Putting on Some English

Terence Hawkes

  • The Gatekeeper: A Memoir by Terry Eagleton
    Allen Lane, 178 pp, £9.99, January 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9590 4

In the United States, ‘English’ can mean ‘spin’: a deliberate turn put on a ball by striking it so that it swerves. It’s a subtle epithet, perhaps recording a canny colonial take on the larger distortions inseparable from imperial rule. But the truth is that as the English invented ‘Great Britain’ and then began the process of large-scale colonisation, they put quite a lot of English on ‘Englishness’ itself. Broadening as the Empire grew, its characteristics blossomed, not from the blood and soil of a single nation, reflecting its culture or essentialising its way of life, so much as from a vaguely conceived, free-floating notion of ‘humanity’ itself.

The result was invaluable to the powers implementing it. If recruitment to that kind of Englishness became one of the prizes offered by the builders of Empire to those over whom they ruled, there was also a practical side, since the exported teachers on whom it relied were clearly less expensive, or more expendable, than the regiments of soldiers whose functions they fulfilled. They were also, arguably, more effective. The purpose-built academic subject called ‘English literature’ quickly became an important symbol of and forcing-house for the sort of hand-me-down, portable Englishness in question: its basis less a firmly grounded way of life and scheme of values than a claim to be able to soar above the differences manifested by individual cultures. Bidding to be ahistorical and transcendent, ‘English literature’ rested on the unstated assumption that, beneath all the mess and confusion, a world that denied it was English-speaking, Shakespeare-loving, Dickens-fancying, must be kidding.

Meanwhile, four hundred years of careful cultural quilting had gradually produced an Englishness able to blanket difference so effectively that Britain could be spoken of as ‘England’, a God-given, coherent, sea-girt island. But as those certainties now unravel, and the country resolves itself once more into its component, unhallowed parts, it’s noticeable that the three most prominent academic teachers of English in Britain over the past decades have not, strictly speaking, either claimed to be English or cared to be thought so. Frank Kermode, Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton are proud of their Manx, Welsh and Irish roots. As a result, each one’s journey from the periphery to the centre, from the working-class outskirts of English culture to its middle and upper-class core, from outlandish Douglas, Pandy and Salford to chairs at London, Cambridge and Oxford, takes on something of an epic air, almost at one with the path from Caliban’s cave to Prospero’s study.

One advantage of being on the periphery is that you know where the centre is. ‘I was an 18-year-old working-class Catholic, as certain as a speak-your-weight machine and as ignorant as a fish,’ Terry Eagleton says, contrasting himself with the middle-aged patrician English tutor, pseudonymously styled ‘Greenway’, whom he encountered as an undergraduate at Cambridge. If the one thing a fish is ignorant of is water, perhaps the future Thomas Warton Professor at Oxford already sensed he was in the swim. Certainly, Greenway’s absurd posturing acquires a kind of centrality in this frequently hilarious memoir. He represents the essence of that contorted, ‘Englished’ civilisation, which the mature Eagleton set himself to undermine: ‘Greenway was the first truly civilised man I had ever encountered, and about as warmly spontaneous as a shaving brush. He knew all about cheeses, wisteria, Rubens’s brushwork, herbaceous borders, flying buttresses, gilt-edged securities, the bird-life of Venezuela, varieties of Malaysian fruit, Leibniz, Gregorian chant . . .’

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