We Really Used Jumpers For Goalposts
Starting with a blank sheet of paper, electronic or not, it seems impossible to fill it with the flavour of a lifetime’s experience of England. Time passes, life is lived, one doesn’t take notes. The problem is exacerbated by a memory that could be described as lacking in one of the more rudimentary characteristics of a functional memory, that being the ability to remember things. I jest, but only a little.
I was brought up in an entirely continental family. Continental, that is, if you consider just the national origins of my parents. Both immigrants and both from different countries to each other one might be forgiven for thinking that an English upbringing was an unlikely outcome. Yet that was what my upbringing was. Entirely English. Except, perhaps, for the cuisine which had a fair smattering of Mediterranean dishes. What you lose in chips you gain in melanzanie and sun dried tomatoes I suppose.
A middle class English upbringing. That possibly makes me the enemy of the liberal and media classes and, if true, it is a situation that I am entirely happy with. After all, if I didn’t think that my way of life was a good one I would have changed it by now.
So to my England. That is a story of two parts. The first starts at year one and ends a few years ago. The second starts after that and is entirely submerged in a sea of politics and revolutionary thinking. Revolutionary in the constitutional sense that is.
I start with the first part and the England of my childhood. It was an England that I felt entirely comfortable with and relaxed in. Though not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, that England certainly felt to me as if it was inexorably tending towards the direction in which perfection snuggled impossibly out of reach. Warm, enticing springs. Long and wonderful summers peppered with perfect days that no foreign summer holiday, no matter how fantastically predictable the excellent weather was, could ever hope to achieve. Rich gold and red autumns where the leaves that were piled high on the streets demanded attention and where the smell of them burning in local gardens filled the neighbourhood on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Cold, drab winters where the drizzle seemed to feature regularly on a Monday morning school day. Fishing over at Jack’s lake, the Totteridge Long Ponds, the illicit Lady Byng’s lakes. Shooting with air rifles. Conkers. Cycling on Raleigh Choppers and Grifters. It was, in many ways, an excellent childhood. Right now, I guess, a few cynical readers are mumbling something about “jumpers for goalposts”. Yes indeed, there will be no apologies on that front coming from me. More to the point, there were jumpers for goalposts just about anywhere there was an open stretch of green. Not a “no ball games” council sign in sight. Heady days indeed, even if viewed through these rose coloured spectacles.
Later came a Polytechnic education. Remember those? Public houses. Remember those? They were the ones with esoteric beers, proper pint glasses and drab food. You might recognise them these days as suburban restaurants serving a world class array of dishes and drab lagers in bright surroundings. Back in the day pubs had character, these days most seem to have the same character. It is a part of England that has progressed to such an extent that we are in danger of losing something very special and almost uniquely English.
I spent a great deal of time back then under an array of classic cars, predominantly of the Triumph variety, and I was not the only one by any stretch of the imagination. People jest about the lone Englishman in his garden shed or workshop but it is a tradition that I hold dear. I’m one of those Englishmen. From my perspective if you’ve never run down to the nearest breakers yard, bought and engine for thirty quid and fit it in the same day then you should think yourself accurs’d. Your manhood is cheap. Mine is covered in engine oil.
I don’t want to get too misty eyed about this but in some ways my England was like my old Triumph. Hobbled together from whatever came to hand over many, many years. Parts from here, parts from there collectively bringing a uniqueness to the machine. A machine that ran well and would continue to run well as long as the choices of what to replace and what not to replace were well considered and wisely made. I was responsible for making those choices for the old car, which I still have today. Original she is not. Fit for purpose she most certainly is.
This brings me neatly to my second England. The England of today. The England of political and constitutional upheaval. The choices made by our representatives on behalf of England have been foolish and no matter how hard they try to ignore or drown out the knocking sounds coming from under her hood she will eventually need attention. The sound is now so loud that people in the street pass comment. Sooner or later the problem of asymmetrical devolution and equal national representation will have to be addressed.
Some of us have thrown ourselves entirely into the maelstrom of this constitutional weather system and have, on more than once occasion, been chastised for it. In the early days it was dinner parties and quiet drinks that would descend into unreasonableness. I would gently guide the conversation away from football, sex or whatever and onto weighty matters such as politics and devolution and people would listen for five minutes and then glaze over. Eventually I would be told something similar to “you worry too much” or “England is fine, we don’t need any more politicians”. And that was the way it was for some time.
Then, out of the blue, one of my friends cornered me on a night out, looked me in the eyes and said “I gotta say you were right”. Gradually they came on side, many without coaxing as the national press had finally taken up the issue. One friend went incandescent and the remnants of the glow can be seen to this day. That was my fault; I mentioned to him something that John Prescott (a New Labour member of the British parliament) had once said about England and it not being a proper nation. Kabooooom.
What England means to me now is tangled up with the struggle for national political equality in the British Union and as the struggle continues my respect for the idea of Britain and Britishness (whatever the latter is) declines. To me the British Union has become an entirely administrative concept. England is my home, my nation, my entire point of view and fighting for the right of her people to choose the best form of government for their needs is the only choice that this Englishman can make.
John is the blogger behind The England Project