It’s hard to be rational about something that goes as deep as England does for me, an Englishman. In good psychoanalytical fashion I will begin at the beginning, with my childhood experience.
My father had lost a much-loved brother in the Second World War and two uncles in the First World War. These men had died for England. It was hard for me as a young child to imagine what this England could be, that it should justify people dying for it; it would need to be much bigger and more mysterious than the people and buildings I could see around me. The only thing that was capable of signifying this England to me was the vast and eternal sea. My Grandmother lived on the coast and she would take me for walks on the shingle beach in all weathers. She told me that I would have liked the uniformed men in the photographs on her dressing table, but they had sailed away in a big ship and never come home again.
My England is conventional, a litany of familiar objects bobbing around on a sacramental sea of Englishness. It’s the English sense of humour, and how this complements our pragmatism and unflappability; it’s The Cenotaph, football and cricket, the Book of Common Prayer and Anglican psalmody, common law and the pub; Thomas Hardy, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Anthony Powell, Vaughan Williams’ setting of On Wenlock Edge, John Fowles, Britten’s War Requiem…
England is home. I was taught that the English countryside is the most beautiful in the world, and I truly believe that it is; but it’s more than beautiful. The countryside is where you can see the land of the English, where it isn’t hidden under concrete. The mere thought of our countryside our oaks and beeches, fields, hedgerows and churches, our countryside, thrills me with a sense of my own connection with the landscape, a connection etched out in Anglo Saxon place names and field boundaries. The sound-track is the cawing of crows, the skylark’s song, and church bells.
But now I have to pause and take a deep breath, and even blink back a tear.
The Whackets knew about the death of England long before commentators started writing books about it. It feels to us as though England has been betrayed. This comes partly from a sense that people like the Whackets, who had always been the salt of the English earth and given better than good service to their country (my father was a third generation Royal Marine), were left behind in the decadent 1960s. Our leaders turned out to be weak and useless, and the Government’s failure to prevent mass immigration was final confirmation that the England that had been fought and died for was finished. What little remained of England after 1968 was denatured by the American cultural hegemony and washed out by the big corporations in what Paul Kingsnorth has described as ‘the Blanding of Britain’.
It is a function of culture to tell us what to feel. If the prevailing culture tells the English anything about themselves it is that they should be ashamed of their Englishness apart from the bits that support the needs of diversity or, at a pinch, the ‘heritage industry’. According to this culture my picture of England is unhistorical caricature, inconsistent, fails to take moral responsibility, is probably racist and sexist, mistakes my childhood for the world, and so on. Entertaining though it is to critique that sort of critique, the real point is that at the end of the day my Englishness isn’t something that I can pick up and put down at will. Without wishing to dramatize, my Englishness is at the core of my personality and I am therefore barely able to reflect on it.
So far as I can tell from peering into the fog of discourse, the re-imagining of England is taking place at two levels; at the level of personal Englishness, and at the level of constitutional settlement. The idea of re-imagining personal Englishness feels threatening (it is an idea that is at the heart of the Government’s diversity strategy). In principle, any new constitutional settlement should respect the right of the English to express their distinctive Englishness (for example, as part of a federal Europe that gives the same protection to all European nations). The alternatives, which seem more likely to me, are either rawer expressions of Englishness or its final extinction.
Julius Whacket is the pen name of someone who lives with his family in Surrey.