I remember reading the opening lines of Stephen Spender’s autobiography World within World and identifying immediately with the sentiment. “I grew up”, wrote Spender, “in an atmosphere of belief in progress curiously mingled with apprehension”. It appeared to Spender – as it appeared to me as a child – that both of us (in different eras) “had been born on to a fortunate promontory of time towards which all other times led”. The only part of Spender’s Whiggish interpretation of history with which I could not associate was the weight in the scale of human happiness given in his Liberal household to the policy of Home Rule for Ireland. Perhaps an Ulster childhood in a household Conservative only because of that Liberal policy provided the last refuge of such a benign disposition towards history and much of that history was graced (in my mind, at least) by the secret of England’s greatness, that glorious hyphen which joined and buckle which fastened reformed faith, civil liberty, industrial creativity and parliamentary government. The apprehension every Ulster Unionist felt (even at an early age) was that of being banished from England’s embrace by either Irish nationalist cunning or by English liberal guilt and casual political indifference.
I could never appreciate, then, the argument that defined England in terms of an arcadian romance, a nostalgic temperament, a melancholic nature or even, in Tom Nairn’s words, a “dead centre of inertia”. None of this backward-looking, heritage England convinced because what England meant to me, when I looked across the Irish Sea, was something very different. England was progress, England was energy, England was industry, England was the city, England was science, England was motorways and new experiments, England (before the Blairites came up with the slogan) was a young country where amazing things happened. England, in short, was the future. And in those days when families from Belfast went on holiday to the ‘mainland’ by boat and by train, I can still remember the excitement of travelling to London from the docks at Heysham on ‘The Flying Ulsterman’ and being astonished by England-as-modernity. To a small boy, here was the real centre of the turning world, much more immediate than the distant dream that was America. Everything was familiar (this is my world too) and yet strange (in this case I felt of it but not in it).
The critic may say: “Well, that was then and this is now. All of those things were childish illusions”. Of course, a lot of these things are gone. But how we live and how we experience the world does not conform to that sort of linear logic. History is indeed now and England as Eliot wrote and all time is eternally present. What England means to me is an impression of my own past, present and sense of the future and it issues in a set of paradoxes. I can no longer so naively think those things of England, but still do. I can no longer look upon the country with the same fascination, but still do. I can no longer subscribe to the belief in English providence – in which God put the Pennines where He did so that Lancashire could become the centre of cotton production and Yorkshire of wool – but still do. I can no longer support England so unselfconsciously at football or cricket and yet still do. In that very personal sense, England helped to make me, albeit an England profoundly mediated by my own local patriotism. England, their England is also England, my England because I am at home in its imaginative world. And I feel still a gratitude to the openness of that imaginative world because, for all its undoubted pettiness and exclusions England remains open, it remains generous, in its possibilities.
To that meaning of England I consider myself aligned and if it is dismissed as a mere faith, it is a faith I hope one can still find among the English themselves.
Arthur Aughey is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster