Friday, 20 February 2009

Home thoughts 3 – England, but what of England?

In the first home thoughts post I talked about England a little. I was born there, I went to school there and I have lived in its north, south and middle at some point or other. Maybe I will live there again one day...maybe I won't... but like a lot of people I have a very love/hate and on/off relationship with my home country (no wonder home countries are referred to as mother or fatherlands!). In some ways I do love it (memories, music, comedy, writers, places, people...) but I wrote in that first post that there was a lot about it that I don't miss since we moved north to Scotland in 2002. I didn't give details about what I don't miss because sometimes I'm not even sure what the things are that I don't miss! (And by the way I know Scotland has its down sides too...everywhere does...but Scotland is still foreign enough to me for these things not to bother me...well, not to bother me all the time...).

Here are a some of the less-than-great-things about England that I remember:

1. Our white neighbours in Yorkshire saying to me when I got back from hospital with baby Small Girl for the first time “was the ward full of it was”. I know you get racists in other places but...there are lots of people in England who just make me ashamed to be human, never mind English. Ashamed probably isn't the right word...they make me depressed. I find people's harshness to and lack of care about other people just unbearable sometimes really.

2. The whole issue of national pride - in England it is a very confused area just now. Some people have too much, some people are just ashamed, some people are miserable, some people are too busy fighting off the recession and/or knife-wielding assailants to think about it. As I mentioned before I read Billy Bragg's valiant effort to take English pride back from the right wingers ('The Progressive Patriot')...but I'm not sure he really came to any conclusions. He saw hope in the fact that the English flag now has more to do with football than fascists (maybe)...but he didn't sound wholly convinced. The book is very good on his love of music (interesting sections on Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan, pop pickers) and when it comes to the business of national anthems he's pretty good too:

“It's been years since our Welsh and Scottish neighbours stopped singing the British national anthem, 'God save the Queen', at sporting events. It didn't take an Act of Parliament, or the United Kingdom to crumble or the monarchy to collapse, to make the change. When the Welsh sing 'Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau' they are sending out a message, and even if the language is unfamiliar, the meaning is clear: 'Hello, we're from Wales and we're very proud of it.' England's continued attachment to the British anthem smacks of a lack of self-confidence, a worry that, without it, we might somehow be a lesser people. The message sent out every time we sing 'God save the Queen' is one of ambiguity: 'Hello, we're English, but we're not really sure what that means.'”

Bragg has recorded what is often referred to as England's unofficial national anthem (Blake's 'Jerusalem') and I could give you the YouTube clip but...I had to sing it once in a school play and I can't face listening to the song ever since! I also considered the Sex Pistols 'God save the queen' know where it is if you want to go and find it. It's not really my thing and all the Pistols stuff I could see on the YouTube was too ropey for words. I know, I know...that was the point...still not something I want to have on here particularly (though I did really enjoy John Lydon's book 'Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs', published in that a while back).

3. Some people really do seem to actively want more shopping malls and airport runways and motorways in England but it's a small country and there's only so much space left to build on. I'm sure there are still quiet places (that Weaver of Grass farm looks lovely!) but it just felt like it was getting a bit crazy towards the end of our last residence there.

4. Having grown up in the north of England I always found a particular kind of annoying English southerner unbearable. Comedian Harry Enfield does a good one:

Except of course the dim ones can be fairly's the clever ones you have to watch out for.

And here's a poem about England and one of my favourite English poets - Philip Larkin.

Larkin is home

Are you England in a nutshell
You behind the thick glasses?
All those grey cloud reflections
Shielding ships lost at sea

With the muttering and the glooming
And the hating all the upset
All the turning up the stereo
And the griping over tea

And yet somehow you wrote it
Possibly the best love line
Ever to be dragged
From this language so free

But it's raining and it's pouring
Maybe England is just drowning
Maybe Larkin's dry in heaven
Maybe toads fly swimmingly

RF 2009



The Weaver of Grass said...

I agree with a lot of what you say Rachel. I have moved around in my teaching life - never further south than Birmingham I am glad to say but nothing - absolutely nothing - compares with the peace and quiet here on the farm and the surrounding countryside. I have walked with my dog almost every day this week in the surrounding area and have not met a soul, sothat walking has been sheer bliss.
I also agree about National Pride. I remember going down the St Lawrence river years ago and knowing which country was on which bank because everywhere there would be national flags flying. We do have an England flag flying from our local church but that is the only one I ever see. I do think we should be proud of our country.
As for racial prejudice - I don't know what the answer is. When people like Carol Thatcher and Prince Charles - to name but two think it is OK to call someone Sooty or Golliwog then what chance have the rest of us.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes...peace and quiet...everybody needs at least some...even if they don't know they need it!

