Monday, August 28, 2017

On Englishness

Begging pardon for its unseasonableness, here is a Christmas carol:

­  Adam lay ybounden,
­  Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
  Thought he not too long.

­  And all was for an apple,
  An apple that he took.
­  As clerkes finden
­  Written in their book.

­  Ne had the apple taken been,
­  The apple taken been,
­  Ne had never our ladie,
­  Abeen heav'ne queen.

­  Blessed be the time
­  That apple taken was,
­  Therefore we moun singen,
­  Deo gratias!

And here is an exchange with some uninvited (though not unwelcome) guests at Mole's and Ratty's riverside picnic:

­  A broad glistening muzzle showed itself above the edge of the bank, and the Otter hauled himself out and shook the water from his coat.
­  "Greedy beggars!" he observed, making for the provender. "Why didn't you invite me, Ratty?"
­  "This was an impromptu affair," explained the Rat. "By the way — my friend Mr. Mole."
­  "Proud, I'm sure," said the Otter, and the two animals were friends forthwith.
  "Such a rumpus everywhere!" continued the Otter.  "All the world seems out on the river to-day.  I came up this backwater to try and get a moment's peace, and then stumble upon you fellows!  — At least — I don't exactly mean that, you know."
­  There was a rustle behind them proceeding from a hedge wherein last year's leaves still clung thick, and a stripy head, with high shoulders behind it, peered forth on them.
­  "Come on, old Badger!" shouted the Rat.
­  The Badger trotted forward forward a pace or two; then grunted, "H'm! Company," and turned his back and disappeared from view.
­  "That's just the sort of fellow he is!" observed the disappointed Rat. "Simply hates Society!  Now we shan't see any more of him to-day [...]"

... And thirdly a vignette from a swimming lesson at Linbury Court Preparatory School, Dunhambury, East Sussex, in which C. E. J. Darbishire is demonstrating his accomplishment as a life-guard and J. C. T. Jennings, whose idea it was, is pretending to be in difficulties:

  "All right, I've got you now," gasped the lifesaver, grabbing at Jennings' ears like a drowning man clutching at a straw.

I need hardly ask what these three pieces of writing all have in common.  They are all English, of course! — and English not simply by virtue of having been written in England, in English or by English authors, but because, quite un-self-consciously I think, they radiate the English character.  In other words, they wear their Englishness not merely as a fact, but as a quality.

These are only examples from the furniture of my own mind (a mind which 'England bore, shaped, made aware') — of course others, better-read than I am, could have made a keener selection and a finer distillation.  But at any rate, I can tell the Englishnesses in these extracts as an astronomer might point out constellations in the night sky.  Out they flash, even though the author is in the middle of doing something else entirely (catechising us, diverting us, making us laugh).  In the first, for instance, the slightly-modernised text of a fifteenth-century carol (from the Sloane manuscript 2593 at the British Library, and set masterfully to music by various composers, such as Philip Ledger), there, miraculously, amid pre-Reformation English piety, is recognisable English humour.  Adam, the first man and the first sinner, is given due blame for the 'bond' we share with him, our inherited weakness and woe — 'Four thousand winter / Thought he not too long' —  but it is a brotherly, even teasing rebuke.  Likewise there is something familiar, something eye-to-eye-seeing, about the words 'all was for an apple'.  (I have written here about the power of this carol, amazing the catechist with his own catechesis).  Next there is Exhibit B, whose origin in Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows' is instantly recognisable.  Here in an English riverside idyll are the intricate, over-scrupulous niceties of English manners and the minor perils of speaking one's mind in company.  There is the gentle fun made of Badger's benign curmudgeonliness and the Otter's forwardness, along with its logical result, his hasty back-pedalling from even the shadow of an implication (and it is no more than that) that Rat and Mole might be disturbing his peace.  Also 'a hedge wherein last year's leaves still clung thick', which needs no comment.  And then in the third specimen, from Anthony Buckeridge's According to Jennings, there is the dead-pan earnest meticulousness with which the serious business of English humour is set about (indeed, in a book for children).  See how carefully the hilarity has been coiled up so that its unfolding is as ticklish as possible.
How does this strike any readers, wherever you are from?  There's nothing objective about these observations: I offer all this just as one Englishman's thoughts on his own Englishness.  I know very well that, just as it is very easy to proclaim with such certainty 'That's English!', it is very hard to pin down why.  What defines any nation's character?  I could give examples until the cows come home, but what about a definition?

What is it about this music (RVW, Symphony 8, third movement) that is so English?

