Lola Adesioye

England to me means home. It means fond memories of school days; Sundays holed up in a pub drinking wine and eating a succulent roast while discussing the state of the weather with good friends; running to catch a train from Victoria station after a hard day’s work and breathing a sigh of relief once I’m on it and as the train rolls out of central London into the leafier suburbs.

England is what I signify to people when I’m abroad. My accent, my sarcastic sense of humour, my values and politeness (such as saying sorry when I really don’t need to) are all products of being brought up in England. “Oh! You’re from England!” people exclaim before asking me whether it really does rain all the time.

England is also a part of me that non-English people sometimes don’t understand. “Are there black people in England?” I’m asked that on a regular basis. Yes there are, but we clearly don’t fit into the idea of what Englishness means to others, nor are we often visible in mediums of communication such as TV and film so some people abroad really do not know that we exist.
The Englishness in me is sometimes an anomaly to people who don’t expect to hear a black woman speaking with an accent which to them sounds like the Queen’s. England is a part of me that sometimes forces people to change their perceptions, to do a double-take and to look and listen to me differently.

England is the ‘green and pleasant land’ described in Jerusalem, one of my favourite songs. At the same time it is also – being that I come from London – inner city and urban; a metropolis of sky scrapers and polluting cars and buses; a landscape dotted with parks which sit alongside historical buildings and cultural landmarks. It is at once inclusive yet at the same time, at times, hostile to immigrants and foreigners. It is both a melting pot and apparently tolerant yet also the country that has colonised and oppressed large sections of the world and gave birth to figures such as Enoch Powell.

What does it mean to be English? Is it interchangeable with being British? That’s a tricky question. I will always have a sense that although I was born and bred in England, I am not considered to be truly English. English is not as accommodating a concept as say, American; being “English” still has a connotation that does not fully encompass black people – I’m not sure that it ever will. It’s very possible to be both an insider and an outsider at the same time. “British” however – thankfully in many ways – is an all encompassing term, meaning everything… and at the same time very little.

In any case, I am proud of having being born and raised in England… I know and am well aware of England’s colonial roots and no doubt England has, for such a small place, created a lot of havoc in the world! As a person of colour I would be silly not to acknowledge that. But for all it’s sins, contradictions and paradoxes, it’s still home.

Lola Adesioye is a regular contributor to the Guardian who hails from London but now lives in New York.

Paul Kingsnorth

A few years back, I found myself in a narrow valley on the border between England and Wales. There are some landscapes – fewer as time passes – in which it seems that time has, if not exactly stood still, then been hijacked by some outside force for its own ends. There are some landscapes in which you can sense the ancient heart of the place in the air. This was one of them.

It was a landscape of scattered hill farms, high moors, hedge-lined holloways and winding brooks. Save for the odd industrial shed tacked on to a farmyard, or barbed wire fence, there was little of contemporary England about it. There were few cars. And everywhere, there were textures.
The textures of this valley became more and more noticeable as I walked its length. I took out my camera and began to photograph them at close quarters. Robbed of their wider context they look, when printed, like abstractions. The jigsaw bark of an old tree; white air bubbles on the surface of a blue pond; another tree’s bark, glossy this time and mottled; green moss on a purple gravestone; tree roots snaking through the dust; the parallel lines of a corrugated iron roof.

A legion of textures, colours, surfaces, pictures, crowding in on one another; the patchy, unplanned, diversity of place. This is what England means to me. Place, above all, is what makes my England. A small nation, shaped by humans for millennia, has no place which does not bear the mark of that shaping. Contemporary England is a patina; a palimpsest of historical eras, of times, of peoples. Everywhere there is colour, culture, history.

But England means something else, too. England means the rise of capital; the birthplace of the industrial revolution. England means enclosure, and empire. England invented much of the modern world, and what it invented is now destroying it. England is eating itself.

Look around you. Where are those textures? What is happening to them? Where I live, the texture of place is rapidly being overrun by the corporate non-places which our economic progress apparently requires of us: the malls, the motorways, the clone stores; the faceless ragbag of globalised, plasticised corporate clutter which allows us to “grow” and “compete” and remain players in a global economy which is spiralling out of control. It is an economy which eats up colour and character and spits our conglomeration and control. In the Brave New World of flexible labour markets, 24-hour consumerism and £5 air tickets, belonging to a place and having any feeling for it is a serious stumbling block on the road to the future.
But what England also means to me is the spirit of its people: a spirit which has at its heart a contradiction. One the one hand the English are – frustratingly – some of the most obedient people on Earth. Their pubs can be sold off for executive flats, their landscapes ripped apart by motorways, their folk culture scorned, their community gathering points shut down in the name of Health and Safety, their high streets scoured out by Tesco – and most of them will just shrug their shoulders, moan about the government and head for the out-of-town shopping centre. Sometimes, the English could do with being a bit more – well, French.

And yet there is another English spirit too, which arouses in me hope rather than despair. It is the spirit which marches to save Post Offices; which ties itself to bulldozers to save beauty spots from destruction; which saves its local pub and fights yet another shopping mall development in its historic towns. It is, perhaps, the spirit channelled by Gerrard Winstanley, John Ball, John Clare, William Morris – and William Cobbett, who railed two hundreds years ago against “The Thing”. The Thing is still with us. It’s bigger now, and greedier and it eats texture, patina, place and peculiarity for breakfast. But maybe – just maybe – England is beginning to wake up. I hope so.

Paul Kingsnorth’s book Real England is published by Portobello.