In the run-up to the day commonly recognised as England’s national day, April 23rd – St George’s Day and the day also historically put forward as William Shakespeare’s birthday – we put up a series of 42 profile picture and cover page images on our Facebook account that were in some way evoked England or the idea of Englishness.
(There is a reason why we ended up with 42. We originally intended to put up a nice round 40 but then realised we had miscalculated, but decided that as one Englishman, Douglas Adams, had authoritatively proven that 42 was the answer to life, the universe and everything, that this would make our pictorial resume all the more definitive.)
Trying to eke anything remotely celebratory out of April 23rd in England has historically been a troublesome matter. It’s not hard to come up with numerous relevant theories: the fact that England is a country within a union that produces political tensions and complex dynamics; the fact that many nations which do celebrate their national day more vociferously (and with one more holiday than the English get) are relatively young and independent entities and therefore possibly rather less self-conscious about the idea of nationhood (ironically, England’s history of fending off successful invasion since 1066 seems more of a burden in this respect); the fact that there are understandable concerns about overt nationalism; the possibility that overly nationalist people often clash with the overly politically correct brigade and nobody ends up winning as a result.
With regards to the last point, the genius comic writer that is Leicester’s Sue Townsend once offered a characteristically eviscerating (and funny) vignette via the pen of legendary teenage diarist Adrian Mole. On St George’s Day, Adrian Mole tells us, the school troublemaker Barry Kent wears a Union Flag T-Shirt to school and is ordered home by the teacher Ms Fossington-Gore. Barry Kent protests that he is celebrating England’s national day; Ms Fossington-Gore retaliates that he is wearing a symbol of fascism. The local newspaper picks up on the story; the school’s headteacher, the terrifying ‘Pop-Eye’ Scruton, oblivious to the fact he is speaking to a journalist, says how the wretched Kent family are all too familiar to the public and how he hopes there is a way that the story won’t hit the ‘local rag’.
In a sense, this indicates that England is perhaps best at peace with itself when it doesn’t have too much ideology to worry about (as renowned journalist and writer Jeremy Paxman has said, it may well have been a scepticism about extreme ideology that drove forward British resistance as a whole to the threat of Adolf Hitler between 1939 and 1945).
And yet. If we are capable of being a chilled-out, civilised, deeply cultured and deeply tolerant nation (sounds rather a lot like Norway, Sweden or Finland), surely we should get the right to have some kind of national day as a holiday as repayment for being good citizens? (Rather like Norway, Sweden or Finland again?)
In this sense, we feel that the former Labour Cabinet Minister Hilary Benn was a tiny bit prescriptive last year when he said that English people should ‘talk proudly about being English’. He needs to be more open to the possibility that people who come from, and who reside in, England, are proud about their ties to the country – they just do so with rather a lot of low-key dignity, which is no bad thing. Time for politicians to stop lecturing and pay up with a vacation. If one is to avoid being prescriptive, one needs to acknowledge that such a holiday is one where people either have the chance to embrace the nation’s culture and heritage with slightly more leisure than usual or, if they so wish, enjoy a well-earned day off by playing video games.
(As we implied, it’s important to be chilled-out about these things.)
As such, we would be very pleased if Wales got a national holiday as well (be it March 1st, St David’s Day, or another date), but we appreciate that that matter will probably ultimately rest in the hands of the Welsh Assembly, just as the Scottish Parliament has made St Andrew’s Day an optional (but not compulsory) public holiday.
To get back to the images. We appreciate that some of the people featured here are very much alive and extant and may not be at one with us over the idea of a national holiday. We can only hope we don’t cause them any undue umbrage in the process. We just featured the images because they were a personal choice of stuff that made us feel proud to be English by birth and upbringing and because they neatly paired up into 21 sets of two images each that had some kind of connected theme. If we’ve done our small bit to demonstrate that Anglicana (the celebration of Englishness? We thank Eliza Carthy, herself included in the England 42 alongside Sue Townsend, for this word) is a hugely sophisticated and evolving concept, we hope that that elusive national holiday is the least that could be done to further the good cause of Anglicana in the most sophisticated way possible.
