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February 23, 2009

The Best Eleven Things About England: Lincoln Allison on why he could never live anywhere else

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison reflects on what it is about England which means that he would never want to permanently live anywhere else - and identifies the eleven things that make England the country it is.

Eight times in the last year I have arrived back in England, six of them at the airport and two of them on the boat. There won't be as many in the future unless the value of the pound improves. On each occasion I find myself wondering if any of my fellow passengers arriving are doing so for the first time. What does it look like if you have never seen it before? How does it differ from the pictures and the preconceptions?

Sometimes I find myself chatting to the Ex-Pat. He lives in Chiang Mai or Marin County or the Dordogne or some such place and he is visiting what he calls "the UK" to clear up some financial matter. And he never fails to tell you that he can't abide to be in the place for more than the absolute minimum of time because it depresses the hell out of him how it's gone downhill. Economically, socially, politically . . . . you name it. I never contest the point. I have a lot of experience of Ex-Pats and I have relatives all over the globe who fall into this category and I am well aware of a kind of mental burning of bridges which is necessary when you choose to live somewhere you don't belong.

But I do think about why I could never live permanently abroad and what I would say to the first-timers if they asked me the best things to do, which they never do. I don't want to be sidetracked into defending England - I think the food and the weather are a lot better than they're often made out to be, but nobody could seriously claim they are the best food or weather in the world. In the list that follows I am intent on developing claims about why it might be worth visiting our over-populated, crime-ridden, litter-strewn traffic jam of a demi-island and what might be better here than anywhere else:

In 11th place: London
One of the premises on which my entire life and career was based was the undesirability of living in London. I need to be able to walk out of my house into the tennis club and when my teeth or my car are mended I want the job to be done by somebody I actually know. And these things are freely available to someone who is reasonably sociable and prepared to stay his whole adult life in the same medium-sized town. They are not available in big cities.

But - to be fair - even though I can think of only two categories in which London could be said to be the best in the world (pubs and parks) it is a fine all-rounder of a city. Moscow has a better metro, St. Petersberg a better art gallery, Chicago much better modern buildings, Paris better restaurants, Edinburgh a better castle etc. But London is up there in every category. Not the best art galleries, but pretty damn good. Ditto orchestras. Not the most magnificent palaces, but not bad either. This is the case for London: that it is a very complete city. Which is why many well-travelled people do think it is the greatest city in the world, though they often find it difficult to justify their choice.

And it has that mysterious quality which is only rivalled, if at all, by New York and Paris, that it feels like a capital of the world, somewhere that everybody has to visit at some time.

I have no more desire to live in London than I ever did, but it is, for me as for foreign tourists and English provincials alike, a wonderful place to have just over the horizon. But when I am tired of it - pace Dr Samuel Johnson - I am not tired of life, but merely yearning for the train to pull out of Marylebone.

10th: Englishwomen/ladies/girls
There is a generic story about a film set where two leading actresses, one American and one English, are due to start work. The American arrives with her entourage and insists that her agent addresses all her co-workers on the ground rules of how she is to be addressed, when she can be approached and so on. Then, the English actress arrives . . . . and puts the kettle on.

This may be unfair on American actresses, but I think it does give credit to the norm of down-to-earth unstuffiness which guides English women in all classes except the dim nouveau riche. I am always suspicious of an Englishman who has married a foreigner, given what jolly good chaps most English ladies are. (Not condemnatory, of course: he may just have fallen in love with a very nice foreign lady. Just suspicious.)

At the very least, Englishwomen lack most of the cultural defects which are socialised into foreigners. Frenchwomen tend to be peasants or pretenders to bourgeois elegance - the two combined is a lethal combination. American and German women are often badly presented and highly ideological. East Asians are pathetically submissive, while South Asians vary between the cowed and the princessy. In Latin and Islamic cultures girls learn to be wary and manipulative.

In forty years of university teaching I concluded that English girls are the best of people: the most likely to be helpful if you are in difficulties (with a shy foreign student or with the arrangements for a field trip, for example), the least likely to make a fuss about anything, the least prickly and the most realistic in their self-assessment. ("Yes, that was a crap essay and the next one will be better" is something I've often heard from English girls, but rarely from anyone else.) One of the best groups I ever taught - the most enjoyable and rewarding - consisted of seven English girls and a chap who looked like a girl. He was far more interested in clothes than they were.

