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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, October 25, 2006
    England in all its fullness
    Finished Billy Bragg's book The Progressive Patriot. He doesn't write like he talks, in some respects - less passionate and far more sober; but in another respect he does - equally considered and clearly expressed. He doesn't reach any firm answers in his search for the heart of Englishness, either, but that's a project no one will ever complete.

    In making his investigation through telling his own life story Billy does, however, describe in some depth the strands of a particular sort of Englishness which give him a sense of belonging: the Englishness of a radical tradition which connects the provisions of the Magna Carta to the opposition to Charles I, to the Welfare State, a tradition which 'has done more than any other ... to shape our common values, each successive generation seeking to expand on these ideas for the benefit of those excluded by faith, race, gender and economics.'

    That isn't everyone's idea of Englishness, however. And Billy's book reminds me that most, if not all, icons of Englishness are actually contested, claimed as their own by groups of very different sorts of English people. That excellent recent BBC documentary on Blake's Jerusalem showed how the hymn is precious equally to the WI and the BNP, to Conservative and Labour, to religious radicals and Eton choristers - but all for very different reasons. Bragg's book details the same critical collisions over the writer on Englishness he regards as the greatest, George Orwell. He reminds the reader of Orwell's appropriation by Conservative politicians intent on using the writer's words to evoke England as a settled rural idyll of cricket-pitch village greens and 'old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning'.

    But then Bragg digs out the entire quote to show that Orwell's England embraced far more than just these things:

    And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning.

    Orwell's England consists of gentle mists and the noise and dirt of industrial, metropolitan living. It's a fuller, truer England than the partial ones we're often encouraged to adhere to (either by radicals or racists). What I get from all this is a question; Orwell did a very good job of critically describing the England of his day in all its fullness... who are the writers doing this today?