What knows he of England who only England knows? asked Kipling. The retort Perhaps, after all, we know most of England ‘who only England know’ came several years later from Enoch Powell. Having lived three times outside England I can attest to the truth behind Kipling’s rhetorical question. Living abroad forces you to look at yourself and England as others might see you and your country: What is it that I love about England; what is it that makes me English, and; are their stereotypes justified? Comparisons are made, parallels are drawn, and a more self-conscious and self-aware Englishman emerges.
The England of the mind’s eye, that England that exists in our imaginations, is a schizophrenic construction drawn from often conflicting ideas of England. There is the Romantic’s England, that of the bucolic shire, the pastoral idyll of stone cottages, winding lanes, parish churches, hedgerows and patchwork fields; there is the Imperialist’s England of Imperial institutions like Monarchy, Parliament, Civil Service, Military, and then; there is the Idealist’s England, the idea of England itself, Habeas Corpus, Freedom of thought and expression, Individualism, Tolerance, Democracy. All too often these imaginings contrast with the reality of England, a place in which we not only fail to build a new Jerusalem but seem to move ever farther from the England of our mind’s eye.
All of you reading this will have your own evocative idea of England and the extent to which it marries with mine is less a measure of your Englishness and more a measure of the fact that England means different things to each of us. If Englishness exists, if England exists in any meaningful sense, then it is the product of our collective psyche, a sum of parts, the national consciousness and self-awareness of the nation of England. The England of today is ephemeral because England is ever changing, transmitted like DNA through the generations and related to, but subtlety different from, the England before.
When I fly home after a long absence and look down upon England’s system of enclosed fields my heart quickens. The quickening is tempered by Gatwick or Heathrow – undeniably the most depressing places in England, and national disgraces both – but as I proceed at haste into England’s green and pleasant land I experience the closest that I will ever come to a religious experience. It is not pride. It is not relief. It can only be faithfully described as love. This is my country, my land. Evidently it is the romantic pastoral idea of England that resonates most strongly in me. It’s difficult for me to describe because my love for England seems to me to be innate, almost genetic; but of course it is not, it is familiarity and nurture, and a lifetime of imbibing English culture that has instilled this in me.
But despite this feeling of love for England I don’t yet feel that I am home. For there is something I’ve missed more than the English countryside, it is the defining English institution. It is The Pub. I never feel that I am truly home until I have sunk a pint of English ale in an English pub, preferably with friends and family, but if needs must without. Anglo-French poet Hilaire Belloc wrote, When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England. It is a quote that that adorns a thousand beams, usually in gold italics, in pubs the length and breadth of England, and its marketing appeal lies in its simple truth. To sit in a traditional English pub is to connect with generations that have gone before. The pub is redolent of Englishness; from its architecture; to its furnishings; to the peculiar etiquette of the inhabitants, the games they play, the way they interact and the language they speak. To understand the importance of the English pub you need only to watch our three main soap operas (Queen Vic, Rovers Return, Woolpack), the pub is the main set in each and the heartbeat of the community.
It would be fair to say that my Canadian wife grew weary – bloody furious actually – over my complaints about Canadian beer, my yearning for “proper sausages” and my frustration at not being able to buy pickled onion flavour crisps or English cheeses. But though I hankered after these creature comforts it was the pub whose absence in my life I most bemoaned. We now live in Lewes, a town and locale renowned for Harvey’s Brewery and traditional real ale pubs. I’m in seventh heaven and the wife likes it too, and not just because I’ve stopped my belly-aching. She also appreciates the aesthetic and cultural appeal of the English pub and enjoys seeking out new country pubs, or popping down the local, to sample their wares every bit as much as me. Sitting with friends outside a country pub on a summers’ day, supping a pint of ale and picking over a ploughman’s: That’s What England Means to Me.