England, a Love Letter

England. I want to say something about England (as if the naming of a place could ever account for its rich complexity).

As we head towards a tragic crash out from the EU, so much current chat I hear in Scotland and Ireland is obviously both incredulous and despairing, while acknowledging a truth about Brexit being a crisis of identity and political representation in England. And that it would seem, is a big part of it.

That rich complexity of England (its cities and shires) has been and continues to be ill served and ill represented by Westminster democracy, pretty much since feudal times (the 1945 Labour government is the exception that proves the rule). Among the many things that Brexit is. It must be this too. A howl of English anger. At its unrepresentative democracy. At first past the post and gerrymandered constituency democracy, which is as never changing as pond water. And yet, though these are probable causes, they remain unspoken. Unarticulated. Brexit being their lightening rod.

I also do need to say how much England means to me.
My own personal connection.
The very dear family and friends from England.
My own grandmother being a Portsmouth girl.
It’s towns, cities, countryside and of course it’s people
I’ve been a fortunate beneficiary of English wit, warmth, and generosity
Their sense of fair play.
Open mindness (much more than the Ireland I grew up in the 80s).
The casual diversity of England.
In their local accents.
In the range of ethnicities that are now all English.
I have spent significant time in a only few of its cities (Leeds and Newcastle in particular).
And I have loved those cities.

England and English culture is a huge chunk of my life. I owe it a huge debt. It’s made me laugh tears Les Dawson to Python to Stanshall.

It’s filled my head with Byron to Greene to Orwell to Priestley. And so many more writers too numerous to name.

And then there’s the incredible music. Beatles. Zeppelin. Pistols. Sandy Denny. Floyd. Smiths. Ian Dury, Roses. Straits. Prefab Sprout. Massive Attack. Supergrass. Again far far too many to even begin to account for. I’m sure we all have our own lists and favourites. No doubt we could all argue and agree on other completely different lists.

And all this is but a sliver of England’s great richness.

I grew up in the West of Ireland obsessed with English football. That’s where the best Irish players went. Brady. Stapleton. McGrath. But enough of them. Who else knew Brian Marwood played for Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday? (and; by the way, what a fantastic name for a team). I did. Because I had a poster of him on my wall in both kits pulled out of Match and Shoot. I didn’t even support either team (and who the hell is Brian Marwood anyway?)

I dreamed, as many boys do, of scoring the winning goal in an FA Cup final (I still do!).

I still remember the excitement of my friend’s Dad trying to catch the English signal. The TV full of ghost shadow from the fuzzy black and white TV pictures. And every so often the 1985 Manchester derby would emerge from the snow, and maybe if we were lucky a flicker of colour in the kits .

An Irishman up on the roof, braving the Rod Hull legacy before poor Rod Hull, adjusting a primitive aerial as we shouted out the window to acclaim every flicker of colour.

Even flickering images from that same aerial of Saturday’s Late Late Breakfast show on the BBC with Noel Edmonds (I know, I know!) seemed so incredibly exciting. A world like ours, but not.

England. Always close. But also exotic.

So yes, this isn’t some patronising pat on the head for my English friends and family, I make no apologies for loving modern England and it’s culture.

Of course there’s the Empire stuff, and that’s still problematic in the suppression of native cultures in Ireland, Scotland and Wales; but it should be noted that many Scots, Irish and the Welsh were also beneficiaries and partners in that dubious imperial enterprise.

And now England appears to be on the verge of some kind of retreat from it’s best bits, even temporarily.

But as it does, to contemplate England’s absence is to appreciate how much amazing culture it’s responsible for. How much it has given. A hugely rich cultural history far in excess of its size as a country. England is an inspiring place. Full of inspired people.

However, I do have one fond wish.

A wish that schools and popular media in England would focus on this rich vein of culture and history, (a bit on Irish and Scottish history is also very necessary) rather than, as it seems, anglo-centric empire, monarchy and the world wars. Stuff that quite frankly (from recent events) is clearly not being taught or understood with any kind of critical eye.