9th: Town and Country Planning
Sir Patrick Abercrombie's conception of town and country planning is widely abused and misunderstood: for example, "planners" are routinely blamed for the poor quality high rise housing developments of the 1960s, to which the Town and Country Planning Association was opposed with every fibre of its being. What counts as a "plan" has changed many times, but the abiding core of the idea is development control, a system of preventing building not in the public interest which has saved us from all kinds of bad things. Without it most of England would have been an American- or Australian-style megalopolis stretching from Brighton to Preston, though one must surmise that the more this developed the greater would have been the political demand for some kind of development control. And the coast of England, which was being steadily ruined in the period before 1939, would have experienced the kind of development which has despoiled continental coasts (a million new dwellings on the French coast during the 1990s, for instance).

Of course, this is isn't just planning; one must also give credit for the holiday industry which has allowed the English population to pursue its taste for the beach to a greater degree in Spain than in England. But you can walk for hundreds of miles along the coast of England with nothing but the seabirds and the crashing waves for company, which you might not have been able to do and which you can't elsewhere.

Crowded little England can offer you beautiful lakes free of the sort of grotty cabins which infest them in continental Europe and ranges of green hills and mountains in rather better condition than they were a hundred years ago.

Also towns - like the "Regency" town where I live - which were falling down when the system was instituted which have become smart and lively as economic activity has been concentrated into them. Of course, this process requires economic growth, but one of the conditions for such growth at the local level is some kind of certainty about the preservation of character.

Even apologists for the planning system are reluctant to take credit for some of its achievements. By creating an artificially restricted supply of building land it has inflated house prices and held the birth rate down. It has also thwarted a lot of socially pretentious materialists who want their own swimming pool and - in Mrs Bucket's immortal phrase - "room for a pony". Pleasingly, many of them have left the country.

The system has worked a good deal better outside the "coffin" - the rectangle of land bounded by London, Southampton, Liverpool and Leeds – than it has in it. Increasingly, it has worked a good deal better in "designated" areas (like National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Green Belts) than in undesignated areas. But that doesn't mean that it hasn't worked.

In fact, most people barely have a conception of its effect on their lives and this is compounded by the ignorance of the Southern English in particular about their own country. At the beginning of my planning course I used to give students Robin Best's very broad definition of "urban land" and asked them how much of England they thought fell into that category. The average of the answers was an amazing 70%. The real answer is less than 12% - and more than half of that is grass and trees.

8th: The (Elusive) Sense of Identity
The author A. N. Wilson has said that England is a place where nobody feels at home any more. Since Wilson is an intelligent and serious chap this is a thought to be taken seriously. But what does it mean? I could reply with the brutally Johnsonian, "Well I do". Or by pointing out how easily one might confuse changing identity with decaying identity with the perceptions of changing and decaying identity. But perhaps the most promising repost is to say that I, possibly like many other Englishmen and women, could only feel at home in a place where nobody feels at home.

"What is it that makes us English?" (Or "British" - and there the trouble starts.) If I had a pound for every time I've been asked to discuss this question on radio programmes I would be able to buy an expensive Nouvelle Anglaise meal. But I can't ever remember discussing the subject in a pub, which brings us to the parallel paradox to that stated above, which is that one of the things which makes us English is not giving a damn about what makes us English.

We aren't upset about the use of the term "British Isles" as an Irish guest in my house became. We have no equivalent to the trembling with rage that a Greek graduate student exhibited in one of my classes at the mention of Macedonia. We don't cry into our beer about the Malvinas or Kosovo and all the indications are that if one or two components of our sovereign state were to detach themselves - which they well might - the events would be treated the most profound apathy. We don't put our hand on our hearts and pledge allegiance nor do we stick up flags in our gardens other than during international sporting competitions. It isn't clear what a House Committee on Un-English Activities would do.

We don't have an ideological identity and we don’t have an ethnic one either. When nationalists were turning linguistic categories into racial groups in the nineteenth century we abandoned or ignored the nonsense that we were "Anglo-Saxons" a good deal more quickly than did the "Slavs", "Celts", "Teutons" et al. Quite rightly, too: serious biological evidence suggests that we are about 6% "Anglo-Saxon", a good deal less than we are "Romano-British". More than 25% of the English population regards itself as being of Irish origin, though this should not be taken too seriously because (as in the USA) some ethnic origins are clearly more fashionable and more readily remembered than others.

