My England was never really the one of “long shadows on cricket grounds”, “warm beer”, “invincible green suburbs” (Colliers Wood doesn’t really count, I suppose?), “dog lovers” or “old maids cycling to Holy Communion”.
My England was more Carlisle v Rochdale on a freezing November night, early dawn in Liverpool docks, a curry in Rusholme, a pint of Theakstons in a Keswick pub on wet Sunday afternoon and buying sweet potatoes down Brixton market.
Ask 100 Anglophiles about ‘Their England’ and you’ll get answers and images offered as diverse as the ones above…. England is a jigsaw puzzle of many diverse and disparate parts, but any like any jigsaw puzzle, the picture is only truly complete when all those parts are present and fitting together.
Moving to England from Belfast as an eighteen year old was technically speaking a return to my roots, my forefathers left North Yorkshire for Ireland over 300 years ago. But it was also the birthplace and stomping ground of almost all my political, literary and musical heroes and the home of my favourite football team.
More importantly though, it was moving to a place with an atmosphere as far away as could be possibly imagined from the stifling political and cultural homogeneity of my home city. It took a while to get used to the concept of open debate, people pushing ideas beyond the normal boundaries without fear of physical retribution, but once I did, I took full advantage of the intellectual freedom offered by new home.
I’m still fascinated with the conflict of ideas which exists in English life, a “conflict” which exists almost entirely in name only, but one which is continuously taking place in the House of Commons, university debating chambers, newspapers, blogs, pubs, work-places and over the garden fence. But whereas this debate in my teen years centred on political ideology and the issues of class, the chaos of N.Irish, Scottish and Welsh devolution has undoubtedly caused a re-awakening of English national identity and maybe even a questioning of England’s role within the wider nation that is the United Kingdom. For the first time, perhaps since the Home-Rule Bills of the Nineteenth Century, Unionists in the other three parts of the UK can no longer take their English compatriots for granted- this is no bad thing. I strongly suspect the main “conflict” in the years ahead will not be along the old stale conservative/liberal, socialist/capitalist fault-lines, but on matters of national identity; can we, simultaneously, be both British and English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh? I believe so, but I also acknowledge it will not be an easy job convincing the rest of my fellow Britons of this fact; the debate has just begun and I’m looking forward to playing a small part in the future discussions and arguments on this topic.
I’m proud to be an Irishman from N.E. Ulster, I am also proud to be a citizen of the greater British nation. The United Kingdom is a jigsaw puzzle of many diverse and disparate parts, but like any jigsaw puzzle, the picture is only truly complete when all these parts are present and fitting together; I consider England to be the biggest piece of that jigsaw, its focal point.
Paul Watterson, ex-Belfast, now residing in New Europe