Coming from Ireland, I can reflect on our turbulent history (often with England); that countries can’t move forward into the future, if they don’t properly understand or appreciate their past. Good and bad. And sometimes things in the murky grey.

England just needs to know how truly great it is, without having to always dig out the Empire tropes, or Churchill, or the two world wars and one world cup stuff.

But I cannot bash England. Because Westminster isn’t England The Queen isn’t England. BBC Question Time isn’t England. News from the England camp isn’t England
Neither is May, Johnson, Rees Mogg, Or Stephen Yaxley Lennon.

England is and will always be worth so much more than all of that.


Comments (31)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Eman says:

    Fine. But this seems to be all about men – no women amongst those great English authors, comedians, musicians, media figures?

    1. Robbie says:

      Westminster isn’t England, but who votes them in then.

      1. Bruce McQuillan says:

        All of us: English, Northern Irish, Scottish, Welsh.

        1. William Habib Steele says:

          No! The Tories would get in without the Scottish, English and Northern Irish vote. The English vote them in!

          1. Bruce McQuillan says:

            The issue wasn’t who votes for the conservative party, the question being addressed was who votes for Westminster.

          2. Bruce McQuillan says:

            …and if as you said “The Tories would get in without the Scottish, English and Northern Irish vote…” then who would vote them in ? The Welsh ?

            Furthermore, the only reason that the Conservatives are in power at the moment is because of a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP who are from Northern Ireland so your argument simply doesn’t stack up.

    2. SJD says:

      Sandy Denny was female.

    3. Chris Connolly says:

      Here are a few: Mary Wollstonecraft, Sylvia Pankhurst, Emily Davison, Ellen Wilkinson, Caroline Lucas, Judith Hart, Alice Mahon, Peggy Duff, Rosalind Franklin, Glenda Jackson, Emma Kirkby, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Ann Evans, Dora Carrington, Tirzah Garwood, Clarice Cliff, Stevie Smith, Andrea Dunbar, Jessica Ennis, Nicola Adams, Margaret Rutherford, Joan Sims, Juliet Stevenson, Alice Nutter, Maxine Peake, Amy Johnson, lots of other obvious ones I’ve forgotten plus millions of doctors, psychiatrists, midwives, nurses, teachers, social workers, machinists, shop workers, cleaners, lollipop & dinner ladies, ambulance crews, carers, kind-hearted people & good friends.

      Nice article, Cormac.

  2. Liz Summerfield says:

    I totally agree with every word (except for the obsession with football). England has been much kinder to me professionally than Scotland ever has – I couldn’t get a decent job in Scotland from the late ’70s onwards, because the Scots seem to think that home-grown talent (in the Arts, at least) isn’t as good as exotic foreigners (I include English in this catch-all) but the best and most satisfying contracts I have ever had in my career have been in England. I encountered little anti-Scottish prejudice, and when I was working for Cambridge Festival, the city council was practically run by Scots. I wish I could say the same for anti-English prejudice in Scotland. My man’s an SNP-voting English/Irish/Scots mongrel, and he reckons he gets a lot of prejudice because of his public-school educated English accent. Working in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Northumberland, I found that the locals sided with Scots against Southern English bias, so it’s not just Scotland that suffers from this.

    1. Wul says:

      ” ….he gets a lot of prejudice because of his public-school educated English accent. ”

      Liz, It’s probably not because he is English, more that his accent is a symbol and reminder of class, power, privilege and dominion over others less wealthy than he. Which , lets face it, is why people send their weans to public school in the first place. Gives them “a good start in life and the best contacts”.

      Yes, it is prejudice. He is being judged by his accent before people get to know him. This will also work in his favour in the right circles.

      1. Wul says:

        I think this is a complex thing for Scots to communicate to English people.

        I love the landscape, people and culture of England. I love my London-born cousins and revel in their accents, culture and stories when we meet at weddings & funerals.
        However, the sense of entitlement and assumed “normallacy” that some (just some) English people demonstrate can be a powerful irritant to a people low in self esteem and confidence.

        It feels sometimes as if the “posh, English” person carries his own country and culture around with him like a picket fence, even when visiting other lands, and views the locals somehow as foreigners, when it is he, himself who is the tourist. “Ehm sorry, eh caahnt unduhstand yoah exhent”.

