I absolutely dote on Sir Roy Strong and I recommend anyone to read his autobiography. From growing up in a bookless house in north London to heading two important British institutions and becoming an adviser and licensed jester to the royal family is quite a journey. The first of his books I read was King Charles I on Horseback, a monograph on Van Dyck’s great painting. I enjoyed his exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portraits (was it 1969?) so much that I went twice. More recently I’ve loved reading about the garden he created with his late wife at The Laskett.This new book, Visions of England is just the kind of history I like, both scholarly and anecdotal. It’s described as an essay which the author hopes can be read at a sitting. His idea of ‘the wider reading public’ is perhaps a little ambitious; I lost count of the number of times he uses the word ‘mnemonic’ and think the book will be better understood by people who already have some general historical knowledge. This is the very thing which Sir Roy concludes is sadly lacking today.
What is Englishness? Why is Scottish or Welsh nationalism seen as legitimate but English nationalism considered chauvinistic and racist? Sir Roy finds this baffling: “One of the reasons I am proud of being English is the generosity of the country to all comers.” His thesis is that Englishness was defined during two specific periods: first between 1580 and 1610, then between 1880 and 1910. “It is a striking fact that although England was the first industrialized country in Western Europe, where today eighty per cent of the population live in cities and towns, urban life forms no part of the iconography of England.”
“National identity exists primarily in the imagination” and in England has been the product of art, literature and music. From Shakespeare’s blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England through Browning’s Home Thoughts from Abroad to Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, the England to fight for has not been London or Manchester but rural England. Even by the Second World War popular songs claimed that There’ll always be an England, While there’s a country lane and dreamed of a time when We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again, And walk together down an English lane. Unless you count London Pride (not mentioned in the book), cities didn’t get a look in.
The idea of England was essentially rural, pastoral, Arcadian. Artists from John Constable through Samuel Palmer to Paul Nash and John Piper created the images that summoned up ‘England’. Composers from Tallis and Purcell to Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten were inspired by English literature and landscape. Prime Ministers of an essentially urban country have tried to inspire common feeling by invoking an older, rural England. Sir Roy quotes Stanley Baldwin’s famous speech of 1926 in which he said that for him, “England is the country and the country is England.” He might have added John Major’s much derided 1993 speech in which he said, “‘Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, 'Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist' and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.”
The teaching of Shakespeare in schools is a sort of touchstone. Sir Roy describes how important it was in his own school in the 1940s, then says, “I now realize that such teaching of English culture and civilization as part of everyone’s education was a transient phase.” He goes on to argue that modern history teaching means that “children are left with no sense of chronology, nor any coherent narrative to explain their own country and their place within the nation’s history.” People today, he thinks, learn about history and literature not from school and books but from television programmes which project a particular view of England around the world, “the mythological picture of a rural England of country houses, rectories, villages and churches. It is the world of Agatha Christie, of Midsomer Murders and Downton Abbey - and it demonstrates the enduring power of the rural vision.”
Like Shakespeare, The Authorised Version of the bible and Cranmer’s Prayer Book were previously part of the English canon. The Church of England is praised here for its inclusiveness (as in Elizabeth I’s time); it opens its doors “to both the God-fearing and the godless.” The number of regular communicants may be small but at times of national crisis it responds to “a spiritual yearning” and produces “rituals and ceremonies which unite the English nation.” However, it can no longer be taken for granted that people have even a basic knowledge of the Christian faith and “I fear that future generations will be even less intellectually equipped to understand a good part of both European and English civilization.” Hah! The very thing I was banging on about last week.
The rural vision is “part of the England of the imagination - not the England of reality, as this book has tried to elucidate." The idyll “is still embraced” by the millions who visit National Parks and country houses and enjoy their own gardens and other people’s. “It can be embraced and enjoyed by anyone living in this country.” As you can tell by how much I’ve written about it, I loved this book and its attempt to define Englishness in a scholarly yet readable way. The charming cover design by Paul Catherall is very reminiscent of Brian Cook’s covers for books published by Batsford, the family firm. I just looked him up; I had no idea he was a Conservative MP. There are some nice examples of his work here.
It’s a complete coincidence that I’m currently reading two books which link very well with Visions of England. One is Puck of Pook’s Hill (and thanks to debodacious for the heads up that it’s free for the Kindle). The other is Have I Got Views for You by Boris Johnson, a collection of articles written for The Spectator and The Telegraph. In Kipling’s book Puck, who shows Sussex children Dan and Una the history of their country, is always invoking ‘Old England’. Boris castigates Gordon Brown for his attempts to do away with Old Britain (devolution, removing the crown from Treasury writing paper etc.) Quoting some Brownian statistic showing that 71% of British people chose the NHS as the thing most representative of Britain, Boris muses whether Rupert Brooke would have languished abroad dreaming of “some NHS ward”. I’m chuckling my way through this book but Boris has some serious points to make and makes them well.
I will now digress and get anecdotal myself about Rupert Brooke, who has been mentioned in these two very different books. He was one of the first poets I learned to love when I was young. When I was at school in the 1960s, several of our teachers had quite a thing about him. I once made a casual remark to the effect that he hadn’t actually died in battle and our nice, mild teacher went pink and was obviously very cross with me. I suppose that for her generation he still represented the doomed youth of the First World War. I would take a bet that nowadays almost every school child has to read a poem by Wilfred Owen and that not one has even heard of Rupert Brooke.