‘Where’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’

Michael Dobson

  • Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707 by John Kerrigan
    Oxford, 599 pp, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 818384 6

We never went on holiday to foreign countries when I was a child. Not to properly foreign ones, anyway. Although we lived on the South Coast, the family Hillman Minx would head not towards a nearby Channel port but westwards, or north-westwards, or just plain north. In perverse flight from the sunlit sandy beaches of Bournemouth – which attracted mere holidaymakers, the kind who were starting to take package trips to Benidorm instead – we, like the rest of the hardy self-improving lower middle classes, were bound for places where farmhouse bed and breakfasts cowered beneath looming ridges of wet, windswept heather, where there were ample supplies of fiddle music, and where every fishing village and handicrafts exhibition promised another souvenir linen tea towel. Sometimes it was Cornwall; sometimes Scotland; sometimes Wales; and sometimes it was the long drive across Wales to Fishguard and the night ferry to Ireland.

My anoraks gradually accumulated shiny stick-on plastic arm badges from each of these misty regions, but whenever I surveyed these trophies I was seized by a nagging doubt. Had I really been abroad, or not? Cornwall and Wales, despite some convincingly bizarre place names, seemed much like my grandparents’ North Yorkshire only more so, being about 110 per cent Methodist. Scotland was unlike Cornwall and Wales in having fewer chapels and bigger mountains, but the ‘Welcome to Scotland’ signs you drove past at the border didn’t seem different in kind from the familiar and palpably insincere ‘Welcome to Hardy Country’ ones with which the Eldridge Pope brewery had adorned so many local roadsides back home. It was just more of the same stuff only a bit further up and with more lakes, except you had to call them lochs.

Ireland, admittedly, was different, if only because you arrived at breakfast time feeling a bit seasick and discovered that all the postboxes and telephone booths had been painted green. But in those pre-euro days the shops still accepted ordinary money, and my mother used to say that what she liked best about the place, apart from the Mary O’Hara records, was that with its bumpy single-track roads and straying donkeys it reminded her of the prewar Dales of her childhood. The only time I remember thinking that something really foreign was happening on one of these family holidays was when we took shelter in a little café-cum-shop somewhere in North Wales and all the other customers were talking in a language I couldn’t understand. Although quite gratified in retrospect by this evidence of authentically local culture, my parents were clearly made uncomfortable by it at the time. I gathered from this incident that one of the special things about the United Kingdom was that you could be a British person drinking a cup of tea somewhere in Britain and still be quite definitely in the wrong country.

I grew up with a strong sense that we British, whoever we collectively and not quite collectively were, inhabited a cluster of variegated islands in quite a lot of cold ocean, some of it managed by Sealink and some by MacBrayne’s. I also developed a strong sense that our family lived in the most banal corner of these islands. Though Wessex might have been a kingdom once upon a time, there was no mistaking it now for anything other than a province, and an unglamorously modern and commercial one at that.

Lamentably short of its own local customs and traditional folk songs, the area around our unenchanted conurbation did at least have some serious and even picturesque history: we were taken on a school trip to Corfe Castle in case we hadn’t noticed. Disappointingly, though, in England even history seemed to be pragmatic rather than glamorously tragic. Whereas ruined castles in Scotland and Ireland and Wales came with stories of heroic chieftains getting burned out of their strongholds, driven into exile, and having to renounce their ancestral languages, in England they just showed that Parliament had sorted out the naughtier aristocrats and established the principle of constitutional monarchy. The history of Scotland and Wales and the top bit of Ireland, I decided, must be the history of their being uncomfortably but necessarily dragged into the modern world by England so as to make up Britain, in order that they too might share in the everyday benefits of non-naughtiness, parliamentary democracy, and our ceremonially and gloriously powerless royal family. Presumably the reason my parents thought that these Celtic regions made such interesting holiday destinations was that the sorry but inevitable business of anglicising them hadn’t quite taken.

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