        I’m not expressing myself very well and it upsets me to hear English people say they felt less than welcome in Scotland. That somehow Scottish Independence is fuelled by a hatred of the English. I don’t feel any hatred towards English people, it’s just that some of the things, that some of them say are really annoying.

        (And Scots can be really annoying too…we are all Brits abroad sometimes)

  3. Chisa says:

    All countries have heroes and heroines but also all countries have a….oles. The combination of social media and the EU referendum have,in a manner of speaking, given 52% of the English a collective and loud podium from which to evacuate their effluent not only over themselves but over the rest of our islands. No number of heroes or heroines can excuse them their current excesses. It’s their right to discharge what they want in their own back yard, but the Irish and the Scots should get out as soon as is practical. Maybe even the Welsh will seek to untie the bonds of the Kipperdom of little England.

  4. Jack Welch says:

    This is why I love Bella Caledonia. The opportunity to read considered opinion and and observation together (generally) with equally interesting and thought provoking comments.
    Rock on BC you and your contributors are making a difference to how we think.

  5. David H says:

    I waited fully expecting the mention of the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

  6. Dougie Blackwood says:

    As a young man in the middle 60s I spent 18 months in London. I was one of the many young Scots taken to London by a civil service that could not recruit enough Londoners to fill the basic drone jobs that were prevalent at the time. My memories of that experience will live with me to my dying day.

    I was given directions to get to a hostel where accommodation had been arranged but told to get off the tube at Goloucester Rd rather than South Kensington. As you would do at home I asked the way. The man that I asked said nothing but ran away! My first month’s pay was £28 of which I paid out fully half for the next month’s accommodation. The job was in the PO savings bank and was like a production line. A more senior drone counted my work and complained that i wasn’t working fast enough. I left that job and went to work in a sales office where i sat with two stupid English girls that delighted in misunderstanding my fairly light Scots accent.

    I made some English friends from their provinces in my time at the hostel but generally found the place dispiriting and oppresive.

    Do you remember the Caledonia ad for Tennants, that was me, i packed up and came home. On Tuesday my wife and had a day in London and that same ad came back to mind as we crushed our way on to the tube. I suspect little has changed since my time there. London is not England but it was enough to ensure I would never live in the south again.

    1. Grant MacPhail says:

      Dito – Know that feeling well!

      London serves London, nothing or no one else!

  7. Calum McDonald says:

    Fine words, but you can’t hide the contempt or ignorance of wide sections of the English nation.

    Brexit was the result of a major part of England acting like turkeys and voting for Christmas, led by elites who told them the Polish plumber and French gynaecologist were their enemies. Working class English out with metropolitan areas bought into this nonsense, hook, line and sinker! To validate this point they are still in denial despite what has transpired since June 16.

    You can muse as much as you want about Newton, Zeppelin or Billy Shakespeare, I want nothing to do with these utter fools and the privileged scum who have set their internal clocks to self destruct!

    I do understand where you are coming from in writing this article, but, there comes a time when you call a spade a spade! I am so glad that the Irish Government and people recognise this, for them it’s not The Beatles were brilliant, it’s, it”s 2019, the uk will pay for its foolish actions not us. Scotland should follow suit!

    Scotland outside the EU, run by right wing English nationalistic nuts, will be a desert, time for Scots to act now!

    1. Chris Connolly says:

      A study in 2017 found that Scots abuse alcohol far more, per head, than the English or the Welsh, but that doesn’t make it fair to characterise Scottish people as a nation of drunks, any more than the stupidity of a lot of working class English people voting to sacrifice their own jobs out of xenophobia makes it OK to tar the whole of England with the same brush.

      As someone who lived for far too long in the North of England please be assured that, in general, the folk of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Northumbria have no more love for the South East than the Scots, and for very similar reasons relating to class, media domination and allocation of wealth & opportunities. What the regions of England lack is the historic comradeship that unites the Scottish people, since, for example, Yorkshire (which has roughly the same population as Scotland) has never been an independent nation. If they had, perhaps fewer Tykes would have voted Leave and they might instead be planning their own Indy referendum.

