Welcome to What England Means to Me

After a brief hiatus What England Means to Me is back!

We welcome contributions from the public. So if you're English, or if you're not English but feel an attachment to England, please come in and take a look around and get in touch via the contact page if you would like to write an essay. If you do not wish to contribute an essay then please feel free to browse and, perhaps, leave a comment.

Thank you.

John Warwick

In 2003 British Asian writer, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik met and interviewed BNP leader Nick Griffin for Malik’s critique of multicultural Britain in the Channel 4 documentary ‘Disunited Kingdom’. He started off by asking Griffin to define ‘English culture’. His reply was ‘You can’t describe it, you just know it….its like being in love, you either are or you are not’(1). Not only is this the mother of all cop outs on behalf of Nick Griffin, a man who attempts to vehemently defend and protect something he cannot even define from dirty foreign influence, but in itself it says something about English culture. English culture is something that is difficult to describe, but not for the reasons that Nick Griffin gives. English culture is indefinable for the very fact that it is an open ended, living entity. The English culture of today is not the English culture of the 50s, as the English culture of the 50s was not the English culture of the nineteenth century.

For Nick Griffin would look at the example of curry becoming the national dish as a sign of weakness within English culture, a sign of loss. However the English are merely doing as they’ve always done. That is seamlessly assimilating something foreign into its entity without losing its own identity, and even reinventing itself in the process. By the time of the mid 1990s the new movement of British musicians were deliberately recreating a form of music that to most seemed as English as Yorkshire pudding, as a backlash to American dominance of pop culture. The irony didn’t seem to dawn on others that while they were trying to ape the Beatles, back in 1963 they and all their ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ were the epitome of Americanization within England.

In fact Liverpool’s ascendancy to being the first city of British rock and roll was no accident. The Maritime city of Liverpool had many sailors who had made frequent trips to America often bringing back records that the rest of the country couldn’t get hold of. Also a major part of Merseybeat that has had a lasting effect on the culture of the city is the adoption of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, number one hit for scouser Gerry Marsden in 1963, as its unofficial anthem. However this Rogers and Hammerstein number originates from the Broadway musical ‘carousel’, not the pen of any Liverpudlian wordsmith.

Also as a direct result of the Britpop movement of the 90s, the ‘Mod’ culture of the 1960s had come to be defined as the archetypal English cultural style. This is despite the fact that it was heavily influenced by black culture, particularly black American and West Indian music and style, which had came to Britain with the migrant populations. As explained by Paolo Hewitt ‘as second generation Caribbeans moved deeper into British society…Braces, pork-pie hats and the return of the Crombie coat were some of the clothing items that were taken from the Rude Boy by his white counterpart’(2).

This is not the only part of English pop culture that has been taken from the New World Blacks. A vital part of the birth of white sock wearing Essex man with his Escort XR3i complete with furry dice was on the dance floors of the Lacy Lady or Goldmine nightclubs. The Essex Soul Boy scene was built with a soundtrack straight out of Black America. As is the case with today’s most famous Essex man – David Beckham. In his 2005 Channel 4 documentary ‘Black like Beckham’, British afro-caribbean journalist Paul McKenzie refers to this modern day icon of Englishness as ‘Britain’s most famous black man’ because of his incorporation of ‘Black’ Urban style and culture within his public persona. McKenzie states that in turn Beckham has ‘got black style and he’s accepted by black people as a hero’(3). Not only is this something that only the soft southern soul boys did, in the 1970s an entire culture of 24 hour party people sprung up across the north of England, playing obscure soul tunes by obscure soul singers. From the dance floors of the Wigan Casino and the Flaming Torch in Stoke came ‘Northern Soul’, an entire genre of Black American music whose sole definition is a geographical reference to the part of England where it finds its popularity. This despite the fact that barely any English Northerners played a note on those records!

This is also not a phenomenon of the 20th/21st centuries, even William Shakespeare did this back in his day. A quick browse through Shakespeare’s complete works shows settings such as Florence and Marseille in All’s Well That Ends Well, Athens in ‘Mid Summer Nights Dream’, Verona in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and of course the self explanatory ‘Merchant of Venice’. Shakespeare had used the imagery of cultures foreign to England, the result of which centuries later is that his work epitomizes ‘English culture’ in the eyes of others around the globe.

