Review: books on England

The English are obsessed with an idea of the rural past. Andy Beckett on elegies and fallacies

England: An Elegy
Roger Scruton
270pp, Chatto & Windus
Buy it at BOL

The Englishman's Handbook
Idries Shah
222pp, Octagon

Utopian England: Community Experiments 1900-1945
Dennis Hardy
305pp, E & FN Spon
Buy it at BOL

It takes someone half-Indian and half-Scottish, in a tiny blink of a paragraph, in the middle of a chapter of flickering anecdotes, midway through the slightest of these three books, to notice the biggest mystery about modern Englishness. "The English, it seems, are obsessed with themselves," writes the late Idries Shah, amateur anthropologist, Sufi mystic, and resident of London's northwest suburbs, "while at the same time remaining quite unaware of this preoccupation." He politely expands on the paradox: "One strongly cherished idea here is that English people don't think about themselves [as a nation]. But in my thirty-year collection of Press cuttings on a diverse range of subjects, those marked 'England and the English' from British newspapers are twenty times as numerous as any other category."

Shah died in 1996; but for that, his cuttings file on Englishness would be bursting his shelves. From pop records to political polemics, from television series to reports by charities and dirty flags of St George fluttering from truck cabs, the supposedly unspoken subject of English identity has been raised ever more loudly since. Sometimes, it comes disguised as an assertion or discussion of Britishness: the brief swagger of Cool Britannia, the Runnymede Trust's recent warnings about racial prejudice concealed within the word "British". But you can be sure that England, where the great majority of the people and power in these islands - for good or ill - have long resided, is a looming presence. Debates about British multiculturalism tend to mention Bradford more than Bridgend. Blur's big-selling "Britpop" songs were about London, not Lothian.

Yet ask someone English what their nationality means, and often as not they will still pause and look blank, or mumble something about green fields and cricket. This traditional, rural, pre-immigration definition of Englishness still dominates: for all the current questioning talk about English identity, it is the version all others must compete with. John Major may have been mocked for his sepia speech-making about warm beer and bicycling maids, but people remember what he said.

And just as England likes to deny it is interested in itself, so its old-fashioned self-image denies how the English actually live. Most of us reside, or at least work, in big towns and cities. We move along busy grey streets. We hear foreign accents at bus stops. We have never worked in a field. This restless, claustrophobic, relatively cosmopolitan existence has been the lot of the English majority since the industrial revolution two centuries ago, and of Londoners for centuries longer. Visitors from abroad realize it; from Friedrich Engels to French language students wandering open-mouthed in Soho, England has been a place of noise, crowds and a haphazard kind of modernity - not the misty outline of distant hills.

Roger Scruton is fleetingly prepared to admit this. "Foreign visitors in Elizabethan times," he writes, "came away with the impression of a fiery, devious and intemperate people." But this is not the sort of discovery his book prefers to make. Instead Scruton, who is a huntsman and Tory philosopher, and runs an austere "experimental farm" in the hard, dry soil of northern Wiltshire, has written a defence, of some elegance and sophistication, of the crustiest version of Englishness imaginable.

Its cover photograph perfectly establishes his tone. A couple in blurred focus and smart Edwardian clothes stand stiffly on a beach beneath white cliffs. She wears a hat against the milky English sun, there is a wet dog at their feet and a small child playing in the near distance. To Scruton this world, which lasted from late Victorian times until the early 1960s, was the high point of English achievement, a time when his countrymen were "famous for their stoicism, their decorum, their honesty, their gentleness and their sexual puritanism". Nowadays, he continues, characteristically cool but regretful, "those qualities are no longer honoured". He refers to his country throughout in the past tense.

Such sentiments are always around in England - especially during Labour governments. The whiff of conservative partisanship, and the tendency of nostalgics to ignore the violence and instability of much of England's past, often makes their writing easy to dismiss. Scruton, though, is a different prospect. His frame of reference, for a start, includes authors who do not share his politics, such as Linda Colley, the historian of how Britain was constructed, and Tom Nairn, the Scottish prophet of its current dismantling. And Scruton writes with vivid reverence about the culture he sees disappearing, of "trees wrestling upwards for the light" in neglected hedges and country churches where "a peculiar silence had been stored". He can even be droll: "Sexual intercourse, Larkin tells us, began in 1963," Scruton starts one of the passages of personal memoir here with which he most persuasively makes his argument. "Certainly it had not begun in 1959 - not in Marlow at least."

Before his southern English idyll in Marlow, it is a surprise to learn, Scruton grew up in a grimy part of Manchester. His father was a teacher "occupying the lowest rung". The family name, rumour had it, came from the illicit seduction of an ancestor who was a servant at Scruton Hall in Yorkshire. Yet the Manchester Scrutons were all thrift and neighbourliness. This enabled the future philosopher to ascend to grammar school and Oxford, in a manner he now considers typical of England at the time. Mentors of infinite patience and knowledge, all male, appear in these pages, instruct the author in manners and high culture, and modestly depart to their bachelor lodgings.

This story has some of the moral momentum and intensity of a Victorian novel. Around his grainy memories, Scruton arranges essays about the educational, legal, and geographical structures that bred his favourite sort of Englishness in others. These sections are less successful. Over-familiar assertions of national uniqueness, loosely argued - the unreformed House of Lords, for example, is justified as representing the English countryside, as if it doesn't already have MPs - replace the usual Scruton logic and economy of expression. A brief, unattractive rage rises up in him against unpatriotic intellectuals and illegitimate children who "litter the country", undermining the sense of tolerance here, a quality he identifies as a prime English virtue. And the absence of urban England, let alone immigrant England, or the England of pre-eminent innovation in popular culture, begins to remove authority from the pages. When Scruton mourns "the old improving risks" his countrymen used to take, you know he has probably never seen a pirate radio station on an east London rooftop.

Dennis Hardy understands better that Englishness has always existed in multiple, quarrelling versions. Since at least medieval times, he writes at the start of his careful scholar's volume, "two oppositional themes have dogged the English character ... the ideal of a benign monarchy and that of a peasant republic." His focus is on people of the second inclination, what you might call the anti-Scruton tendency, and their efforts to establish an alternative England during the first half of the 20th century.

Interestingly, very few of these socialists, communists and "hairy-headed banana munchers", as one cartoon summarized them, put their faith in urban England (although that would change after 1945). The countryside was their laboratory, in particular the Cotswolds and the deep-green southwest, where countless commuting stockbrokers, and Scruton himself, would later live out their own rural dreams.

One of these tiny tribes of radicals, microscopically revealed by Hardy, was the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, set up by a 22-year-old pacifist called John Hargrave in August 1920. They went on camps, wore hooded smocks and fancied themselves, at first, a dissenters' version of the Boy Scouts, then later "the only English national movement". They advocated state control and redistribution of money; although membership was only in the hundreds, they were keenly watched by Special Branch.

Hargrave felt that England had "lost itself in a meaningless and devastating commercial scramble". Scruton, by the end of his book, comes to pretty much the same conclusion. His talk of "spivs" ruining the City and "agribusiness" razing the countryside, of Labour and even the Tories complicit in the conquests of the global market, sounds like a man beginning to slip his political moorings. Perhaps a certain sort of English person, of whatever ideology, eventually ends up on the barricades against international capital.

The GuardianTramp

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