Monday, 17 December 2012

On being English...

I stopped being British - except in the formal sense of Britain being my country - the day someone decided that a twee little song written by Roy Williamson in the 1960s was the Scottish 'anthem'. It's not that I have anything against 'Flower of Scotland' as a song but that the sentiment it displays to me as an Englishman is "not welcome here".

We've been here a long time us English - the basis of the laws, language and culture came here with the Saxons. In my county of Kent we still remember this, marking the place of the Saxon - English - cathedral beneath the grander Norman cathedral in Rochester. And despite the best efforts of subsequent know-alls, the essence of English common-sense remains. The idea that law is enforced, adjudicated and administered by our peers not those who claim superiority still clings on - the magistrate, the jury and the common law remain at the heart of our legal system. The place is ours not theirs - although sometimes they forget.

There still seems a reluctance among our betters - judges, civil servants, broadcasters, writers - to accept the idea of England. To allow us to claim it as our heritage and birthright. And their weapon of anti-English choice is racism. We must not lay claim to Englishness since it excludes the children of immigrants - as if Englishness was ever a thing of blood. Such people suggest that, since half of London's population is now non-white (whatever that may actually mean), it is no longer an English city.

But when I meet a fellow Englishman, I do not ask for a genealogy - for proof of his Englishness. All I ask is that he is from here - and that being "from here" matters to him. I don't care whether he was born in a Punjabi village or a Turkish slum, I care only that he cares about England. And that he will make his contribution to our history.

That history isn't one of kings and prime ministers, nobles and castles, bishops and judges but one of people - farmers, millers, brewers, travellers, singers, writers. Of craftsmen and creators. It is a story of the men who built the cathedral not the bishop who commanded it built. It isn't that we know the names of these Englishmen. It's true their names are in the graveyards, we can read the generations there, but it matters more that their work carved England - the stories, the songs, the myths. And that these Englishmen still carve that story - not in words or paintings but in all our lives, in the culture that envelops us and cares for us.

And those who think being English is about race do all us English people an injustice - whether it's some ghastly snob of a Guardian writer or some badly tattooed thug from the EDL. And not just today's generation but a hundred generations whose love of this place made it so wonderful. Those people who laid out the fields, built the roads, dredged the rivers, constructed the harbours - who shaped our place and who still shape that place today. And who remember - for whatever reason, the people who helped, not in an off-hand way but prominently and significantly:

Maybe, most of the time, we walk past this remembering - not giving it heed or attention. But sometimes, either because we're asked or because we've taken that moment to stand and stare, we notice. A little chink of our ordinary past shows itself. And we smile, perhaps get a tear or breathe deeply in our remembering. But we are shown again what it is to be English - why the place matters.

And - as Cloke says to George in "An Habitation Enforced" - it all takes time and care:

"All I say is that you can put up larch and make a temp'ry job of it; and by the time the young master's married it'll have to be done again. Now, I've brought down a couple of as sweet six-by-eight oak timbers as we've ever drawed. You put 'em in an' it's off your mind or good an' all. T'other way--I don't say it ain't right, I'm only just sayin' what I think--but t'other way, he'll no sooner be married than we'll lave it all to do again. You've no call to regard my words, but you can't get out of that."

I suppose that being English is a state of mind, a feeling that the place fits like an old coat. One where you know its history - how the green stain got there, where you caught the sleeve on the thorn bush, how you lost your purse in the lining. And when you put it on, it just feels right. You don't need twenty generations in the village to feel like this -oh, it helps - just English mud on your boots and a moment to look around you.


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