The main conclusion that we can come to here is that the English are among the most misrepresented peoples on earth. Far from being the insular conservative reactionaries that we are often portrayed we are among the most receptive of peoples on god’s earth. People often note the rudeness and bad behaviour of English tourists and yet not only fail to note that this is a minority of people who get disproportionate coverage, but also the fact that once a European holiday came within the financial means of most English people a caravanning holiday on Canvey Island or St. Osyth was never going to cut it ever again. In fact over one million people from the British Isles have emigrated around the med, so contempt of foreigners surely cannot run that deep.The high number of people who emigrated from these shores have recently been misconstrued by the right wing press as a sign of decline and, even more ridiculously, because so many foreigners are coming here. Again the English are doing what they’ve always done, emigration out of Britain was higher than immigration into to Britain for over 300 years, England has after all repopulated entire continents in its time. This had only changed in the 1980s because countries such as Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the U.S., who had always received immigrants from Britain started to restrict our entry. In essence the English are a people that do not believe that the world ends at the white cliffs of Dover and that rather than shut the world out would rather see what it has got to offer.

This is isn’t the only part of England’s historical culture that the right wing has misconstrued, for when the least pleasant of those who follow the fortunes of our national Football side are singing ‘with St. George in my heart keep me English’, they might want to dwell on who St. George actually was. He was non-white Palestinian born in Modern day Turkey and a soldier of the Roman Empire, who had not even set foot in England. The reason for his sainthood is that in 303AD the emperor of Rome had authorized the systematic persecution of all Christians across the whole empire. George was ordered to participate in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticized the imperial decision, which in turn lead to his torture and execution. George is also the patron saint of Aragon, Canada, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Russia, Palestine and also the cities of Genoa, Beirut, Ljubljana, Freiburg and Moscow. So why is George the patron saint of England then? The answer to that one is simple – the actions and ideals of the man meant more than his place of birth.

And that Mr. Griffin, is the explanation to the secret to England’s culture, and why that culture is so enduring. If you take into account that an incredible number of the world’s inventions came from these shores, you know that the English have always appreciated the merits of a good idea, regardless of where it came from. After all we would not have been able to have stayed ahead of the game for as long as we have if we did not. Also the title of this site says it all – a doomsday book of the mind. William the Conqueror was not English at all, he was born in modern day France. The fact that he came here and invaded us should fill us with revulsion if we were anywhere near the Daily Mail stereotype of what we are. The fact we took on board a lot of what he brought speaks volumes about the English and what the English actually are.

John Warwick is a Professor of Political Science

1) http://www.kenanmalik.com/critics/tv&radio/disunited_kingdom.html
2) Hewitt, Paolo, The Soul Stylists: Forty Years of Modernism, Mainstream Publishing 2000:76
3) http://archives.tcm.ie/breakingnews/2003/03/16/story91842.asp

Barry Hamblin

To explain what England means to me, I have to begin with my childhood days at school. It was in the days when English history was still taught properly, in my case by an animated teacher who himself was Welsh. I learnt about the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans and the Tudors and, along with field trips, I took a liking to England, its history and its landscape. When I returned from school one day I asked my parents “am I English?”, and when they replied that I was, I became the happiest schoolboy in my street. Even in those days I knew that England’s flag was the Cross of St.George, I knew that St.George didn’t really kill a dragon but symbolized the triumph of good over evil. When I saw England’s flag amongst the plethora of Union flags at events I would often stare with pride in the knowledge that someone else knew they were English as well as me.

Later, as an adolescent and a young man, it could be said that I forgot about my England for the most part of each year except for the day that matters most, St.George’s Day. Every year I would, along with my fellow English friends, don a red rose at work or, if we were lucky and the day fell at the weekend, we would eventually find our way to the pub and celebrate, often with the biggest English flag around.

Having followed my favourite football team all over England, I have met fisherman from Hull, miners from Sheffield, car workers from Birmingham, farmers from Swindon, hop pickers from Kent and dock hands from Portsmouth and although from different backgrounds and each with their own stories told with the twang of the their local accents, we had a common theme. We were all English. No North-South-East-West divide for us, England was England . There was also the ever-changing cities and landscape. In the early days each city and town had its own symbol of industry, be it the tall chimneys of Manchester, the mines shafts of Barnsley, and each was unique. Today this has given way to modernization and a sort of homogenisation, for good or bad who knows?

