What defines England most? For Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, the country was:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
In 1941 George Orwell initiated a more prosaic tradition. For him, England was comprised of
The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin tables in the Soho pubs, old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings, these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.
T.S. Eliot’s politics couldn’t have been more different, but his own summary of English culture, from 1948, had echoes of Orwell’s:
Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the 12th of August, the Cup Final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century gothic churches, and the music of Elgar.
Eliot advised that ‘The reader can make his own list’. And perhaps this is what defines England most: it is not the contents of these lists that count, but the lists themselves. The English love them. They are the verbal equivalent of standing in queues. Writing in 1980, Mark E. Smith saw through this crap. For him, Orwell’s English scene had become the ‘English Scheme’:
You got sixty hour weeks, and stone toilet back-gardens
Peter Cook’s jokes, bad dope, check shirts, lousy groups
Point their fingers at America
Down pokey quaint streets in Cambridge
Cycles our distant spastic heritage
It’s a gay read, roundhead, army career, grim head
If we was smart we’d emigrate
Although Smith has prided himself on his ‘pre-cognition’, it is immigration rather than emigration that has prompted England’s darkest fears. Xenophobia marks the nation as much as lists do. In recent times, little Englanders have seen their fortress breached. They want it to be rebuilt. And so, the years of European Union have seen the ghost of Orwell rise in the most unlikely places. Speaking in 1993, when he was Tory prime minister, John Major claimed that
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’.
Johnny Rotten has witnessed less permanence. He waxed nostalgic in 2012:
I miss the roses, those English roses, of salad and beer and summer here and many mannered ways of cotton dresses skipping across the lawn off happy faces, when football was not a yawn and clear the bomb sites, and all the days were long. November into winters here, snows would turn my page.
His revelries were shot through with the blues of an ex-pat. In 2011, P.J. Harvey evidenced a different longing for home. She wrote in character as a soldier who had been posted abroad:
Take me back to beautiful England
And the grey damp filthiness of ages
And battered books
And fog rolling down behind the mountains
On the graveyards and dead sea-captains.
Let me walk through the stinking alleys
To the music of drunken beatings
Past the Thames river glistening
Like gold hastily sold
She is as unromantic as Smith, but these lists are always slippery. It is February 2016 and voices P.J. Harvey would never have dreamed of are chorusing her ‘Goddamn!’