      1. Dougie Blackwood says:

        Your right, of course. We are fortunate that the Scottish government has at least some control over what goes on here. The provinces in England are in a terrible place; they have no control and no lifeboat. They are stuck with their capital hoovering up all the resources and best people. Nobody cares a lot about what is happening north of a line from the Wash to Bristol. That is why we have Brexit, an opportunity to kick against the pricks.

        1. Wul says:

          I think you are right Dougie. Brexit was a chance to disrupt the status quo and for poor white people to demonstrate their anger at being excluded from social mobility.

          Sad, then, that the result will give untrammelled power to even more elite elites to exploit the working men and women of north England. ( and Scotland, Wales & N.I.)

  8. Richard Easson says:

    I’m sure Hugh MacDiarmid would have enjoyed this article.

  9. John Barr says:

    This ‘feel guilty for the past and being white’ trope has been imported from America, where Caucasian self-castigation and self-loathing is all the rage. It’s disgraceful.

  10. William Habib Steele says:

    I consider myself a multicultural, multi-ethnic, internationalist Scot. I was born and grew up in Scotland, born of an Irish father and Scottish mother. I have two sisters born in England, a son who is Scottish-Canadian, a daughter-by-marriage who is Korean, and three grandchildren who are Korean-Scottish-Canadian. They have three nationalities. I’ve lived, studied, and worked in 6 countries on 4 continents and am now living in a seventh. I l admire the culture of every country in which I’ve lived. Scotland is my home, and I long for the independence of my home country. I regret that my appreciation of England is a bit discoloured by the anti-Scottish jokes to which I’ve been subject by English acquaintances in the various countries in which I’ve lived, and by their assumption that Great Britain is England and England is Great Britain. I studied English literature at University and I admire what I read. Intellectually I appreciate this love-letter to England, but emotionally, it leaves me cold.

    1. Chris Connolly says:

      Did you ever come across any Catholic/Protestant sectarianism in England, William? I’m guessing not, because in all the years I lived in England nobody ever asked me what religion I am, nor did having an Irish surname ever cause me a problem for a second. When we are patting ourselves on the back and considering how superior we are to those South of Gretna that’s something we ought to consider.

      The English people let themselves down sometimes but at least they don’t let the Wee Frees dictate who they can have sex with or what they are allowed to do on a Sunday; nor do they sing in praise the IRA or celebrate the Battle of the Boyne in order to bait opponents at and around their football grounds. I love living here and I love the beautiful country of Scotland but there are some areas of the country where folk still seem to be living in the 19th century.

      1. kate says:

        I have read that sectarianism exists in Liverpool where people want to know if you are catholic or protestant.

      2. William Habib Steele says:

        I’m not claiming that Scots are superior to the English. I simply expressed sorrow at the English put downs and expressions of superiority I’ve experienced. I feel rather embarrassed about claims that in any way Scotland can be an example to the rUK or the world, or be a beacon. If we can be an example and beacon to ourselves with all our faults we’ll be doing well!

        1. Dougie Blackwood says:

          I’m reluctant to put my toe into these murky waters.

          There used to be strong anti-catholic sentiment in Scotland but in my belief it is now much reduced. 100 years ago it was necessary that sectarian schools were set up to provide equality in education
          These days have gone.

          You still get the big drums going round now and again but they are put away most of the time. At the football one side shouts at the other then on Monday they work happily together.

          Trouble continues because, at the age of 5 we teach children that they are different from their former playmates. The grow up separately and that fosters tribalism.

          Please do not think I am getting at one tradition. This is the ingrained response to arguments such as these. I come with family connections on both sides and have no axe to grind.

      3. W T Low says:

        When my father (born in Glasgow, raised in Aberdeenshire) returned to Glasgow at 21, he encountered sectarianism for the first time. In Aberdeenshire, schools had mixed populations of all religions. Interestingly, sectarianism exists in Liverpool. Historically Liverpool and Glasgow were the two cities that attracted large numbers of Irish immigrants in the late 19th century. The tensions were initially caused ( same argument used today) by alleged downward pressure on wage rates.