What of my England today? It was whilst organising St.George’s Day in my local pub that I was encouraged to look into the history of the man, his legend and what his links are to England and from this I renewed my interest in all things English. Little did I know where this would lead to. Where it has led to is a realisation that the England I love is being eaten alive from within and unless I take an active part to stop it, I would be as guilty as each Englishman who sat idly by and did nothing. I learnt of Blake’s Jerusalem, surely England’s anthem? I read G K Chesterton’s The Secret People just two of many pieces of literature to stir the heart and, like the speech in Henry V, to rouse the passion of an Englishman.
What England means to me, then, is the people from north to south, east to west; it is the rolling landscape, the unique towns and villages; it is its history from the Saxons to 1707; it is the Arts from Constable to Parry; it is when you turn a corner and find the Cross of St.George flying when you least expect it; it is St.George’s Day. That is my England, it is your England, it is our England.

Barry (The Elder) is the London co-ordinator of the Campaign for an English Parliament and Director of St.George’s Day Events.

Paul Newman

I have been thumbing through some of the stirring stuff inscribed hereabouts, and jolly impressive it is to. In an effort to compete, (portenders ready …you might say), my first thought was to complain that I can never escape Englishness. I kid you not, I was incubating some gor-blimey pretentious metaphor in which Milton’s Satan stopped off to say …

“Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell“, …

This, seriously, was to illustrate the inescapability of one’s identity. Well thankfully you are saved from this nascent horror; I am off on quite another tack.

Here it is then….Years ago I sat in a Library reading the Miller’s Tale, yes I was only eight and already inhabiting the Middle English linguistic world. …….Ok ok, I was at ‘uni’, had no choice, and got a modern translation to save on swotting. Anyway, I got the only bit of Chaucer everyone knows. Absolom was thrusting his hot poker, “amidde the ers”, of Nicholas’ “toute” causing N, understandably enough, to cry, “water!”. The Landlord, you will recall, thinks the great flood has come and hilarity ensues. As I read I, “laughed out loud”.

Think on that for a moment; an idiotically dressed, and coiffed, 20th century student sending a LOL down the centuries to Geoffrey Chaucer. Englishman to Englishman.

You see, dear reader, in our dimly lit Anglo Saxon past, after battle, they feasted and re-told unbelievably tedious sagas about Sea monsters and stuff ….On the next hill, where I would be, they laughed at the whole thing, remarked on who had been the most cowardly, and admitted they would rather copulate with farm yard animals than fight.

I don’t say we should not soar above green vales to heroic strains of Elgar, or tease out any number of threads. Amongst all the full-body-waxing lyrical though, someone should at least try to conjure the merriness of Englishmen, finding the ridiculous often in what they love, and hate, most fervently.

Few, for example, have considered life and death with greater seriousness than John Donne, but in his Valediction Forbidding Mourning, a verse of terse spiritual and emotional strength, he still chucks in a knob gag for good measure ….

…It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home….

Nudge nudge eh, but let’s not over emphasise the bawdy. The exquisitely malicious observation of Jane Austen, the eye for foible of Charles Dickens, the affectionate despair we feel for Pooter, the endless verbal delight of PG Woodhouse, Churchill, Shaw, Cleese, Milligan, Rickie Gervais, where to start, where to end? It is part of us and I`d say an important part.

Why did we English establish Common Law so early, avoid revolution, religious slaughter (mostly), and muddle though in a manner the benighted foreigner can only envy? I suggest it is a sense of proportion, a deep reasonableness rather gentler than stern “Reason”.

To have sense of proportion is to find life and oneself at once serious and absurd. Ask yourself why a prat-fall is so enduringly funny? It’s the sight of man in the attitude of walking, when he is falling. Humour (he pontificated…) is a corrective to stiffness and renders the miserable po-faced preening tick powerless. For one thing our leaders, the constant butt of cruel satire, have been is comparatively decent.

Now this great Nation faces new challenges, threats to Liberty, free speech and our very right to be a people at all. Let us all hope we continue to say the unsayable, and laugh at our own prejudices whilst defending our values. If we do I have little doubt it will “Turn out nice” again.

Paul Newman ‘was’ the author of Newmania before he acquired three children.