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.