England. Land of fun pubs and dole scum. Where eight year olds can hotwire a Cosworth. We gave the world Atomic Kitten and Greggs pasties. Black pudding and Jim “nick nick” Davidson. Argos, Top Shop, Sports Direct and Cash Converters. Tower blocks and damp semis. Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Clarkson. We elect Old Etonians and somehow cannot mislay a monarch. A realm of glamour and romance… Burnley, Luton, Great Yarmouth, Cleethorpes. Where urban foxes maul your kiddies. Where your kiddies set fire to cows. Where football supporters shout, “you dirty cockney bastard” at people from the Ivory Coast. Where we get free healthcare yet still complain just because the rain is pouring in through the hospital roof and the walls are dirtier than a Turkish toilet.
This great nation… this England. Where the towns smell of urine and the countryside smells of cowpat. A land of engineering genius, like the lifts on the Goodge Street tube. A lyrical land of poets, like Noel Gallagher and Tony Hadley. This happy breed, as depicted on Eastenders and the Red Riding Trilogy. Jack the Ripper. Fred West. Harold Shipman. Peter Sutcliffe. Hindley and Brady. We’re the world champions of serial killing, and as we’ve seen in Yorkshire and Cumbria recently, there’s a healthy crop of talented youngsters emerging to carry on that tradition. Just as the slums of Rio breed football genius, so constant rain, Virgin trains and Ready Steady Cook breed Premier League malcontented deviants.
And our great music! Indie bands with hair that’s a bit too long on the sides, clumsily pawing at Rickenbackers while some nasally youth from Cheltenham strings together colloquialisms no-one uses anymore. Fat fuglies pretending to be Beyonce, who then become anorexic fuglies pretending to be Beyonce once Heat has laughed at them once too often. Painfully hip electro acts claiming to be urban and futuristic when they sound like Hall and Oates.
But our actors are surely the best in the world, aren’t they? Serious, dedicated, committed to their craft. They deliver Shakespeare and Pinter with such gravitas. They talk gravely of the great theatrical tradition and how the writing is the thing. Well, until they get the chance to be in 2 fast 2 furious or Underworld or X Men 3, that is. Then they can’t wait to put on a silly costume and make total tits of themselves. So I’m a warlock and this green screen is full of elves and orcs… what’s my motivation, luvvie? Oh yes, I remember. It’s the 10 million dollars. Prostitute, moi?
And then there’s our football and its attendant, “patriotism”. Oh, the patriotism. When fat men paint their faces with the cross of St George and wobble off to the stadium looking like hot-cross buns, the Second World War is never far from their minds. Occasionally, the swinging sixties (the Italian Job, Bobby Moore, ‘66 and all that) or the Fantasie Worlde of Merrie Olde England (Richard the Lionheart, Agincourt, the crusades) may encroach, but mostly it’s 1940 and England stands alone and the other bunch kicking a ball around are the Jerries. Even if they’re, you know, Algeria.
But the WWII fetishism is not entirely unjustified. Before the Battle of Britain, before 1940, English patriotism meant the Empire, Rule Britannia, knights and redcoats and derring-do. It was a triumphalistic, overtly aristocratic and militaristic thing. The First World War destroyed that strain of patriotism for all but the most reactionary, yet it wasn’t until the Blitz that a new form of patriotism acquired any sort of distinct form. German bombs did not respect class, status or income, and the sense of One Nation (found today among modern conservatives as much as leftists) was given a desperate new impetus. The English no longer saw themselves as conquerors, but as a people defending liberty for all, no matter what the cost; an island race that does not go looking for trouble, but if a tyrant wants it they can bloody well have it. And there is irrefutably a genuine sense of pride to be found here; Britain did stand alone and did not negotiate with Hitler. England’s towns and cities were bombed relentlessly but yes, the nation endured. Nationhood has been built on flimsier foundations. However, while the generations born after the war may retain the Blitz spirit, they frequently fail to embody it with the same quiet dignity. England-the-liberator often asserts itself in particularly ugly ways, especially among English football hooligans. It is manifest in one of their favorite chants, “if it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts”. As though the Dutch, the Belgians or the French should express eternal gratitude as we smash up their bars and piss on their doorsteps.