I once played for a rugby team in which everyone who wasn't Australian, South African etc seemed terribly English. Except that when you got talking to them they were Irish, Jewish, part-Burmese, Flemish, Huguenot, etc. I was the only person whose origins appeared to be English. And I'm a bit dodgy: swarthy, you know. Get asked the way in every country in the Mediterranean. Rumours about the Spanish Armada. Scratch an Englishman and you find something else. Or woman: I have become a fan recently of Sarah Moore-Peach who has the "breakfast" programme on Radio 3. "Sarah" speaks calmly and in sentences. She knows a lot about music. To wake up with "Sarah", radiophonically speaking, is to wake up in a better and more English world than is available with other radio stations. But the truly knowledgeable will have recognised that I am talking about Sara Mohr-Pietsch. So there you go.

The boundaries of Englishness disappear into a haze of hint and nuance, stretching to infinity. There is some sense of this in one of the most powerful expressions of English nationalism, Shakespeare's Henry V, not only in the pan-British introduction of Fluellen, McMorris and Douglas, but in the nature of Our Hero himself who is Welsh-born with Flemish connections and Norman-French ancestry. But he learned his street-wisdom in the Boar's Head Tavern.

The advantages of this lack of boundaries are that it allows the benefits of both cultural immigration and emigration. Jews, Indians and Afro-Caribbeans can be very English and are likely to know more about those great English complexities, cricket and Shakespeare, than do the elusive Anglo-Saxons.

Tourists to England are often and legitimately making a pilgrimage to something which is part of themselves. And I can feel at home, in different ways and to different degrees, in California, England, Italy, New Zealand etc. Of course, I am not alone: a rather obvious fact which is often forgotten is that the English diaspora is the greatest of all. On average in the twentieth century a third of a million people every year left England to settle elsewhere.

7th: Clubs and Grounds
In the pause created by the outgoing batsman leaving and his replacement arriving the young Indian bowler saunters over to me and puts his arm round my shoulder. The church clock strikes three. There probably will be honey for tea; jolly good jam, anyway. The steeple of the church is the only roof we can see (if steeples count as roofs) which is not thatched. For once the sun is shining. We are living in a cliché - except that the entire home team is comprised of taxi drivers of Asian extraction and my son and myself are the only Englishmen on our side. "My God, I love England" says my young companion.

He has a particular reason to love it. In no other country could we live out this fantasy: a proper league game, played in full whites on a grass wicket with tea provided. In all other cricket-playing countries you have to be part of a social or sporting elite to experience the real thing like this. Here, uniquely, it is available to everybody. You can play out a part on the idyllic, tree-lined greensward just because you choose to.

I have often thought of running tours to English clubs and grounds, just to relish the depth and variety of the whole thing. Turf Moor on a wet night, potato pie in hand. A South Coast County Championship game, with its population of schoolboys and pensioners. A weekday jumps meeting at Towcester. And the Big Time as well: the great natural amphitheatre of Cheltenham or the tenaciously traditional style of Wimbledon. In both cases you can feel that everybody is here today.

No other country gets close to this combination of depth, variety and intensity at its clubs and grounds. It has been remarked that I have a "stadium walk", a noticeable quickening and straightening of the gait as I approach a venue. I'm not the only one; when I die the most annoying thing (for me) will be the events I will miss by going wherever it is you go.

6th: Monarchy
Most English people are embarrassed or ambivalent where not actively hostile about living under a monarchy. This is because they haven’t a clue what monarchy is for. And that is because nobody tells them.

The most obvious advantage of having a monarch is that it automatically fills the post of head of state. This means that you avoid having either kind of president who exist in most other countries: 1. The executive president who is a party politician whom half the population can't stand. 2. The bland creep who has crawled his or her way up the greasy poll of approval. It is of great benefit to society that little children can be told that whatever they do they are not going to become head of state so that they can get on with something interesting or useful. Or both.

Democracy stinks. So do sewage works. Specifically, democracy stinks of a particular kind of psychopathology which manifests itself in desires for acclaim and power. However, both democracy and sewage processing are necessary. But they should not be dignified (to use Walter Bagehot's expression) with the trappings of metaphysical sovereignty. Dignification should go to less modern, more eternal, more risible things than mundane working politicians. You could, I suppose, have some kind of lottery for the position of head of state provided that the incumbent was chosen at birth. But why bother when you already have a monarch whose story is interlaced with your own - which is as true if you are Jewish or Indian or Afro-Caribbean or German as it is if you are "Anglo-Saxon".
Vivat Regina!

