Tuesday, 25 October 2011
The English are ......?
One answer to this perennial question is that of the mid Victorian Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who said:-
"The people of England are the most enthusiastic in the world".
Another longer but, I think, interesting answer is provided in an edgier Travelbook than the AA one which I quoted yesterday.
“THE ROUGH GUIDE TO ENGLAND” says in its "Introduction to England":-
Like an ageing cabaret star shuffling onto the stage, England really needs no introduction. When even the world’s most remote communities are on first-name terms with its footballers, princes and prime ministers, it’s clear that everyone knows something about this crowded nation, perched on Europe’s western fringe. As a visitor, you can pick your favourite slice of “Englishness” and indulge yourself in a country with a notorious taste for nostalgia. The tales of King Arthur; the works of Shakespeare; the exploits of Drake; the intellect of Johnson; the invention of Brunel; the leadership of Churchill; the cult of Diana – all are endlessly recycled in England, providing a cultural backdrop to an unparalleled range of historic buildings, monuments and landscapes.
Of course, this isn’t anything like the whole story of England. For every tourist who wants to stand outside the gates of Buckingham Palace or visit Stratford-upon-Avon, there’s another who makes a beeline for the latest show at Tate Modern or the cityscape of downtown Manchester. Contemporary England is a deeply conservative place which at the same time has a richly multi-ethnic culture. Famously, fish and chips gave way some years ago to chicken tikka masala as the country’s favourite dish, and while the nation tends to distrust all things European, the English increasingly embrace the continental lifestyle. Enjoy a fried English breakfast or a Devonshire cream tea by all means, but notice the locals at the next-door café-bar tucking into a croissant and a cappuccino.
Ask an English person to define their country in terms of what’s worth seeing and you’re most likely to have your attention drawn to England’s golden rural past. The classic images are found in every brochure – the village green, the duck pond, the country lane and the farmyard. And it’s true that it’s impossible to overstate the bucolic attractions of various English regions, from Cornwall to the Lake District, or the delights they provide – from walkers’ trails and prehistoric stone circles to traditional pubs and obscure festivals. But despite celebrating their rural heritage, the modern-day English have an ambivalent attitude towards “the countryside”. Farming today forms only a tiny proportion of the national income and there’s a real dislocation between the population of the burgeoning towns and suburbs and the small rural communities badly hit by successive crises in English agriculture.
So perhaps the heart of England is found in its towns and cities instead? The shift towards urban living and working has been steady since the Industrial Revolution, and industry – and the Empire it inspired – has provided a framework for much of what you’ll see as you travel around. Virtually every English town bears a mark of former wealth and power, whether it be a magnificent Gothic cathedral financed from a monarch’s treasury, a parish church funded by the tycoons of the medieval wool trade, or a triumphalist civic building raised on the back of the slave and sugar trade. In the south of England you’ll find old dockyards from which the navy patrolled the oceans, while in the north there are the mills that employed entire town populations. England’s museums and galleries – several of them ranking among the world’s finest – are full of treasures trawled from its imperial conquests. And in their grandiose stuccoed terraces and wide esplanades, the old seaside resorts bear testimony to the heyday of English holiday towns, at one time as fashionable as any European spa.
In short, England isn’t just one place, but a perpetual collision of culture, class and race – the product of multiple identities adapting and somehow fitting together. It’s political philosophies and instructions have influenced the most diverse western societies; its idiosyncrasies and prejudices have left their mark across the English-speaking world, and its inventions and creative momentum, from the Industrial Revolution to the Turner Prize, continue to inspire. But the only certainty for visits is that however long you spend in England and however much you see, it still won’t be enough to understand the place.