Many in Western Europe now find this question fraught with difficulty.  Knowing that, in the past, people have often tried rather too hard to pin it down: to blood, to territory, to language, to religious faith alone, to temperament, or to rather too narrow combinations of these, there has been in the past seventy years a rather strong counter-reaction.  Those in England who now are uncomfortable with and even suspicious of expressions of Englishness (and there are many) are right that none of those things, by themselves, are absolute conditions for nationality, but go too far, I think, in asserting that Englishness itself is meaningless, if not harmful.  All of those measurements surely have their bearing, to greater or lesser extents.

Englishness is not monolithic: the best-known division is between the highland North and the lowland South (and my perspective, I acknowledge, is Southern).  It is not unchanging: English history has its twists and turns.  Nor is it infallible (shall I ever see an end to the lack of interest in Wales or the reluctance to learn foreign languages?).  But it is something.  It is something that I have missed when I have (twice) spent time living away from England, and have met on returning; it is something that has been sharpened and strengthened precisely by (certainly not in spite of) my efforts to learn the languages and cultures of France and Germany.  More objectively, it is something rather tough and persistent, over a thousand years old.  It is something, too, in spite of being in many ways intangible.  Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh, the ever-prolific and ever-readable Irish Papist, who has hammered out some interesting thoughts here about his own (Irish) romantic nationalism, suggests that mythology makes a nation and binds it together as much as, if not more than ethnic or geographical fact.  (It is worth noting in passing that the strength of England's physical borders have perhaps blinded her to any detachment of nationality from territory: Poland, for example, disappeared as a political entity during the nineteenth century, and appeared to undergo a territorial shunt westwards during the course of the twentieth, but has emerged with a strong sense of national identity.  Yet even English kings, before and after the Norman Conquest, called themselves rex Anglorum, King of the English, until the twelfth century; Henry II was the first to adopt as his official title rex Anglie, King of England).  Maolsheachlann's point is that a nation is spiritual as much as it is physical:
...the organizing principle of romantic nationalism is something intangible, otherworldly, spiritual. The further up you go in the scale of intangibility — folklore, language, literature, mythology, the arts — the closer you come to it. But the principle itself can't be grasped, can't be described — maybe it's even quasi-fictional.
I know that in the past many have taken advantage of that spirituality, elevating it to the altars and thus too high.  This happened not least in the nineteenth-century projects to unify and centralise European principalities or dukedoms into more concrete nations like Italy or Prussia (by the way, those misunderstood words of the German national anthem, Deutschland über alles, actually mean 'Germany above all', that is, a call to loyalty to a united, transcendent German nation above more local identities, and not, as I think is sometimes assumed, a braggadocio 'Germany above everyone [else]').  The mistakes of that century are many: the effort to transcend narrower, regional loyalties often rode rough-shod over them, and often nationhood inspired churchgoing, rather than the other way around.   But that isn't the case today.  Rather, the idea of national feeling is being eroded in two ways.  The first is the globalisation and homogenisation of commerce and culture and much else, which is often praised without qualification as a unifying force (which was surely precisely a principal motive for the nationalism of the nineteenth century, now criticised).  The second is the general anti-romantic and anti-spiritual mood of the age, which is not only eroding the semi-spirituality of the nation but gnawing prolifically at the deeper, underlying Christian foundations of Western Europe and indeed any idea of Christendom.  With assumptions abroad that such things as patriotism are merely the fruit of jealousy-soured tribalism, the mystery of mythology is more likely to be mocked or disparaged or, possibly worse still, simply abandoned and forgotten altogether.

But that would be a catastrophe, brought on ourselves by a blundering misunderstanding of nationality and national feeling.  I suppose it is time for me to attempt a definition, and here it is: that the nation is a larger, but looser and less important version of the family.  Like the family, the nation gives us soil for our roots and our place in the world; like the family, a nation is bonded in the first place by blood but others, formerly outsiders, can be welcomed to a rightful place in it by marriage and adoption.  From both family and nation we inherit a home, spiritual and physical, which we are to guard and pass on.  Both, too, have room for contradictions and twin-truths: it is possible to call oneself Anglo-Welsh, or English and British, or to descend from various quite different nations, and distinguish between Scousers and Londoners and Yorkshiremen, and so on, just as it is possible to have several simultaneous identities, so to speak, as a mother, daughter, sister and wife, and to belong to two different families at once.  Nations, like families, have identities which are continuous but not fixed.  No wonder, then, that with the widespread weakening of the vows and bonds that hold families together, nations too are losing their nerve.

