Tom Shippey

  • England and Englishness: Ideas of Nationhood in English Poetry, 1688-1900 by John Lucas
    Hogarth, 227 pp, £18.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 7012 0892 9
  • The Englishman’s England: Taste, Travel and the Rise of Tourism by Ian Ousby
    Cambridge, 244 pp, £45.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 521 37374 3
  • Fleeting Things: English Poets and Poems, 1616-1660 by Gerald Hammond
    Harvard, 394 pp, £24.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 674 30625 2

‘Of all nations’, writes Ian Ousby, ‘we’, the English, have ‘perhaps the most strongly defined sense of national identity – so developed and so stylised, in fact, that we are frequently conscious of it as a burden or restraint’. I wonder what he can possibly mean by that. The most anomalous thing about England in comparison with all other European nations (of course it isn’t a nation, but even in comparison with Scotland and Wales) is that it doesn’t have the formal marks of national identity acquired even by Iceland or Finland, Luxembourg or Albania. It has no national anthem – ‘God save the Queen’ is played at football matches, but that is shared with other parts of the UK, who, however, don’t play it (except for the Northern Irish, who are making a political point). It has no national dress, nor any evident national icons in the tartan/leeks/thistles class. St George’s Day attracts no celebrations. It does have a national flag, but not everyone knows what it is. A football commentator remarked that he was pleased to see ‘nearly as many’ St George’s Crosses being waved as Union Jacks, when England played Cameroon in the World Cup. No Union Jacks were on display at Scotland’s games. At a recent conference in Denmark I asked some forty Danish Anglicists if they knew what the English flag looked like. Yes, they replied, it’s that red, white and blue one with crosses going different ways. At least they were pleased to discover that the English flag is the exact reverse of the Danish one, for, as Saxo Grammaticus wrote long since, history in the North began with two brothers, whose names were Dan and Angul. But that particular national myth is unknown in England.

The point could be drawn out by considering the strange behaviour at rugby internationals (the introduction of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’? All the Protestant Ulstermen standing to attention for ‘The Soldier’s Song’?); or the nature of money (English notes and coins, Scottish ditto, but just try passing British Linen notes south of the Tees, Welsh coins only, Northern Irish neither but till fairly recently an identical, different, non-legal-tender Southern Irish currency). But there is enough already to qualify Ousby’s assertion: if England has a strong national identity, it does not depend on the kind of props thought normal by everyone else, nor, one might add, on any halfway informed sense of history, or of racial – still less linguistic! – origin. Churchill started his History of the English-Speaking Peoples with Julius Caesar’s invasion of Kent, a fixture which cannot have been attended on either side by anyone who spoke a word even of Utter Ancestral English, since even the Romans at that time had not started recruiting their Gurkha-equivalents from the far fens of Slesvik. Did Churchill mean History of Britain (and I’d better include the Americans and Anzacs?) Did he, in true English style, not give a damn? Perhaps the question is: should we? Maybe it is a sign of maturity and inner self-confidence to be the first nation in Europe not to need a national anthem/flag/dress/history/myth of origins. We meant the Act of Union, even if the Scotch did not (and before anyone writes in to complain about ‘Scotch/Scots’ etc, read the entry under ‘Scotch’ in the OED – it is a form at least as correct philologically as ‘sassenach’, but, revealingly, people are extravagantly punctilious about the one and regard the other with mild indifference).

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