5th: The National Trust
It is difficult to criticise an organisation which sets out to buy up beautiful land and buildings by public prescription "forever, for everyone", especially when it succeeds to the tune of two thirds of a million acres and enough buildings to fill a 400-page brochure. Only a few rather mean-minded modernists and populists do manage to criticise the National Trust, usually on the grounds that it glorifies an aristocratic tradition and/or that it encourages a preoccupation with the past at some cost to the future. To which one can reply that we need the aristocratic tradition at least as a counterbalance to the illusions of the current age and (to misquote Samuel Becket) that the future will happen anyway and requires no encouragement.

Admittedly, under the influence of Lord Esher and James Lees-Milne in the mid-twentieth century the main function of the Trust became the purchase and maintenance of "stately homes" which was rather different from the provision of open space for the poor, which was the principal reason that Octavia Hill and others set up the Trust in 1895. But it was what needed doing at the time and many of the most successful organisations succeed by changing the purpose of their existence.

The high place of the trust in this list is assured by two achievements. The first is that the properties run by the Trust contrive to have the atmosphere of an alternative universe, much as American National Parks do at their best. You turn off the road into a Trust property and you are in an "other", day-off, kind of place where time works differently.

And, second, many Trust properties go some way to compensating for the very sad decline of the English tea shop: there, as nowhere else, you can still find a nice pot of tea and a homemade scone and cake or two.

4th: The Home Service
An English daymare: sitting in a traffic jam on the M6 in the company of one's elderly mother for six and a half hours. Only one thing can save the situation and it is BBC Radio 4, the current official name of the Home Service. A play so imaginative and eccentric that you would never come across its like on television or the stage. A sublimely silly panel game. The oldest soap opera in the world. A discussion of "the environment" which is uniquely calm and informed. A series of reports on parts of the world which are not in the news. Only on the Home Service is this varied and intellectual diet available.

And if you happen to have concluded that your compatriots are by and large a bunch of ignorant prats it is good to remind yourself that 10% (and rising) of them listen to Radio 4.

The BBC is based on the increasingly indefensible principal that if you consume the product called television at all you must pay a fixed fee to cover the Corporation's output irrespective of whether it is their product that you want.

But a compromise is surely possible: get the BBC out of television, which is a relentlessly silly and shallow medium, and maintain high quality radio as the only subsidised medium. There are more interesting things said in half an hour on Radio 4 than in half a year on most television stations. In any case more person hours are spent listening to radio in England than are spent watching television: this became true again in 2007. Radio takes up around 29% of the BBC's expenditure.

Of course not all of Radio 4 has the Home Service virtues as described; in particular, the news, politics and current affairs component doesn't as it consists of journalists and politicians talking. And some of Radio 4's virtues can be found elsewhere, on parts of the World service and Radio 3.

3rd: Beer
At the time of writing it is widely estimated that an average of six pubs close every day in England. There are plenty left, though it is difficult to say how many because the legal concept, which generates hard facts, is "licensed premises" and that includes places which are recognisably clubs or restaurants. In academic terms the concept of "pub" is problematic and when you see the encouraging initials PH on an Ordnance Survey map you don't know what you are getting: it may turn out to be a "gastropub" or a kind of youth club in disguise or a place where people pay exploitative prices for ice-cold substances in order to watch television channels they would otherwise have to pay for.

Thus I could not in all conscience include "pubs" as one of the best things about England. What I really mean is places where people drink beer, English beer, the real thing, a living substance which warms and cools at the same time and is infinitely varied and never served too cold. A couple of pints of the stuff are miraculously catalystic in allowing your friend to tell you about the new lady companion he has been so secretive about or your son to explain his financial circumstances.

2nd: Theatre
In the middle period of our lives the experience of theatre went something like this: dash home, trying to time it just after the worst of the traffic. Grab sandwich. Pace around waiting for babysitter. Drive twenty minutes to Stratford. Find parking space, run to theatre. Catnap briefly. Wake up in Verona or Venice or the Boar's Head. Irritated or entranced by production. Argue about it over chips on the way home. Read the programme in bed largely to verify which actors we had seen in which films and television - this is known as "'im off/'er off" syndrome.

When my parents took me to the theatre in the 1950s they warned me to enjoy it because it would soon die, killed by film and television. Happily, this particular piece of progress never happened and English theatre has thrived. It is anything but a capital city phenomenon. My experience of choosing between the Warwick University Arts Centre and the Royal Shakespeare Company - each of which has had up to three productions on at times - as well as the normal range of provincial theatre may be unusually privileged, but live performance is available all over England. And English theatre is a very broad church: pantomime, musicals, contemporary, classical, productions for those who love the English language and some those who barely speak it.

