ass because the ass has a whopping big penis. That’s what it is that attracts Titania when she sees him.

But there are plenty of other myths about England and Englishness.

The likes of John Betjeman and JRR Tolkien both helped popularise a particular mythology during the 20th century.

For both of them, England was the countryside: not the dramatic, romantic scenery of the Lake District, for instance, but something far gentler: rolling downs and pretty woods.

You see this chocolate box idea in much of Betjeman’s poetry. And it’s no coincidence that Tolkien labeled the part of Middle Earth that was under threat and needed defending as The Shire.

There was no place for industry or the inner cities – and they both pretty much wrote them out of their visions of what constituted an ideal England.

You could also mention St Mary Meade, home of Miss Jane Marple. But since Agatha Christie’s sharp-minded old lady was always solving murders rather than sitting in the garden, drinking tea from a bone china cup and doing the Times crossword, it was hardly an idyll – however far geographically from the encroaching obscenity of modern, urban life.

On the other hand, Hercule Poirot most definitely disliked the countryside – although perhaps that’s because he was furrin?

It’s an England that did – or does – most certainly exist, and it has a powerful hold on the collective imagination of many; perhaps particularly those of ‘a certain age’ and a certain social background.

In a speech to the Conservative Group for Europe, on (note the date) 22 April 1993, the then Prime Minister John Major said: “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said: ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.”

It’s quite obvious that a lot of this is connected to class.

Grubby, grimy, dirty industry was what the hoi polloi in the cities and grim, industrial northern towns did.

The middle classes built “invincible” suburbia to live as far as possible from the inner city, if they couldn’t avoid working there.

Only very recently has this trend started changing: now, living in the city so trendy that the rising cost of even old council flats is driving out the people who once were the only residents.

There is a truth to the vision of Betjeman and Tolkien et al, and there is something quite intoxicating about the picture that Major conjured up.

But it is only one part of that truth; only one part of what constitutes England – and a smallish part at that.

When I travel to Bournemouth later this year for work, I’ll enjoy some of the sort of scenery that Betjeman eulogised. But my own Englishness also incorporates the landscapes of Lowry – and there, in a nutshell, may be the reason that he was so shamefully treated by the country’s art Establishment: he recorded a world that they didn’t want to see; that did not conform to ideas of what was ‘nice’ and acceptable: that could not be Art.

Betjeman was a snob. Oh, he’s an enjoyable snob to read – his use of rhyme and rhythm makes his work readily accessible – but there is poetry in the industrial and in the north too: witness the work of the sublime Alan Plater and, as mentioned earlier, Bennett.

And of course, that doesn't even touch on just what those grubby working types actually contributed to the country, which such snobs so conveniently forget.

But going back to English humour, perhaps at our best, there’s a determination to prick pomposity.

Think of Will Hay, playing a double agent and being allowed to make repeated v signs to a picture of Hitler in 1942’s The Goose Steps Out as he ‘educates’ would-be spies about English ways of showing respect.

But it's equally part of the greater picture that Hay's screen persona was that of a buffoon. He was hardly some heroic figure. And indeed, you see the same thing repeated in English culture, from George Formby to Norman Wisdom.

That example came to mind again last week, when English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson responded to a picture of the Taj Mahal on the Twitter homepage with the following: “welcome to twitter homepage has a picture of a mosque. what a joke #creepingsharia”.

Major wasn’t entirely wrong when he also said: “Only in Britain could it be thought a defect to be ‘too clever by half’. The probability is that too many people are too stupid by three-quarters”.

But quite apart from pointing out that the Taj Mahal is not a mosque, the Twittersphere had enormous fun taking Robinson’s hashtag and sending it up mercilessly.

To give a flavour, tweets included: “My nan goes to Mecca bingo. Coincidence? #CreepingSharia” by Robbie Gibbo.

It was the perfect riposte. And it was deliciously English.

It is the same approach that produces Private Eye.

Although the downside of this is that, in general, we also notoriously distrust intellectualism. Public discourse suffers as a result – little wonder we therefore have political (and other) ‘elites’ and that we canonise the thick.

See Jade Goody – a troubled individual, exploited by the media and a voyeuristic public, who became a celebrity for her stupidity, before being vilified for the same thing and then hailed as a saint as she died in the public glare, desperate that the financial benefit that that would bring would benefit her children.

England at its best; England at its worst.

But you can’t have everything.

On a rather more down-to-earth level, I’m afraid today’s food hasn’t been particularly English – with The Other Half away, I’m on an Italian kick involving seafood and cheese and dishes he would not want to eat.

But it could hardly have been more English on Saturday evening – well, British – with English lamb chops, English asparagus and Jersey Royals from, err, Jersey.

However, that’s not to say there wasn’t a little something to do to mark today.

Just over a week ago, while wandering along Columbia Road, we were both handed what appeared to be a rather knobbly, red business card.

In fact, it turned out to be an invitation from the mayor of London to a St George’s Day festival this weekend just gone.

But the little cards themselves could be soaked overnight in water and then planted in soil, since they contained seeds for English wild flowers.

Which was an entirely nice idea – and I therefore saved them to soak and planted them late this afternoon.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Dressed in jogging pants, a football shirt and a tweed cap (made in the UK), with a mug of Earl Gray on the side, while another April shower pit-pattered down and, between the steady growl of the city’s traffic, bird song filled the air, I sowed a little bit of one England in a little corner of another England.

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