WHERE TO GO
To begin to get to grips with England, London is the place to start. Nowhere else in the country can match the scope and innovation of the metropolis, a colossal, frenetic city, perhaps not as immediately attractive as its European counterparts, but with so much variety that lack of cash is the only obstacle to a great time. It’s here that you’ll find England’s best spread of nightlife, cultural events, museums, galleries, pubs and restaurants. However each of the other large cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool – makes its own claim for historic and cultural diversity and you certainly won’t have a representative view of England’s cities if you venture no further than the capital. It’s in these regional centres that, currently, the most exciting architectural and social developments are taking place, though for many visitors they rank a long way behind ancient cities like Lincoln, York, Salisbury, Durham and Winchester – to name just those with the most celebrated of England’s cathedrals. Most beguiling of all, though, are the long-established villages of England, hundreds of which amount to nothing more than a pub, a shop, a gaggle of cottages and a farmhouse offering bed and breakfast. Devon, Cornwall, the Cotswold and the Yorkshire Dales harbour some especially picturesque specimens, but every county can boast a decent showing of photogenic hamlets. Evidence of England’s pedigree is scattered between its settlements as well. Wherever you’re based, you’re never more than a few miles from a ruined castle, a majestic country house, or a monastery, and in many parts of the country you’ll come across the sites of civilizations that thrived here before England existed as a nation. In the southwest there are remnants of a Celtic culture that elsewhere was all but eradicated by the Romans, and from the south coats to the northern border you can find traces of prehistoric settlers, the most famous being the megalithic circles of Stonehenge and Avebury.
Then of course there’s the English countryside, an extraordinarily diverse terrain from which Constable, Turner, Wordsworth, Emily Bronte and a host of other native luminaries took inspiration. Most dramatic and best known are the moors and uplands – Exmoor, Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor, the North York Moors and the Lake District – each of which has its over-visited spots, though a brisk walk will usually take you out of the throng. Quieter areas are tucked away in every corner of England, from the lush vales of Shropshire near the border with Wales to the flat wetlands of the eastern Fens and the chalk downland of Sussex. It’s a similar story on the coast, where the finest sands and most rugged cliffs have long been discovered, and sizeable resorts have grown to exploit many of the choicest locations. But again, if it’s peace you’re after, you can find it by heading for the exposed strands of Northumberland, the pebbly flat horizons of East Anglia or the crumbling headlands of Dorset.
As part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (“the UK”), England is a parliamentary democracy, with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. Its traditional industries – fishing, farming, mining engineering, shipbuilding – are all in decline and business today is dominated by banking and finance, the media and technology, steel production, oil and gas and tourism.
Bordered by Scotland to the north and Wales to the west, England is the largest country in Great Britain, occupying an area of 50,085 sq miles (129,720 sq km). The terrain is diverse, from plains to peaks, cliffs to beaches, though the superlatives are all modest on a world scale – the largest lake, Windermere, is 10 miles (16km) long, the highest mountain, Scafell, just 3205ft (978m) above sea level.
The population of approximately 50 million is dense for a country of its size, but settlement is concentrated in the southeast conurbations around London, and in the large industrial cities of the Midlands and the North.
This is one of the world’s most multi-ethnic countries made up largely of Anglo-Saxon, Scots, Welsh and Irish descent, but with sizeable communities from the Caribbean, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, China, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.
As a glance at the tabloid newspapers will confirm, England is a nation of overweight, alcopop-swilling, sex – and celebrity – obsessed TV addicts. But it’s also a country of animal loving, tea-drinking, charity donors thriving on irony and Radio 4. It’s a country where accent and vocabulary can stamp a person’s identity like a brand, where a tiny land-owning aristocracy, who in the some cases trace their roots to the Norman Conquest of the eleventh century, still own most of the land. But it’s also a genuine haven for refugees, and a country of immigrants from more than 100 ethnic backgrounds. It’s a nation where commuters suffer overpriced, under-funded public transport services, and where the hearts of many towns – and increasingly their outskirts – consist of identikit retail zones. Yet it’s also a country where individuality and creativity flourish, fuelling a thriving pop culture and producing one of the most dynamic fashion, music and arts scenes to be found anywhere.
Ask any English person to comment on all of this and – assuming you’re not trying to communicate with a stranger in a public place, which in London at least can be seen as tantamount to physical assault – you’ll get an entertaining range of views. Try to make sense of these, and the resulting picture might suggest something akin to a national identity crisis – the people themselves can’t agree on who or what they are.