Saturday, 8 October 2011

What it means to be English

Went to see Sir Roy Strong talk about what it means to be English last night - our kids' school organises these so-called Mercers' Lectures free of charge (with free glass of vino) and partly because Sir Roy inspired Monty Don's garden, Dr Girlie Nice-Smile wanted to go.

As a past curator of the National Gallery and V&A, the old boy (76 and as fit as a whippet) is used to politicians and the media so stuck robustly to the facts: you're English if you live in England. His opinion is who-we-are started with Elizabeth I, so say 1558. This was our renaissance, gave us the Church of England (with common book of prayer and the King James bible), the first detailed maps of England and perhaps the finest literature there has ever been, including (of course) old Bill Shakespeare. Armed with this stuff (plus a few pirate-lords) we created the largest empire the world has ever seen, while obsessing in art and literature over the rural idyll of our green and pleasant land, although even back then more people lived in towns and cities.

Sparing the history (bar his despair at the James I of England/James VI of Scotland thing that united the kingdom but has grated with the Scots ever since) an hour later we got to the here-and-now: to be English means loving the countryside (even if only via glossy magazines, and I guess that includes open roads), being part of the CofE (even if just for weddings, Christenings and funerals - ah, and Jerusalem on the last night of the Proms) and appreciating the world's most widely spoken language. The two downsides are (i) we need to understand we aren't a global military superpower anymore and (ii) accept the Scottish and Welsh preserved their own identity and were only part of the union while England was rich and a world superpower: like the dolphins in Hitch Hikers' Guide to the galaxy they're now off, without so much as a "thank you for all the fish".

His suggestions as to how we appreciate what it is the be English came down to the predictable "Learn your history and read your literature" (well, he's a historian), to rethinking the double-speak in the word "British," usually used interchangeably with "English" and he thinks we shouldn't. So we need to accept our near neighbours want to tread their own path and do likewise. Bit Little Britain for me in places (especially his point that the EU still basically uses Roman law, were ours is largely common) but it got me thinking (as I do) how this might applies to motorcycle. Firstly I remembered Foggarty getting the George Cross (ie the English flag) on his bike rather than the Union flag, which captured the mood of the era (think England's football fans' facepaint). But most of all I thought about British bikes...well, there was never such a thing, was there? They were English through and through. So from now on Nortons, BSAs, Triumphs et al are English bikes: Sir Roy Strong says so...

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that the author believes the English Renaissance began Scottish rule. However "accept the Scottish and Welsh preserved their own identity and were only part of the union while England was rich and a world superpower" is only correct in that BRITAIN would never have been a world superpower without Scottish (and Welsh and Irish) soldiers.