If England has a national characteristic, it is that it has no national characteristic. In a country where accents can change dramatically every five miles or so, where cities lying next to each other have distinctly different folk histories and traditions, “cultural diversity” is not such much a fanciful left-wing propaganda exercise as wired into the DNA. I think that English patriots are so often needlessly aggressive and bullish because of an insecurity that leads to over-compensation. Deep down most of us are Mackems, Geordies, Scousers, Cockneys or Brummies first, and Englishmen a poor second; thus, when banded together as, “The English”, we have to convince ourselves of that identity as much as anybody else. This parochialism is probably a trait common to most countries; Italy for instance. Like Italy, England is culturally comprised of city states (but with ruddier cheeks and less body hair). There are few places on earth where national identity is as tenuous as it is in England, and fewer still where localism is as stark or as powerful. National pride is a form of method acting.
This brings me to the USA. I have to admit that my attitudes to patriotism have altered slightly since moving here. I used to think that English patriotism was the most vulgar, embarrassing, unreasonable and self-congratulatory on earth. How wrong I was. In England, it is considered rather vulgar to put the national flag on display outside your house, a little… cheap and nasty, ugly and far-right even. In the US, you can’t walk a block without seeing the stars and stripes. I thought that Americans only developed amnesia about certain things (like the actual contents of the constitution) but it seems that if they don’t see their flag every ten seconds, they’ll forget what country they’re living in. And that’s not as odd as it sounds; take a trip down to the NY subway or get on an Amtrak through Baltimore and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Albania.
US patriotism also seems to be something mandatory. “Un-American” is a real insult, while, “un-English” just means… well, not much actually. “Un-American” is sinister, subversive and Communist. “Un-English” is… garlic bread? Cheating at Monopoly? English conservatives never claim that lefties hate the country, or that you can’t love England if you don’t believe in Jesus. An American is suspicious of a, “fellow American” who does not celebrate the 4th of July; an Englishman is more likely to be suspicious of someone who does celebrate St George’s Day. No politician would be penalized in the polls for failing to wear a Union Jack badge on his lapel, and we support our troops simply by paying taxes, not by investing in gaudy bumper stickers. English journalists often criticize the whole Blitz thing as backward-looking and reactionary (which indeed it can be) but it was only 70 years ago, a heartbeat away in historical terms. Contrast this with the US obsession with the Founding Fathers; nobody sees that as inherently reactionary. The only beef that so-called progressives have is that reactionaries have got it all wrong, that the Founding Fathers should be unctuously venerated for other reasons. Very few Americans have the balls to admit that a bunch of slave owners and English minor-gentry folk in tricorn hats have no relevance whatsoever in the 21st Century. Constant reference to the intentions of Jefferson et al is as stupid as it would be for an English government to form today’s foreign policy around the letters of Elizabeth I or Churchill’s memoirs.
Yet US patriotism remains, to us, sometime to be envied as much as mocked. In truth, we English often look longingly to the US (or to the Irish or the Brazilians and to most other peoples) and wonder why we cannot celebrate nationhood with the same exuberance and cheerfulness. But then, of course we can’t: we’re English. I once read a review of an anthology about England by English writers. The reviewer noted that the book should have been called Going To The Dogs, because the underlying theme of all the writers, regardless of genre, sensibility or political affiliation, is that England is shit and it was so much better in the old days. It is perfectly true; read Larkin, Auden, Coleridge, Coward, listen to Morrissey, Blur or Paul Weller. Things were always better in the impossible past, the present is ghastly and somehow foreign, and the country is utterly doomed. There is No Future in England’s Dreaming. English people cannot write wholeheartedly patriotic songs or poems anymore; the most romantic effort of recent times, Pete Doherty’s, “Albion”, still couches its English mysticism in a land of violence in dole queues and a pale thin girl behind the checkout. Our football songs (“Three Lions”, “Vindaloo” or Rik Mayall’s, “Noble England”) attempt a sense of celebration and joy, but quickly return to, “years of hurt” or self-deprecating irony. Perhaps the reason why the English cling to 1940 and 1966 is that these were times when, in different ways, Englishness became an overwhelmingly positive and admirable thing. Such moments are rare in English history, at least when looked back upon by contemporary Englishmen.