Flags are often associated with royalty in England (I only remember seeing union jacks at the queen's jubilee and royal weddings as a kid and I don't remember seeing the red and white flag ever back then...maybe on a sandcastle or two!). Maybe because of that I've never been a big flag waver. We hear much less about the royal family in Scotland too I'm glad to say!

hope said...

I listened to an NPR story last year about England's attempt to get its youth to embrace England to their collective bosom with pride. Almost to a person, the teens thought it stupid. One noted that he never wanted to be like Americans who placed a hand over their heart when singing their national anthem and facing the flag. It was all so silly, he declared. This was followed by a young girl saying she thought it was rather sweet, if odd, to see that American custom. She wondered aloud if she'd ever feel such loyalty to her own country.

Personally, I think it's the royalty part. Kings & Queens sound like something which belong in a fairy tale, not as modern day rulers. Why? Because so many of them don't seem to know what modern is...or that it has arrived. At least with idiot U.S. presidents we have a chance to get rid of them, no matter who their parents are/were. :)

It's human nature to think "my" country is better than yours. Stupid, but true. Racism is also universally stupid but sadly, will probably never die. All because of those people who cling to "the way we always did it" instead of revisiting to see if that way was the best for the majority.

I enjoy the history of the past. But I think we should learn from it, not reinstate it.

Dominic Rivron said...

I have a theory about the English national identity (well, I'm not the first person to think it). England is in fact several small countries. All they have in common is the fact that they're not part of Wales or Scotland. Some stand out and have a "national identity" of their own: Cornwall, Lancashire and Yorkshire, for example. Then there's London (they used to say that were it a country it'd be the 14th largest in the world). I'm sure there are others.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes Hope, hands on hearts for the national anthem only works in England for soldiers, sportspeople and right don't tend to see anyone else doing it these days. And I think you're right - a lot of it is to do with royalty and history...and now.

And Dominic - that does sound like a good if it has been being part of Britain (not being part of England) that has kept those regions connected and so if Britain goes...then what is their link? Certainly when I lived in Yorkshire there were people who felt that if Scotland was a separate country then Yorkshire could be too. It probably won't happen...but it does explain some of the discomfort with the whole idea of being English. In the same way all countries have their extremes of rich and poor but not all countries specialise in class systems and social differences the way England does. I remember Stephen Fry saying something spot on about it in that Blackadder documentary at xmas...must try and track that down. You see - he's a posh southerner but I like him...

Rachel Fox said...

I went to look for the quote (all the programme 'Blackadder rides again' is on YouTube in bits) but maybe it wasn't as suitable as I thought for this subject.

Whilst looking though I remembered how Hugh Laurie in Blackadder was the Tim-nice-but-dim times a thousand (and much funnier). There's a great quote from him in the documentary: "There were some rather large egos. I happened to be perfect but everyone else was a sort of bigheaded twerp." Made me laugh.

hope said...

I just finished listening to Hugh Laurie read "Three Men in a Boat" to me on my commute this week. :)

The British ladies at work thought I was somewhat um...weird to like Laurie. I knew him only as "House" on t.v. but they only knew him as the dimwit from "Blackadder". I finally convinced them he was funny by referring to "A Bit of Fry and Laurie". I have 2 seasons of it on DVD...which the ladies have borrowed. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Hope, watching that documentary made me want to watch the whole Blackadder series all over again. And the documentary is very interesting on how the writers and the actors worked together on the really was very much a group project.

Colin Will said...

I'm lucky in that since childhood I've visited many different parts of England (Wales too). There's a lot to like, and a lot for people to be proud of. The feeling I have is that in many parts of England regional identity is strong, but that national identity is sometimes cause for uneasiness, because of the political baggage that comes with it. Whereas in Scotland, local and regional identity is often comfortably subsumed within a national identity. And nationalism here occupies a spectrum which doesn't fit neatly within the right-left political divide. Some SNP members are as left-wing as any of my former socialist colleagues. And I don't see any contradiction between my personal feelings of Scottishness and my profoundly internationalist beliefs.

Rachel Fox said...

It's partly being in Scotland that has made me think about these kinds of things at all, Colin. In England I never thought about what England was or meant or anything like's only being here in Scotland with the sense of national pride and the songs and the flags that I started to think about it. I know it's not just that simple (Scotland has its own interior squabbles too of course) but still it makes you realise how little sense of a nation there is in England...what a mess it is in that sense. Mess can be good, of course, but a mess it still is!

