Monday 20 July 2015

Time to work out what it means to be English

“Dinner was announced soon after our arrival, which consisted of the following things,” writes the Rev James Woodforde describing his meal on 20 April 1796, in a diary which – in a very English way – lists the food in great detail but barely mentions God at all. Then he takes a deep breath and sets out the table before him:

“Salmon boiled & Shrimp Sauce, some White Soup, Saddle of Mutton rosted &c; Cucumber &c., Lambs Fry, Tongue, Breast of Veal ragoued, rice Pudding the best part of a Rump of Beef stewed immediately after the Salmon was removed. 2nd course. A Couple of Spring Chicken, rosted Sweetbreads, Jellies, Maccaroni, frill’d Oysters, 2 small Crabs, & made Dish of Eggs... We got home about half past nine, as we went very slowly on Account of Briton’s walking, who ... was very imprudent indeed, but I believe he had been making too free with Mr Mellishs Beer &c.”

There is a glimpse here, perhaps, of the soul of the English. We have a culture like a rummage sale, like a white elephant stall, hideously divided and bizarrely coherent – and, over the last century or so, obscured by an even more varied invention known as ‘Britishness’.

The British have a terrible reputation for cuisine, but the English have a different reputation: for over-indulgence, and plain, gargantuan portions.

That is the way the English used to eat, and I have a feeling they would do again, given the chance. There is a little of the over-indulgent eighteenth century in all of us. Perhaps not in our genes, there are so many people here – and always have been – from other parts of the world. 

With the best will in the world, there is no way they can share the particular mixed English genetic heritage. Nor is it quite the English environment and weather which we all share that shapes us all, because the weather has changed from the heat of the twelfth century to the frost fairs on the Thames of the eighteenth.

No, it must be something else – some other historical imperative, some psychic beating of the traditional heart of the land – perched on the far north west corner of Europe, peering out towards the west. Something shapes the English – it does not homogenise them, which would not be English at all – but it makes them stand out, whether they like it or not, whether they are from the back streets of Karachi or the tiny Jewish villages of old Poland. 

We can’t know what that is, but we can look at the flotsam and jetsam of history that amount to the whole, and maybe celebrate Englishness for what it is - not for the purity but the sheer diversity of it. In fact, it's rather important that we do, and I've had a go in my new book (out today), How to be English.

Ask yourself this - if you made a list of the 100 elements that make up English culture for you, what would you put in the ragbag?

In the meantime, if you are in Sussex on 23 July, come and join me to discuss it at the Steyning Bookshop...

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