Maolsheachlann's idea of romantic nationalism has a bearing on this, too.  'Mythology', he says, 'is set partly in the real world and partly in a never-never land; in fact, the real world itself becomes mingled with a never-never land'.  Reading this, it occurred to me that the nation is a fascinating mingling of 'home' and 'elsewhere'.  For most of us there is a discrepancy between the everyday, mundane, probably drizzly part of England where we live, and the vision, in literature or the imagination, of a more peaceful, rural, sunlit England.  The first is both a physical 'home' and an 'elsewhere' in which we feel we are to some extent exiled; the second is a true, yearned-for 'home' that is 'elsewhere' even to the point of the realm of the imagination.  (There is a greater difference than we might think between the 'everyday' and the 'familiar').  Yet the mythology not only draws on the real world but then writes itself back into reality: hence the quest, on physical English soil, for the mythological, unfindable 'deep England', a home that lies elsewhere, or an elsewhere that is home.  Hence the reaction of the poet Edward Thomas when asked what he was going out to the Front to fight for: he picked up a clod of earth and answered 'This'.  And that mythology is unabashed in the face of reality, which remains unequivocally that Tilbury Docks are no less a part of England than Bourton-on-the-Water.

There is something like this in families too.  Surely most people might be tempted to say that every-day life cramps family life to some extent, or that is only half flourishing, always postponing each other's company and leisure, and that families are only really fully alive at gatherings and feasts and weddings and baptisms.  Of course those high points (the German for 'wedding' is 'Hochzeit', literally 'high time') are as wonderful and necessary as they are meant to be, and make family history, which is also mythology after all.  But then the reality is that a family is no less itself, no less at the real work of being a family, at 8 a.m. on a November school morning than it is around the baptismal font or the Christmas roast.

There is much more that could be said on this subject, but I have remembered that this is a blog, not a ten-volume treatise.  For now I will leave off by saying that I find the appropriation or vilification or other misunderstanding of authentic national feeling sorely annoying, because, authentically felt and authentically understood, as long as it is for itself rather than against anything else, it is a good thing to be savoured, and a gift to rejoice in. We in England need to rediscover it; it is, after all, our inheritance.

A glimpse of 'Deep England': St Mary's, Itteringham, Norfolk.


  1. Well, it is pleasantly startling to be lost in a blog post and suddenly come to come upon a reference to yourself! I'm happy to be quoted in this post, which I greatly enjoyed and heartily agree with it, especially the bit about 8 a.m. on a November school morning...some of my happiest memories of my own childhood are from such mornings. The idea that the nation is a mingling of "home" and "elsewhere" seems to me such a profound truth that a man might write a hundred novels to illustrate it! Can I link to this?

    1. Thank you for the comment! Sorry, I should have asked before quoting you so liberally.
      The more I think about it, the deeper it all seems to go. One of the many good things about the Catholic faith is its role as a guard-rail. We can't elevate the nation to the altar, but that means that we can 'relax' about it to some extent, if that's the right word, once we are signed up to the universal, absolute dignity of mankind. We don't have to worship the nation; we can enjoy it, as I did when I was writing this.
      But neither does that mean that we can round on it and disparage it, as so many seem to do. As you have said yourself, it makes the whole world flat and boring, just as the erosion of marriage and the family deprives children of an inheritance and an identity (along with much else).
      By all means link to the article (it would be an honour!)

    2. Not at all, anybody is welcome to quote me as much as they like!

      Regarding your "altar rail" point; I am reminded of Chesterton's argument that, when you know where the precipice is, you can walk right up to it if you wish. If you don't know where it is, you are in a perpetual lather. (I can never remember where exactly he said this.)

    3. I might have known Chesterton would already have covered that ground! I think he's right, as is his wont.

  2. The Englishness in the music. Is it some constituent melancholy, November yet elsewhere??

    1. Something like that! It has a sober bittersweetness to it. But I think it is fascinating that it is so hard to put into words, and almost the proof that national attachment goes very deep down. Thank you for the comment!

  3. For some reason his popularity has fared very well with age too. However unlikely, those national sentiments could even be (I guess) a sort of proof that the modernistic "globalism" never did drain away your country´s pastoral past entirely then.

    1. Well, I certainly think that his music has outlasted that of the atonal modernist composers of the mid-twentieth century. And it is true that 'The Lark Ascending' is often voted Britain's favourite 'classical' piece in these surveys that people do every so often, which I do find heartening. As I have written elsewhere I really do feel that RVW had his finger on the pulse of England in all its moods.

      May I ask which country you are writing from?

    2. I am Swedish, living in Sweden. My thought of his popularity was also from that his works are still performed. I don´t know how often or if it´s mostly only the major works, but at least they are on the repertoire and on top of that new cds were almost like a flood for years...

    3. Ah I see! Tack för dina kommentarer och hälsningar från England! It's very nice to think that people are fond of RVW's music beyond his native land.

      The RVW Society posts any notices it receives of performances of his works around the world: There are generally quite a few a month!

  4. Sad to say he rarely gets anything performed here. We have much better chances to hear Sibelius! ;-)

    Tack för en mycket fin websida. Trevlig helg!


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