One thing leads to another and this morning I found myself listening to one of the 1955 Reith Lectures from the BBC. They were given by Sir (then Doctor) Nicolas Pevsner on the subject of Englishness in Art. It’s not nearly as jingoistic as it sounds. Pevsner tells a nuanced tale but, early in the first lecture, he lists what might at that time have been a list of ‘English’ characteristics. Englishness, in the popular mind is about:
“Personal liberty, freedom of expression, and wisdom in compromise, the two-party system not shaken by communism or fascism, the democratic system of negotiating in parliament as well as on boards and committees, the distrust of the sweeping statement (such as mine are) and of the demagogue.”
I paused and thought about the state of political debate in the country at the moment . I thought of Twitter (for goodness sake) and wondered about where that pragmatic and generous spirit of compromise had gone to. No matter, Pevsner goes on:
“Then the eminently civilised faith in honesty and fair play, the patient queuing, the wisdom in letting go in Ireland, in India, in Burma, a strictly upheld inefficiency in the little business-things of every day, such as the workman’s job in the house, windows that will never close, and heating that will never heat, a certain comfortable wastefulness and sense of a good life, and the demonstrative conservatism of the wig in court, the gown in school and university, the obsolete looking shop-window in St. James’s Street, the Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, the Keeper of the Queens Swans, the Portcullis Poursuivant, the City Companies, and £-s.-d., and yards and acres, and Fahrenheit. All those things seem as eternal as the rock of Gibraltar.”
I recognised it at once as the picture of England and Englishness that my father believed in and loved. Pevsner, in the lecture, does offer different, historical, perspectives but concludes:
Now that I have said so much to show what is not permanent in the national characteristics of England, may I indulge in a few examples of how surprisingly much after all does appear to be permanent. Paul Hentzner, the German tourist who came to England in 1598, already says the English are ‘impatient of anything like slavery’. Misson in about 1690 says they ‘eat a huge piece of roast beef on Sunday…and the rest cold the other days of the week’.
Their idea of vegetables, says Karl Philipp Moritz in 1782, is ‘a few cabbage leaves boiled in plain water’. The English do not work too much, says Sorbière in 1653, they believe that ‘true living consists in knowing how to live at ease’. And one more example, Antonio Trevisan, Venetian Ambassador to Henry VII in 1497, remarks that the English say, ‘whenever they see a handsome foreigner: he looks like an Englishman’. Saussure, who was a very shrewd observer, says the same: ‘I don’t think there is a people more prejudiced in its own favour than the British’.
And go to Ogden Nash, and you will find this:
Let us pause to consider the English
Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
Because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz:
That to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is.
My father to a T.
It helped me realise that, child of the sixties that I was, when I came home from grammar school head filled with notions of English bad behaviour abroad and fallibility at home – all narratives that challenged this charming, white, middle class view of the people we were, I wasn’t just debating a point, I was challenging a faith.
I also wonder now, 63 years later, what has stood the test of time and what Englishness means now.