Since retiring I have discovered matinees which vie with County Championship cricket matches as the friendliest events to attend. If I were looking for a rich widow . . . . but I'm not.

Theatre is the germ and transcendent motif of much English life. Its graduates disperse into radio, television and global cinema, only to return later. Its ideas move away into other fields. The little half hour plays which Lancashire music halls used to put on to amuse their audiences became sit-coms, though you could argue that Merry Wives of Windsor is the first sit-com. The "Smokers" that undergraduates put on became a global genre of sketch and satire. Playwrights become scriptwriters, theatre directors move into cinema. Theatre is the supreme English expression and not to appreciate English theatre or England-as-theatre would be like going to Italy and not noticing any buildings, paintings or sculptures.

And the winner is . . . . Footpaths
We were walking in the Andes recently. The sky was blue, the land was vast: snow-capped mountains rose out of a semi-desert. My wife was excited about the very idea of walking in the Andes, how wonderfully exotic and adventurous it sounded and how she never thought it was anything we would do.

And then we became bored. The trouble with elemental landscapes is that they are samey - for mile after mile. The most interesting thing was the colours of the rocks. And, in a theoretical kind of way, the sheer size of everything. I looked at a scree slope a few miles away and calculated that it would take me more than a day just to get up the slope. And my imagination began filling out the land with some features: some dry stone walls or, perhaps, hedges, a stately home with parkland around it, a herd of deer, a copse with some pheasants squawking around in it, a small orchard with sheep grazing under the trees, a thatched pub, a choice of paths to argue about. We had been away from England long enough to feel homesick.

I have many excellent days walking in countries like the United States and Australia, but it's never quite the same as walking on an ancient path through a complex and dense countryside. Such countryside exists in only a few parts of Western Europe and, proportionately, there is more of it in England than anywhere else.

To an almost laughable degree William Wordsworth in his Guide to the Lakes (original edition 1810) insists on the superiority of the mountains in what is now Cumbria to the Alps. The latter are "jagged" and "vulgar", lacking the intimacy and delicate beauty of the English mountains.

Moreover, the Alps are too big, beyond the proper scale for walking. (It was, after all, to be more than another half century before Edward Whymper and his companions scaled the Matterhorn – and most of them died on the way down.) Wordsworth is writing before the incorporation of mountaineering into the imperial masculinity “because it’s there” project which made size and danger good things. He is looking on the mountains as a source of aesthetic pleasure and spiritual stimulation. And he is surely right that the English countryside is created on a human scale, offering the immediate escape and the spontaneous adventure to the unorganised traveller.

It also has the greatest network in the world of rights of way, bridleways and footpaths. The longest of these, the South West Coast path, is 600 miles long. There are approximately 140,000 miles of paths altogether. This is a small country for a person in an automobile, but it offers every kind of possibility and adventure if you are on foot. By comparison, I felt curiously claustrophobic when I lived in California; there were beautifully organised parks we could drive to, but I lacked the sense of freedom that comes with a map and a stile and an effectively infinite network of paths. I felt the same sense of claustrophobia in 2001 when the countryside was quarantined because of foot and mouth disease and the stiles were taped up.

Of course, there are probably people who visit England who never go for a walk or go to a theatre or drink real beer etc. Not to mention people who live here. Which is all very sad. But there were probably people in Athens in the fifth century BC who couldn't stand oratory and who didn't see the point of philosophy or athletics. And if I could persuade one person to try one new thing writing articles would be worth it.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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As a non-Englander living in England, I agree with most of this - I also wish the English themselves would value these things more.

You might also have mentioned how attractive English women are! It strikes after every foreign trip I take, starting with the check-in queue for the return flight.

Posted by: Yaffle at February 25, 2009 10:09 AM

English place names and church bells.

Posted by: lma at February 26, 2009 12:45 PM
I also wish the English themselves would value these things more.

Yaffle, it pains me also, especially the way they don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan. They helped to keep our politicians in their place, while we know what Wagner did for the Germans.

However, Dr Allison, when you say

East Asians are pathetically submissive

over what domain (to borrow a term from mathematics) are you doing your analysis? Do you engage with them outside the classroom? Certainly, in the academic environment one may encounter a traditional Confucian respect for the teacher. If you had been able to observe your students at a party where they formed the large majority, you would find that they can argue forcefully. I don’t know other East Asian languages so well, but when it comes to arguing, Cantonese is a “blunt instrument” and Mandarin is a “sharp instrument”.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 26, 2009 06:36 PM
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