Quite a lot of English folk musicians are trying to, if you like, promote a positive sense of Englishness (Bragg is just more famous than most of them but he is involved with several on the Imagined Village project). Musical artists like Chris Wood, Bellowhead, Show of's all very interesting (even if you don't like all the music...and I don't). The Imagined Village involves Benjamin Zephaniah too - in fact he had some very wise words on national pride on a BBC4 programme (from Cambridge folk fest I think). I wish I had written them down! Whether you like his poems or not, he can be very sage-like sometimes. I really like him. I think he is that simple thing - a good man.

The Solitary Walker said...

I like the notion of Blake's 'Jersualem' being England's unofficial national anthem - if only for its subversive elements. The 'dark, Satanic mills' were hardly the conventional Christian 'bêtes noires' (which may shock some traditional WI members), and the triumphant glorification of artistic energy and visionary desire is a million miles away from God saving the Queen and all that rubbish.

Roxana said...

Rachel, may I ask which one is that "possibly best love line" he wrote? your poem is very intriguing.

Rachel Fox said...

Hi Roxana
The line is from Larkin's 'An Arundel Tomb' and is this:
'What will survive of us is love'
although really it is the whole last verse that says so much. It's worth going to read the whole poem really - lots of sites have it. It is one of his best known poems. I would recommend the Andrew Motion biography of Larkin too.

Roxana said...

thank you. it is a wonderful poem indeed.

Rachel Fox said...

You're very welcome. I know you like Eliot but for me Larkin has the edge! All a matter of taste.

Swiss said you were going to post our translation 'project'. Are you? I did think of polishing mine up but then I reread it and maybe first instincts were OK. Swiss, I notice, did something a bit more creative! Still...all interesting.

Roxana said...

I've read only a little Larkin, but I am quite taken with his poem 'To My Wife' (which is so diferent than 'An Arundel Tomb').

yes. I will post them tonight, in fact. I was not sure whether you agreed to that, because I know you said it was only a first draft, so I've been waiting for swiss to ask you whether it is ok with you :-)

Rachel Fox said...

He did ask me...sorry, been a bit elsewhere. I just thought if I didn't send a remake that he would send off the first draft. I couldn't think of anything I wanted to change so I left it as it was. There is a lot I didn't check in a dictionary and I haven't studied Spanish (or even thought about it much) for about 20 years could be totally off the mark. I'm sure someone will notice if so.

I found translating a maddening process at the higher level of education so I pretty much abandoned it in the end. Although... considering some of the nonsense I got up to afterwards maybe I should have stuck with the dictionaries!

Unknown said...

Interesting post, Rachel, can't really comment on the UK end of things as I live in dear old Ireland and we have our own problems, re: racism, and other stupidisms...
But I like the poem ending this post. It sounds puzzled :)

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Barbara, you liking it means a lot!

And I am puzzled...all the time. This is one of my short poems:

Puzzled mind

A badly shuffled
In a paper bag
What a day
What a week
What a time
It's had

RF 2005

Hugh McMillan said...

A thing a lot of people don't think about in the question of English national identity is that England is, of all the countries that make up the UK, the only one with no actual legally constituted political identity. In fact England in 1707 ceased to exist and whereas the other vountries re-constituted parliaments, England hasn't. England, as anything other than a geographical convenience, doesn't exist.They put all their eggs in the basket of being British and as the other countries withdraw from that form of Britishness the poor old English are left high and dry clinging to it.

Rachel Fox said...

And don't they (we) deserve their (our) every moment of misery and confusion..? Lots of Scots (and others) would say yes!

Liz said...

Thoughts on home - it's true that it's not till you're outside of things that you can look back - I dearly love Ireland but can see its blemishes, warts and all...and the nationalism has bad vibes in a lot of countries - here it kind of reeks of Franco and there is the whole in-house rivalry between autonomous states's kind of nice being a blow-in as don't have to lay hand-on-heart so continuously... ; )
The thing that amazed me about the USA was how they love their flags -my sister and family were the odd-balls in the neighbourhood because they didn't have a flag flying...

And the poem - very much like it - one of my favs of yours - I don't know Larkin at all but may eek out a poem or two... : )

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Liz - that's a couple of Irish votes for this poem! Glad you like it. I was quite glad when the toads made that unexpected appearance in the last line. They came out of nowhere!

I've been to Ireland a couple of times and am just thinking it's about time to go and visit again soon.