        My mother, child of Lithuanian immigrants also experienced sectarianism – although Catholic, to the mainly Irish extraction population of the part of Glasgow where she was raised, she and her family were’f***ing Poles’. In her case, the support that she got from her Protestant neighbours was very helpful and often saved the family from starvation.

        As a child of a ‘mixed marriage’ I have seen the religious intolerance from both sides. In over 10 years living in England, I never met such intolerance.

        As far as the present is concerned Inequity exacerbated by Tory Austerity has fuelled a blaze of intolerance in England that beggars belief. Farage, Johnson and Gove with May’s ‘hostile’ environment to immigrants have created a hateful environment with all the attendant problems of rising hate crime and intolerance. After a disastrous Brexit, whom shall we blame? Better for Scotland to be separate and able to resolve our own dilemmas without Westminster interference.

      4. Gercon says:

        In my home town of Sunderland when I was younger,I was regularly asked if I was a” left footer”.
        In the thirty odd years I have lived in Scotland I have never been asked my religion.
        I regularly visit Sunderland and worry for the future. Getting their country back( Albania?) and handing it over to right wing corporate lackey stooges is the goal of a lot of seemingly reasonable people.
        Yaxley Lennon is very popular in certain quarters.
        The football team is being run by and has a lot of Scots playing for it so it’s not all bad news!

  11. I. C. A. Darkness says:

    Laudable, appealing sentiments that will stir the fires of Celtic romanticism everywhere. I fear, though, that’s as far as these emotions take us. Ultimately, they do little to ameliorate our mood. They will do nothing to protect us from the highly-contagious, virulent strain of economic rabies unleashed on 30 March 2019.

    Little point here attempting to cover ground already well-trodden with rational and logical argument. It strikes me that this execrable, self-induced debacle has its roots in a disrupted, twisted, psychology corroded by self-pity, a baleful, venal nationalism mired in xenophobia, and a gigantic inferiority complex.

    Entire swathes of British, but mainly English, communities are in the huff and they want to inflict their pique on every part of the UK. It’s a dog-in-the-manger attitude writ large enough to engulf us all. Endorsing or legitimating this notion of self-inflicted, self-serving, wounded pride is fragmented but is present in sufficient numbers to ensure everyone will suffer the consequences of their hubris, petulance and discontent.

    In some ways, those who feel nothing but contempt for an antagonistic, ultimately wicked, hate-filled nationalism must all shoulder some of the blame. We have allowed the political class of this country to subvert our trust in representative democracy. It is now a changeling willing to serve unconditionally purposes carefully and cunningly concealed during election and referendum campaigns then returned to service, aided and abetted by supine, sycophantic, main-stream media.

    Cormac says that Question Time is not England. It almost is “not England” and bears an uncanny resemblance to a country that has morphed into some unrecognisable chimera.

    Recent contributors to this pastiche of a discussion programme have included the risible Melanie Phillips who triumphally announced that the EU would modify its approach to Brexit because it knows that post-Brexit, Britain will “take it to the cleaners”. The really worrying aspect was not Phillips’ outburst nor the bovine cheers from the audience. Neither the QT chairperson, nor the other panellists, challenged it or asked what she meant. It was allowed to pass without comment, which could be construed as unstated agreement – were it not so egregiously laughable.

    Isobel Oakeshott was on QT a week later, more or less making the same, inane utterances – this time to resounding whoops and cheers from the audience. So we know “where they are at”.

    The great, silent majority – even those who may have earnestly believed in leaving the EU – must feel aghast at what has happened to our democracy in recent months. A Brexit negotiating team whose indolence and ignorance is matched only by its arrogance and egoism. Political parties – all of them – putting party above country. So-called leaders who are clearly not leading, not listening, and not good enough to be in charge during a crisis that requires people with qualities diametrically the opposite of those currently “running the show”.

    I can’t quite believe I find myself agreeing with John Major’s 1990s description of Tory Eurosceptics or Brexiteers – “bastards”.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.