I said earlier that England has no national characteristic, but that isn’t quite true. Actually, we have two. Melancholia is one; only an English person could write, “Aubade” or, “Wuthering Heights”. It is inconceivable that Joy Division could have ever been an LA band. It may have been an American who said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, but it is the English who have most effectively put quiet desperation into practice. In England, melancholia permeates landscape and memory. The English live in an almost constant state of psychological autumn, “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. We are at war with our own despair, wrestling the black dog in damp splendor, clinging to tumblers of, “medicinal” brandy. Of course, this fight is expressed in euphemism and understatement; E M Forster called it a, “muddle”, Coward took the concept of the vortex (the collapse of industrial society) and internalized it as a metaphor for mental anguish and being, “fed up”. The comedian Kenneth Williams committed suicide, but before doing so summed up the English attitude in his final diary entry: everything is so shit, I really can’t see the point in anything, it’s all so fucking shit… oh, what’s the bloody point? Quite. This is England; miserable but self-mocking, shrugging at despair. A shuffling, grimacing Goth with a perpetual cold.
As I’ve demonstrated, this melancholia is always tempered, tempered by another English characteristic, taking the piss out of yourself. For the English, it is a cardinal sin to take yourself too seriously. Celebrities who explain their misdemeanors by beginning with, “I’ve been learning through therapy…”, or, “I discovered in rehab…” are met with hoots of derision. Melancholia may be our birthright and our burden, but you’re supposed to soldier on and keep your chin up, not cry like a little girl and look for sympathy. Burly oaf and effeminate fop alike, Rugby scrum half or Quentin Crisp, you are expected to shoulder your misfortune with wit and good grace, not whine about wanting your life back like Tony Heyward. Tony, you’re a disgrace. Not for the oil spill, that’s neither here nor there, but for being a whiner. Did Nelson ever complain that he wanted his life back? Of course not. He didn’t even whine that he wanted his arm back. By mewling like a baby, you have dishonored your country. You should be flogged.
I like these English traits. I share them. Note that in musing about patriotism, I could not possibly avoid them; I began with four paragraphs lampooning my crummy little homeland and its strange, puckish inhabitants. It is why, on Saturday, I will watch the England – USA game in Dupont Circle brimming with national pride… well, not pride exactly, as I’ve already told my American friends that England will probably lose, and watching the game will be roughly as enjoyable as being stuck in a broken elevator with a Belgian dentist. I should say that I’m not so much proud to be English as glad that I’m English. Our eccentric brand of patriotism, half-jingoistic and half self-loathing, a push-me-pull-you vision of nationhood, is nevertheless a vibrant and inspiring thing. England, to me, does not mean the Queen or the Empire or the right to beat seven bells of crap out of passing Germans because after all, we won the war. It is the land of lovable crapness; of bad teeth and knackered lifts, of silly walks and men in dresses, of great literature, great music and of being embarrassed by show-offs. Americans, much as I love them, are show-offs. They have showy patriotism, showy religion, showy “family values”, showy cars, showy movies. Frankly, as brilliant and as vibrant as they undoubtedly are, they still have more confidence than talent.
So on Saturday, I will raise a glass to England and St George. Because if there’s one thing of which I am completely certain, it’s that I can drink each and every one of you under the table. I’m English.