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February 06, 2006

ICONS: A Portrait of England - Harry Phibbs asks, why does a government-sponsored website seek to eulogise many of those aspects of English life that this government has sought to banish?

Posted by Harry Phibbs

ICONS: A Portrait of England

ICONS is a government-sponsored website which seeks to identify and celebrate those cultural markers which together make up Englishness. Many of the things which the site celebrates - such as fox hunting - are, however, things that this government has sought to banish. Harry Phibbs enjoys the irony.

To many of us, this must seem one of the least patriotic governments our country has ever had. After all we have a Prime Minister whose stated ambition was to abolish our national currency. But it is also a government that likes gimmicks and spending money and they have backed a new website venture ICONS: A Portrait of England,

Culture Minister, David Lammy launched the initiative. It lists 325 nominations for Icons with a liberal sprinkling of celebrity endorsements. Without any sense of irony many of the icons celebrated in this New Labour endorsed website are things the Government is seeking to banish. When I looked the most popular was fox hunting.

The commentary acknowledges that "the subject divides the nation" but adds that:

hunting foxes with hounds has a long tradition in England – the earliest recorded attempts taking place in Norfolk in 1534. Today, there are many pubs with names such as "The Fox and Hounds" that provide a further cultural echo. Fox-hunting terminology has also made its way into day-to-day speech, with phrases like "Parliamentary whip" and "casting about" stemming from the sport.
Among the other icons on the list that are under threat is the English Countryside, nominated by the actress June Whitfield. The commentary declares:
A place of timeless beauty, unsullied by modern life. Our countryside has so many different faces, packed into a small geographical area – as Shakespeare said, a "precious stone set in a silver sea".
Moving down the list we see the red telephone box. Worthy of inclusion but now scarce on the ground. Only after many had been destroyed did we wake up to their aesthetic merit and start slapping preservation orders on the few that remain.

Then we have the pub, the bobby on the beat, the policeman's helmet, the sit com Dad's Army, the milk round, the English sense of humour, Habeas Corpus. So many of these are dead or under attack.

The Book of Common Prayer is included with this endorsement:

The Book of Common Prayer contains the prayers, liturgy and rites used in the Anglican Church and sets out a format for worship throughout the year.
If only it were true. Finding an Anglican Church that uses the Prayer Book is a major investigative challenge. Similarly in a pre-selected A-List of 12 icons here is the King James Bible:
Many turns of phrase and speech patterns still in use today derive from the King James Bible: "the apple of his eye", "a labour of love" and "by the skin of his teeth", to name just three.
Quite so. Just don't expect to hear such phrases in a typical modern Anglican Church service.

Most ironic of all is the inclusion on the A-List of the Routemaster bus. This is indeed one of most distinctive national symbols. But the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone has banished it from the streets of our capital despite its huge popularity and a specific election pledge to save it. The website trills away:

The end of 2005 saw the last Routemaster buses taken out of service, after almost half a century on London's roads – so what better time to explore their story, and to ask what the future may hold?
It would have been an even better time if they had been saved.

Never mind, you can still travel about the capital in a black cab:

London prides itself on having the best taxi service in the world. Its Austin black cabs are an instantly recognisable part of the landscape of the road (although not all of them are black). Officially known as the hackney carriage, from an old French word "hacquenée", denoting an all-purpose nag, they began as a set of fewer than 20 horse-drawn carriages in the early 17th century. By Cromwell's time, there were 200, and cab-driving had become a fully fledged profession. So professional has the job traditionally remained that all London cabbies are still expected to acquire the Knowledge, a famously difficult back-of-the-hand familiarity with the complete A-Z of the capital.
But the black cabs are in decline with the average age of cabbies increasing alarmingly.

It would be wrong to say the story is of unremitting decline. Real Ale is quite properly included. The quality of bitter sold in our pubs has improved greatly since the 1970s, thanks to the Campaign for Real Ale, one of the most successful pressure groups of modern times. Many of our architectural landmarks are in a better state of repair than those in other capital cities - such as Moscow. St George is there too. His cross is rather more prominently displayed these days than in previous years as English football supporters and others have discovered there is a difference between being British and being English.

An icon is defined in my dictionary as "an important and enduring symbol". So valid English Icon are bound to have traditional resonance. But given the news about Cool Britannia input into this project there is inevitably the jarring inclusion of items that are modern, culturally diverse, etc. For instance we have the Notting Hill Carnival. You might, or might not, enjoy going to it, but it's not really an iconic English occasion. It's a second rate imitation of much better street festivals in Latin America and the Caribbean. Oh yes. We also have "chicken tikka masala" beloved of Robin Cook. Groan.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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Take a look at the Welsh Icons site at

This site was setup without any tax payers money!

Posted by: Dom at August 2, 2006 09:18 AM
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