Jenny poked her head over the fence and got excited about the fact that a small oak tree was beginning to grow in my garden. She reckoned that the oak tree was an emblem – or a ‘reflection’ – of our national character. ‘You know’, she said of the oak, ‘it’s like us, it endures.’
Maybe Jenny had been thinking about the nature of the English because so much change seems to be happening here, there and everywhere – and she was looking for something solid and certain to hang on to; maybe it was to do with the grand debate about whether to stay in ‘Europe’ or go it alone …
… or maybe it’s because she’d seen a couple of interesting TV programmes that devoted themselves to considering the identity of the English:
Martin Amis figured in the first of those programmes. He thinks that the geography of the British Isles and the attendant climate combine to exert a very significant effect on the making of the English psyche. The weather – fickle, capricious, untrustworthy, often dank, gloomy and dispiriting – has helped create a stolid yet opportunistic, stoic yet humorous – national outlook. (To some degree his idea makes sense: in England you never quite know what the next day is going to be like so you have to make the most of whatever is going on around you. And, if it’s raining cats and dogs there’s no use moaning; the solution is to have a good laugh.) Amis reminded us that the English are an island people; they enjoy a kind of detachment from Europe as well as a curiosity about the lands to the west and especially the USA. (We’re not like the French and we’re only like the Americans in certain ways.) Martin Amis had lots to say about how the English are trying to come to terms with the loss of their colonial Empire, the correlated decline in international status – and their loss of power and influence in the world. He also identifies the shift from a ‘class society’ to a ‘money society’, and notes that:
“Money has won. It has always won in America, but it has won in England too.”
The fact that ‘money has won’ may mean that, overall, England is a more meritocratic society than ever before.
In the second of those programmes Ian Hislop stated that we may as well formally acknowledge the English as having a deeply conservative psyche. The British (and English) appear to think that the way forward is to go back to ‘the olden days’. The storehouse of the past is believed to contain models and exemplars of whatever it is that made the country a success. The English untiringly draw from that imagined past. Hislop also argues that at least part of this conservatism is down to the writings of Edmund Burke; Burke identified, justified and championed a distinct English ‘temper’; it’s an interesting idea: at the core of this ‘temper’ is the lack of belief in an ideal future; instead, there’s a belief in an ideal past. The English venerate ‘an old England’ (even if it never really existed). The nostalgia aches. Burke thought that the English are a people rooted in the soil – and, in consequence, are more like the reliable cud-chewing cow than the noisy chattering grasshopper, more like the sturdy oak than the here-today-gone-tomorrow delicacies of the flower garden. And Hislop finds that it was another author, Walter Scott, who helped create the idea that the English were all about ‘Fair play’ – and that this culture (or myth) of ‘fair play’ stemmed from the ancient ideals of chivalry. (‘Ivanhoe’ is the novel in which the notion of ‘fair play’ is plainly stated.) Chivalry has tended to have a good press – but the violence attending chivalry has often been ignored.
Amis and Hislop have very interesting and provocative things to say about the identity and character of the English. They suggest a nation that reflects both continuity and change; they articulate narratives that help to account for the way the English ‘see’ things; both help to elaborate a partial theory of the English.
BUT the culture isn’t standing still – AND sooner rather than later I may decide to cut down my oak tree if it gets in the way of the sun.