Thursday, 23 April 2015

England, my England...

It is St George's Day. England's Day.

So, dear readers, it's perhaps time to ask again what it means to be English. Are we echoing some distant past of mythical purity where only those like me who can trace ancestry in England back into the mists of time are allowed to be English:

His dead are in the churchyard—thirty generations laid.
Their names were old in history when Domesday Book was made;
And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

We can hark back to some Saxon ancestry but that doesn't define what it means to be English except in some unhelpfully narrow ethno-cultural manner. And Englishness can't be defined (and Kipling doesn't suggest this is so either) by those genetic roots but rather it comes from the layers of history bringing us to where we are today - a beautiful country filled with creative people. People who should be proud of that English heritage but who have lost the words and the song to make that so:

And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps

And we learn be ashamed of all we walk
Of the way we look, at the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs

How will we know where we come from?
I've lost St. George in the Union Jack
That's my flag too and I want it back

The English seem at times so diverse that these traditions are without meaning. We stress - rightly - our sponge-like absorbtion of other cultures, each time with our own sweet twist. We eat curry, pizza, kebabs and hamburgers washed down with lager, white wine and coca-cola. And don't see these things as diminishing our English identity.

For many years that English identity - for reasons of power and politics - was buried in the idea of Britain. We were brought up to believe ourselves - speech, leeks and kilts aside - essentially the same as the Scots and Welsh. Missing the truth that those Scots and Welsh didn't see it that way - for them Britishness and Englishness were so entwined as to oppress their real identity. Now the English are learning that the Britishness of our establishment meant the same subversion of identity - a subversion made worse by those who took English to mean white and Saxon.

England is built on the lives and contribution of millions. Not kings and prime ministers but ordinary men and women. When we look out across the moors of Northern England we should recall the men who shaped that landscape. As we view the civilised farmland, the kempt landscape, of Surrey we should remember the people whose work shaped that place. And as we stand in some city street perhaps take a moment to consider the folk who built that place - the cathedral, the shops, the streets and the parks. And as we do this consider again William Henry's words:

WHAT have I done for you,
England, my England?
What is there I would not do,
England, my own?

For we - all of us regardless of race or faith or hisory - are England. All of us. And the future of England is for us to choose, to place another layer on the work of "the mere uncounted folk" who built the England we enjoy. Today is St George's Day - our day and the day of all those ordinary men and women who made this wonderful place. A place as close to heaven on earth as you'll find.


No comments: