What England means to me can be summarised (with helpfully neat alliteration) in three words – language, literature and landscape, all of which I feel are inextricably intertwined in my cultural and historical identity. I was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire and have lived in other parts of the country but returned to my home town when expecting my first child because, from somewhere, came the idea that I wanted my children to have the same geographical roots as me, creating a link between our separate identities.
Language, it seems to me, must be a unifying factor within national identity otherwise how else could we all live and work together in a co-operative and functional society? This is not to say, of course, that England does not now consist of a population which speaks many different languages. English is spoken mononlingually by 95% of the population of the United Kingdom, but Punjabi is the second most spoken language in the country. Immigration has brought numerous other languages into the United Kingdom alongside our own additional languages such as Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic. The English language itself has developed from Latin and Norman French along with other influences to become the vast lingual bank of hundreds of thousands of words that it is today. I don’t remember learning this rich and versatile language (not that I know it in its entirety) but I do remember always having enjoyed its expressiveness and eloquence and having always loved reading it. It is intriguing that the English language is never static but always changing, as old words are forgotten and new ones invented, keeping pace with modern life, but please Microsoft, keep your Americanisms to yourself.
Having studied literature for many years I find it strange that universities still tend to refer to the study of literature as ‘English’, although this refers in part to the fact that it is in English, there is much less tendency to study purely ‘English’ literature on degree courses. However, the canon stubbornly remains the same, weighted by class, race and gender. Our education system embraces multi-cultural literature up to a point, but is it enough? Does the literature of ‘England’ still mean Shakespeare rather than Linton Kwesi Johnson? The output of our English authors and poets means we have a national library of great writing, a wealth of diverse texts which capture the language, experiences and imaginations of writers over hundreds of years and to which new texts are constantly being added in a never-ending celebration of language on the page. Even e-books will need new works.
We often look to literature to transport us somewhere else but we also have a deep affection for literature which we can identify with our own region, our own landscape. Look in the offices of any tourist board in the country and you may find leaflets tucked away which promote the region’s literary connections – Hardy’s Dorset, the Brontes’ Yorkshire, Jane Austen’s Bath (although she hated the place)) and the Lake District’s Beatrix Potter among many others. We hold onto these connections between writers and their landscapes as part of our cultural identity.
I never realised how important landscape was to me, how it had become part of my identity until the rolling Cotswolds of Gloucestershire and its mellow villages, which I was so used to seeing, were no longer around me. However much we all enjoy travelling there is something deeply reassuring about the first view of the familiar patchwork fields of England from the window of a returning plane.
‘What England means to me’ now is that we need to hold onto and treasure the history, landscape and heritage we have, the cricket fields and ‘honey still for tea’ of quintessential Englishness. Picturesque towns and villages around the country are thronged with tourists in pursuit of this very thing. Yet we also need to change our traditional views and attitudes about what an English person looks and sounds like and embrace a changing perspective of a rainbow nation of creed, cultures, faiths, languages and literatures which can only enrich our views and experiences of England today and in the future.
Contributed by Rosalind Davie, born 1960 in Cheltenham, lover of language and literature, currently studying for a PhD at the University of Gloucestershire.