I was born just before the war, in the Far East, where my parents were stationed. When Singapore fell, my mother fled with my sister and me and managed eventually to make it back to England. My father, however, remained to fight the Japanese. He was captured more or less straight away and spent the rest of the war in Changi Jail.
We, the lucky ones, made a home in Norfolk, scene of my earliest memories. Here we rode bicycles around the country lanes, my sister perched in a little chair over the back wheel of my mother’s bike, me wobbling behind. We walked to the farm each morning to collect our milk fresh from the cow, picked cowslips and apples and collected warm, brown eggs from the hens, fed on scraps from the kitchen. We ate a great deal of rabbit, I remember, and there was a little ritual my mother invented, of hiding the rabbit’s shoulder-blade bone, known for no reason I know of as the “saccaboney”, which we then eagerly searched for. Sometimes enemy planes droned overhead, picked out by searchlights from the American Air Force base not far away, and there was talk of bombs and Hitler and rationing and Mr. Churchill, to which we listened, uncomprehending but accepting. We knew we were safe and Daddy would come home one day.
He did come home, and after a short interval took the family back to Kuala Lumpur and a very different life of servants and ponies, swimming, tennis, polo, and being made to rest in the humid afternoon heat, reading our books – English children’s classics, of course: Black Beauty, The Railway Children, Swallows & Amazons, Anne of Green Gables (how we loved Anne!). England to us became Home. People talked of going Home on leave. Letters arrived from Home. One day we too would go Home. England was the place within us, the default place. There was never any question that we would end up anywhere else.
In due course we were indeed sent Home, to a boarding school deep in the Devon countryside. Here there were more ponies, gymkhanas, dens in the woods, wild flower competitions (know your dandelion from your coltsfoot!). We put on plays and Gilbert & Sullivan operas in the tiny, exquisite theatre of the Georgian country house. We went to church on Sundays. Here I first learned to love poetry, and my father gave me The Dragon Book of Verse. I knew most of it by heart. “Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen” and “The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece!”. I came second in the Poetry Reading Competition, declaiming James Elroy Flecker to my listening schoolmates. We learned the history of England from Alfred and the Cakes, through 1066, Henry VIII and his wives, the Spanish Armada, the Great Fire of London and Victoria & Albert. It was a framework on which to build my sense of being, essential knowledge without which one could not be truly English.
Later I was sent to a larger, more serious school, where the history lessons delved a little deeper and the poems were longer. We read Jane Austen, George Eliot, Trollope, and were sent on long walks, whatever the weather. I loved English poetry and learned as much as I could by heart. It is still with me now, and I can think of no greater gift to be given at an impressionable age.
Much later, I married and my husband (a very English Englishman) took me to live in Italy. In those days you only had to say you were English for warm smiles to appear and handshakes to be offered. I felt privileged and proud and not a little complacent. England once again became Home. We loved Italy and lived there for many years, but again there was never any doubt that we would return to live in England eventually, as indeed we did.
However, the England we came back to was very different from the one we had left. Seismic changes were occurring in society. The old certainties were fast disappearing, the young had taken over, with new ideas that owed nothing to wisdom and experience. No one learned poems by heart any more; no one learned about the Kings & Queens of England or appeared to have any idea of how England came to be the country it is. They concreted over the countryside, killing the wild flowers and the songbirds, banned hunting, taxed the great estates into oblivion, not caring whether the people would be happy to have their society and their country changed for ever. No one ever asked us. There was no respect for others, no sense of history or tradition, no roots.
Is it still there, I wonder? Has England lost its cohesion, or does it still exist beneath the froth and bubble? Are the essential decency of the English working class, the sturdy moral values of the middle classes and the flair and self-confidence of the aristocracy still concepts we can believe in? Are we going to end up as a remote province of Europe, our national pride humbled, our lawmakers irrelevant? I can’t say – I don’t think anyone can. But there is without doubt a spirit of “Englishness” still alive, a feeling that we must not let it all go without a fight. There is so much at stake, so many centuries of of hard work and dedication, of principles and self-sacrifice, of courage and imagination. Let them do their worst! I think England will survive.
Jane blogs at ‘There’ll Always be an England’.