This is a partisan, personal list, and we may disagree on some or all of it – but politely, as if over cups of tea and slightly limp cucumber sandwiches at a summer fete in the country.
When I was little I lived overseas for a couple of years, and one of my first and most vivid memories of coming back to the UK was of the TV being turned on in the living-room and stuttering into life. Yogi Bear! In English! It was such a treat to see telly in my own language. That’s when I really knew I was home.
And British telly *is* pretty good, no? Special mention here to the BBC – when’s Poldark coming back?
2. It’s home.
Back in the UK, a six-year-old girl at the beginning of the long summer holidays, I was a little lonely perhaps, but happy: on the swing in the garden, washing and pegging out all my dolls’ clothes, walking along with one foot on the pavement and the other on the road.
I’d like to travel rather more than I have (I haven’t used my passport since 2004, ahem), but I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. Actually, I’d be quite happy to spend the rest of my life in Abingdon. Bury me in a corner of an English field, or rather scatter my ashes, (not yet awhile though please), to paraphrase Rupert Brooke:
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam…
3. Language, literature, books, the sound of spoken English.
English is a malleable, stretchy, melting-pot language, a glorious mishmash of traces, inventions, leftovers and borrowings, like a falling-down town with ancient stuff buried underneath its foundations and skyscrapers snaking their way up to the light.
I love that Shakespeare just made up loads of words. Incarnadine? Why not!
Though the greats always look back as well as forwards. Auden’s The Wanderer opens with a homage to Middle English: ‘Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.’
See George Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn for some brilliant stuff about ‘something distinctive and recognizable in English civilisation’, ‘a culture as individual of that of Spain’: ‘somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes’. OK, so that’s about Englishness in particular and this is not, but he puts the kind of thing I mean a million times better than I could. ‘The suet puddings and the red pillarboxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.’
4. Humour and irony.
The Goon Show, ‘Allo ‘Allo!, Blackadder, The Office, The Mighty Boosh, The Day Today, Stewart Lee… take your pick.
Here’s the end of Stevie Smith’s The Hostage:
Well I don’t you know, said the lady, then aware of something comical
Shot him a look that made him feel uncomfortable
Until he remembered she came from the British Isles,
Oh, he said, I’ve heard that’s a place where nobody smiles.
But they do, said the lady, who loved her country, they laugh lke anything
There is no one on earth who laughs so much about everything.
Well I see, said the Father, the case is complicated.
I will pray for you, Daughter, as I pray for all created
Meanwhile, since you want to die and have to, you may go on feeling elated.
5. Tea and a slap-up fry-up
Ironically (see 4) one of the best slap-up fry-ups I ever had was in New Zealand, and boy, did it remind me of home (see 2.)
6. Gentleness (especially towards children and animals)
Not for nothing did Dickens, who knew how to work a heart-string, have Oliver Twist ask for more, and Bill Sikes mistreat his rather horrible cur.
Now, I know this point is debatable (like all these points, like any point), especially as, historically, the English in particular had an awful reputation on the Continent for cane-crazed schoolmasters. Our laws on corporal punishment were pretty shonky right up until the 90s, when they were shaken up by the distressing case of an eight-year-old boy who had been beaten by his mother’s partner with a three-foot garden cane. Under UK law this was judged to be ‘reasonable chastisement’. The case went to the good old European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1998 that it wasn’t reasonable after all, and forced a review of UK law. (Here’s the European Convention on Human Rights – a fine list of fundamental freedoms, in my view – including the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.) There was a predictable hoo-ha in the newspapers, which turned the consultation on how best to amend UK law to protect children into a fuss about how the Labour nanny state wanted to criminalise parents for smacking their kids (it didn’t – but never let the facts get in the way of a good story).
I remember this case because I was working for Nursery World at the time and reported on it. There was a potential impact for childminders, in terms of whether they would be allowed to smack children they were looking after (this was finally banned in 2003).
Gentleness. It’s a fine quality. I bet Robin Hood’s sidekick Little John (who of course was not little) was gentle. With animals and children, when not sorting out baddies with his quarterstave.
Primarily, but not exclusively, of the popular sort.
8. Individualism, eccentricity, anti-authoritarianism, inventiveness.
I do not think we (we=the residents of the UK, in all our various glory) are instinctively an especially deferential bunch. Perhaps it is the luxury of long-ago Habeas Corpus that gives us the freedom to be relatively unafraid, and to nurture a certain scepticism about the competence of those in positions of authority. Especially when enjoying the freedom to speak our minds, in or out of the privacy of our own homes.
The UK is a big place in a small space. Soft rain on Welsh hills, Cornish palm trees, the vistas of Oxfordshire, the spine of the railway line that rattles you up to Scotland: and London, home to the Mother of all Parliaments.
Here’s the end of Rosemary Tonks’ poem Farewell to Kurdistan:
… Life is large, large!
… I shall lie off your loaf of shadows, London;
I admit it, at the last.
I love to be on the top deck of a London bus/in a taxi going through London at night/on the South Bank/in a London pub/oh, I could go on and on…
10. The weather.
In particular, the skies. It’s a good land for clouds.
PS. Not that it’s directly relevant – given that it’s not a referendum about whether you love your country or not – but I’ll be voting for the UK to stay in the European Union. I know a fair few who won’t, though. Fair play. Am not going to get steamed up about it. Most of us want the same things, the world over: peace, decent houses, schools, roads, healthcare and working conditions, and a safety net. As Jo Cox said, more unites us than divides us. We just sometimes disagree about how to get there. Hopefully we’ll muddle through whatever happens, and if not, well, see you in the workhouse, where no doubt we’ll be assembling gismos for multinational corporations.
Maybe one of these days I’ll get round to writing a blog post about why I love Europe. Because I do, even if I haven’t left the UK since 2004. (Just as well I’m happy here.)
PPS. Probably if you go back far enough almost all of us have a few refugee ancestors. Mine include some French Huguenots who settled in Spitalfields, I believe. It’s all a bit hazy, though.
PPPS. The European Convention on Human Rights took inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt played a huge part in getting drafted and agreed and which Pope John Paul II called ‘one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time’. Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy also includes one of my favourite quotes, which is commonly attributed to her: ‘A woman is like a tea bag; you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.’
PPPPS. I forgot the NHS!