There is a Scandi link because we wouldn’t have had it any other way. The Langeled gas pipeline has been a godsend to England and Britain since it was opened in 2006. We have paired it with the heavy horses used by the Wadworth brewery in Devizes, Wiltshire for the delivery of beer as they represented two very different kinds of transportation or transit, but it could have just as easily gone with the image of the Millau Viaduct. In one instance, the outside world brings its resources (not to mention its goodwill) to the shores of England; in the other, England takes its genius (or a representative thereof, Norman Foster) to the wider world. Internationalism is a key tenet of positive national identity and we hope we have honoured it in the right way.
We will return to at least one of these images (the most popular one in our little Facebook experiment, probably) for some more ruminations with a Scandi link, but, in the meantime, the images:
The images that started the 42. Two very different kinds of musician. It’s difficult to think of anyone in English music history celebrated more for their anarchic outlook than John Lydon; it’s difficult to think of any English-born composer, classical or otherwise, who, in terms of pure melody and vision, hit obviously greater heights than Henry Purcell. But they both intriguingly had their own run-ins with authorities (indeed, Lydon still does, though we would be careful to distinguish between sounding rebellious and being unbecomingly reactionary)
Two very different kinds of architecture. Giles Gilbert Scott’s Battersea Power Station in South-West London remains derelict and distended thirty years after closing; no other building evokes so strongly the problems England still faces in reconciling its heavily industrialised past with its rather less industrialised present. The Millau Viaduct in France, in part the brainwork (and masterwork?) of Norman Foster, shows that there is still a very potent present and future for public-minded architecture – as long as we accept it may not always be home-based
Two very different ways of looking at tolerance. William Wilberforce was instrumental in hastening the abolition of slavery; Viv Anderson was the first black footballer to represent England in a full international when he played against Czechoslovakia at Wembley in 1978
Two very different kinds of art and design. A medieval wall painting depicting the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, at the Parish Church of St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire; a fabric by 1960s icon Celia Birtwell, but one of her works from the 21st century at that
Two very different kinds of superlative comic double-act. Roy Barraclough and the late Les Dawson played the very northern, very working-class Cissie and Ada to perfection for many years; David Webb and Robert Mitchell have played the very urbane, very angsty Mark and Jez to perfection on the television series Peep Show for a decade. Yet in one odd way, the basis of the comic potential for the respective duos isn’t that different: one person (Cissie/Mark) trying to better themselves in the world, the other (Ada/Jez) frequently bringing them down to earth with a crashing thump (not least through hysterically clumsy verbal misunderstandings) Classic English bathos?
Two very different kinds of Putney idealism; Clement Attlee was born in the South-West London suburb and is seen here celebrating his landslide (and landmark) victory in the 1945 general election. Mr Benn (the most popular image in the 42 among our Facebook audience) regularly visits a fancy dress shop and undergoes a series of adventures prompted by a costume change that also prompt him into genuinely heroic deeds. His address in the series of books and animations by David McKee – 52 Festive Road – takes its cue from 54 Festing Road, Putney – where McKee was living when the Mr Benn series first came to fruition
Two very different kinds of Led Zeppelin. Starting out in 1968 and getting ready just about the most anticipated gig in history, their 2007 reunion at the O2 Dome in London – with Jason Bonham replacing his late father John on drums. Although England has given the world the most widely-spoken language, it didn’t give the world the language of rock and roll – but there were a few years where it upgraded it
Because we’re all coming from somewhere. St Thomas’ Hospital, London, where I was born (though not when this depiction was first realised); cows on the common at Hungerford, Berkshire, a few hundred yards away from where I live now
Because we all want to go somewhere. Two places I’ve never been to and which I’d very much like to visit: Scafell Pike, Cumbria, the highest mountain in England, and the Eden Project, near St Austell, Cornwall. Clearly other people have the same idea; I got some detailed advice on Facebook on how to scale Scafell Pike and avoid tourists in the process
It would be very obvious to put up photos of fish and chips and curry so I felt it was necessary to make the reference intensely local and intensely personal. White’s in Chard, Somerset, is the best fish and chip shop I have ever been to; Dilshad in Selly Oak, Birmingham, the best curry house I have attended. Two very different sentiments and two different concepts of time drive on these particular choices – White’s is a place I used to go a lot when I was growing up (and is therefore a place I’d like to go back to in order to see if it is just as good now as it was then), with Dilshad I have the very contemporary experience of having been there in the very recent past
The first half of an all-female Saturday quartet on Facebook as we reached the halfway point. Aphra Behn was a spy, Surinam adventurer, Tory and monarchist activist, and is widely acclaimed as the first female English professional writer. Over two centuries later, Manchester’s Emmeline Pankhurst was at the forefront of the movement that resulted in universal suffrage in Britain
The second half of that all-female Saturday. The folk singer and icon extraordinaire that is Scarborough’s Eliza Carthy, and probably the best living comic prose writer in the English language, Leicester’s Sue Townsend
Two very different kinds of faith. Aidan of Lindisfarne was instrumental in helping revive Christianity among the Anglo-Saxon communities of Northumbria in the seventh century; with him I share both my Anglo-Hiberno-Caledonian faith (he previously served at a monastery in Iona in Scotland) and my first name. The Sikh-based Sangat Television provided remarkable coverage of the 2011 riots on the English mainland, not least through its attempts to reach out to all affected communities and faiths (whilst potentially raising the ire of the media regulator in the process). Presenter Upinder Randhawa tweeted: ‘Thanks for saying I should get an MBE but to me MBE is MY BEAUTIFUL ENGLAND.’