Rachel Fox said...

I suppose I should add in case anyone wonders why the toads were so of Larkin's other best known poems is called 'Toads' and is about work ('Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?'). We studied it in school so I am blaming Larkin for my non-existent work career!

The Solitary Walker said...

Ah, I see what you mean, Rachel! Toads are all over the place today. But I do think the poets are giving a distorted view of them. They are such delightful creatures. Can we believe poets about anything, I wonder?

Rachel Fox said...

Well...yes...and no.


Dave King said...

I think England is best summed up in the immortal words:
"And is there honey still for tea?"
"Honey's orff dear!"

Rachel Fox said...

I had to google that one Dave! I could have got the Rupert Brooke bit but that last line...from the Peter Sellers parody of Brooke it says on one of those query sites. Is that right?

deemikay said...

I can almost hear Billy Bragg singing that...

To me, unfortunately, England is just that place that's got Heathrow and Gatwick in it. Not somewhere I feel a great need to visit or think about. England as a *whole* that is. Part of me wants to go to the West Country because it's where my mother was born - she's about 200ft off being Cornish (she's a Devonian instead).

Any English people I've recently discussed national identity with have found the Scots (and Welsh and Irish) attitude odd. "But we're all British," they say. "Well, you might be..." I reply. Perhaps England is too big...

(And when I was last in Germany my friend's brother was singing along to a song in the car. She looked embarrassed. Later on she told me it was a song about how proud he was be a Rheinlander. I don't think she's particularly proud to be German either... but there's a whole load of other issues there.)

Maybe small countries can do it better...

deemikay said...

Erm, did I actually say anything or make any poitn there... :os

Rachel Fox said...

Billy Bragg singing what? Jerusalem? My poem?

Re waffling or not making crime on this blog I assure you!

But I think you did make points anyway. The small country thing makes some sense...except look at the USA...fairly huge on national pride just now. But then maybe it's easier when your empire is active (if in constant bother) rather than well and truly powered down.

I know I am some technical sense...but I don't feel it...especially since living in Scotland. Now I'm very aware that I am English (like it or not). It's different though for people who are a bit of this and that...I know quite a lot of people with one Scottish parent and one English one (or more complicated variations). That's when it starts to get complicated as I'm sure you know! Our daughter for example was born in England but is (sort of) two quarters Scottish (and yes, I know that makes a half but I'm talking about grandparents). What is she then? I have no idea. She will choose for herself eventually. And of course on one level it's all nonsense...


Crafty Green Poet said...

interesting post. I was accidentally in England for a St Georges Day a year or so ago, scary the number of English flag flying yobs in cars everywhere.

My parents insist on standing up for the national anthem before the Queens' Speech at Christmas.

deemikay said...

BB singing your words...

America big - but it's got oomph. Which England no longer has... Perhaps that's why lots of english folk want to keep the UK together. The Empire has shrunk from a quarter of the globe to these islands only. If it shrinks any further (i.e. to England) well, what does that do to national pride?

And yes, it is all quite silly...

Anywaym here's what I think the best song about national pride is. And it's called that as well.:) And the guy singing it isn't Irish, but it's where he chooses to identify with because of his background

Kat Mortensen said...

It's very easy to love a place from a distance. After reading this, I think I'll stay put, after all.


Rachel Fox said...

I've never heard that Dexys song before, D...but then I've really only ever heard their big hits. I had to go and find a page with the lyrics to be able to understand a word he was singing! Speak up man! Maybe I'm just getting old though. I liked the tune. And I didn't recognise him without the dungarees.

I would love Billy Bragg to sing anything I'd written. I really like him...England's Dylan they call him now and again and he may not be that but in some ways I like him more. He has a heart the size of Essex...or maybe even England...and I am very big on heart (and soul).

Wow - Juliet...your family are proper English! I don't think I know anyone whose parents stand up for the anthem...well, I do now. Do they think you're very eccentric? When of course it's them...

And Kat...indeed from a distance...I think it's partly some of the 'England is the best, always has been' brigade that make me so loath to be interested in that kind of thing. In so many ways it's just a everywhere else...some problems...some things easy.
I loved Canada when we there a few years back. All that space! Felt like heaven...


deemikay said...

Ahhh... I love Dexy's. They only made three albums, and the last was a flop but it's one of the best ever. (It's the middle album that's got the dungarees and *that* song).

The mumbling was actually intended on this song... he felt a bit scared about some of what he was singing. It wasn't even called "My National Pride" when the album first came out...

But you nearly always need a lyric sheet with Kevin.