Two very different kinds of dress sense. David Bowie evoking androgyny and fluidity of identity and sexuality like (perhaps) no Englishman since Percy Bysshe Shelley or Lord Byron; Monty Python’s Gumbies evoking the exact opposite (ie the madness of uniformity) for the comic troupe’s 30th anniversary in 1999 – joined by Eddie Izzard on this occasion
A nation defined by water. The Wind In the Willows presents a captivating and defining image of pastoral England. Not for the last time in the England 42, a Scotsman, author Kenneth Grahame, is key to proceedings. Henry Blogg (1876-1954) was a deckchair business owner, crab fisherman, and, most famously, a Royal National Lifeboat Institution coxswain. Widely referred to as ‘the greatest of the lifeboatmen’, he is accredited with saving 873 lives in 53 years of active service
Two very different kinds of monumental boundaries. The Elveden Memorial on the edge of Thetford Forest in Suffolk commemorates those from the local villages of Elveden, Eriswell and Icklingham who died serving in World War I and World War II action; the monument itself marks the point where all three parishes meet. Scotsman Clyde Young was the architect behind the monument which was completed in 1920 (with a plaque for the war dead of 1939-45 subsequently added). The Peace Statue on the coast of East Sussex marks the boundary between two towns appropriately united as one city in modern times: Brighton and Hove.
Two very different kinds of transportation. Heavy horses are still used to deliver beer from the Wadworth Brewery in Devizes, Wiltshire. The Langeled pipeline (remember, the starting point for discussion of this article) takes gas from Nyhamna in Norway to Easington in County Durham, but it doesn’t get the same kind of reward
A nation defined by the written word. The father of written English (Geoffrey Chaucer) and the greatest Plain English writer of them all (George Orwell). Funnily enough, their greatest respective works both set the dramatic scene in April in the very first line – as is also the case with Robert Browning and TS Eliot
Because of what’s in a name. St George’s Island near Looe, Cornwall; the stunning interior of St George’s Hall, Liverpool
We could have chosen all number of sporting successes but it appealed to our imagination that two of the five or six most auspicious, England’s victory in the Rugby World Cup and Sir Steven Redgrave’s fifth gold medal in the 2000 Olympic Games, happened a few years apart and only a few miles away from one another (in spite of being some 10,600 miles from London) To paraphrase Rupert Brooke, there is a corner of a foreign playing field (or waterway) that is forever England
Two very different kinds of love story. Perhaps the two best such English tales on the big or small screen since 1945 concern the conflict of duty and desire. The couple in Brief Encounter opt for duty and presumably regret it forever; a happier resolution is afforded Dawn and Tim in The Office in 2003
The finale. The April 23rd birthday boy, still surely the most conspicuous and celebrated Englishman of them all, and some words by William Blake that have not stopped resonating over a period of more than 200 years
Looking for good reasons to celebrate. Playing English folk music on April 23rd this year as part of the weekly Greenwich Traditional Musicians Co-operative Tuesday session at the marvellous Lord Hood pub in Greenwich. The red tights fused some appropriate colours for the big day with the Shakespeare ‘men in tights’ ethos (indeed, a monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a song from Twelfth Night were delivered to this effect)