Books October 2003

That Blessed Plot, That Enigmatic Isle

Is there such a thing as "Englishness"—and if not, then why can't one imagine Samuel Johnson as an Italian?
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  • Albion

    By Peter Ackroyd
    Doubleday

What is it to be English? I should say for a start that to be English is to be mildly embarrassed by the very concept of "identity." To continue with the paradox for a moment: The English are famous above all for their insularity. That they are located on an island is essential to them. But not an island like Iceland or Samoa; rather, an island that is within swimming distance of the mainland, and thus an island that can be easily invaded, or employed as a base for invasion. Therefore, the insularity of the English has been complicated by two striking anomalies: their ethnic dilution and their history-making propensity for exporting people. Whole continents were settled by English (and Scottish and Welsh and Irish) emigrants, and I have hardly ever visited a country that doesn't have a sizable English/British cemetery. Then, owing in part to its extraordinary capacity to borrow and assimilate, the English language has become nearly sovereign as a global lingua franca; but there are areas of the nation in which I can barely make out a word that is uttered, and the class and regional aspects of Englishness ensure that England's sons and daughters are "branded on the tongue," to make them more readily classifiable by their betters.

The English have a justified reputation for being sturdy and prosaic, yet they have excelled in poetry above all the arts. They are often thought to be shy and retiring and even (by Hollywood especially) affected to the point of effeminacy. Yet few peoples have shown a more frightening and ruthless aptitude for violence. Their fondness for flowers and animals is a national as well as an international joke, yet there is scant evidence of equivalent tenderness in, say, the national cuisine. The general temper is distinctly egalitarian and democratic, even populist, yet the cult of aristocracy and hierarchy is astonishingly tenacious.

When asked by an interviewer if he was English, Samuel Beckett is supposed to have replied, "Au contraire." The nation whose passport I carry doesn't even really have a name, except the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is the bureaucratic result of a seventeenth-century compromise. (Northern Ireland is legally part of the United Kingdom but not of Great Britain.) The country can be identified in shorthand as England, Britain, the UK, and—"in very exalted moments," as Orwell once wrote—Albion.

Foreign observers of the islanders, from Hippolyte Taine to Nikos Kazantzakis, have stressed certain distinctively English contributions to civilization, from the country house to the dissemination of Shakespeare to the idea of the "gentleman." And one would have to leave room for the figure of the English eccentric, of which Peter Ackroyd is a salient and florid example. Omnivorous, graphomaniacal, and polymathically camp, he has set himself to mine the English character out of the very landscape, and to quarry further into the architecture, the folklore, and the mythology in search of national traits.

Ackroyd's last exploration of this kind, a "biography" of the city of London, showed a certain talent for heroic generalization, which recurs here with redoubled force. He has two well-wrought passages, about the importance of old stone in English architecture, and about the strong feeling for trees and forests. Yet of what old established country could such things not be written? Greeks and Italians and Indians have a reverence for the mason's art that is no less, and probably more, intense. German and Russian obsession with forests is celebrated in music and literature. There may be no Sissinghursts or Garsingtons in Portugal or Sicily, but the love of the average person for an individual plot of garden is as old as the olive grove itself. Admittedly, the English often evince a high degree of confusion on this point: William Blake's "Jerusalem," celebrated for its line about "these dark Satanic Mills," still manages to speak of "England's green and pleasant land." The country that generated the Industrial Revolution and built the largest modern empire still has a self-image that is somehow bucolic. So we may add sentimentality to the list.

And yet, and yet, I know Englishness does exist, and I know it not when I see it but when I feel it. My ancestry is typically mixed. On my father's side were the Anglo-Saxon yeomen who still made jokes about the Normans (to the toff who said "My ancestors came over with William the Conqueror" the reply was supposed to be "Yes. We were waiting for you," or, alternatively, "And how are you liking it over here?"). On my mother's side were immigrants from what was then Germany and is now Poland—local hospitality to persecuted refugees, from the Huguenots to Marx and Mazzini, being an admirable part of our national history. Hitchens is actually a Cornish name, so there must be some Celtic blood to leaven this further.

In my boyhood, much of which was spent on the western peninsula, King Arthur was a quasi-real figure to me. Ackroyd's chapter on Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus, "The Once and Future King," is a lovely meditation on the legend and literature surrounding this figure, who has inspired poetry from Malory through Tennyson to T. S. Eliot. (Both Malory and Tennyson referred to the post-Arthurian landscape as a wasteland.) Yet the more he strives to define the elusive leader, the more Ackroyd undoes his main thesis. If Arthur existed at all, he was a product of the West Britons' resistance to the English—or, at any rate, Anglo-Saxon—invasions of the late fifth century. The romantic verses that first tell of the chivalry of the Round Table were written much later, by Frenchmen, in French. Medieval English monarchs from Henry II to Edward I were accustomed to plundering the supposed grave site of Arthur at Glastonbury, in search of kingly legitimacy for themselves, thereby demonstrating that the "invention of tradition" is no recent phenomenon. All of this compels Ackroyd to a distinctly lame conclusion: "It has often been surmised that fact and fiction strangely mingle in English biography and historiography, so the story of Arthur may be adduced as the harbinger of a great national tradition." To say that this has "often been surmised" is putting it very mildly. But was it also a tradition when it began? The New Age hippies who these days flock to Glastonbury for the solstice are, according to this reading, the heirs to a long line of kitsch—including the Lerner and Loewe musical that gave the word "Camelot" to the United States.

It is of course essential to the myth that Arthur only sleeps, and will one day return to save his people in their hour of danger. Again, most cultures have such a figure of legend (the emperor Barbarossa is perhaps the best-known example). Sir Francis Drake, another West Countryman, who scattered the Spanish Armada in 1588, is likewise believed to be in a state of comatose readiness, though this notion was only really put into poetic words in the nineteenth century, by Sir Henry Newbolt. In rather the same way, William Cowper revived the East Anglian tribeswoman Boadicea, defeated and scourged by the Romans, as the herald of a once and future British dominion. Ackroyd doesn't mention any of this, and it took me some time to notice what is in fact the most astonishing lacuna in his narrative: there is no chapter on warfare, and precious little allusion to it. Yet the English character is and has been formed, to an exceptional degree, by stories of battle, victory, conquest, and defeat or (preferably) near defeat. Noble fiascoes like the Charge of the Light Brigade and the evacuation of Dunkirk are the gold standard here, but victories against overpowering odds are a strong second. And a whole associated "English" tone of laconic understatement and ironic stoicism sub-depends from it.

This is, admittedly, not Ackroyd's field; he much prefers to fossick around with ecclesiastical architecture and cross-dressing at early-medieval festivals. But I have a vague and I hope not unworthy suspicion that the oversight also reflects his own most potent nostalgia, which is for the lost England of Catholic and monarchical unity, and organic social order, that ended with Sir Thomas More. He shows this prejudice in many of his books, but here he expresses it most by omission. Could it be that he subconsciously identifies the martial English tradition with the rise of Protestantism? He would be perfectly correct if he did do so, but that's no reason for leaving out not just Oliver Cromwell but also Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington while trying to profile the English character. A consideration of English poetry is, I should say, next to impossible without a treatment of the theme of war. (Wilfred Owen does receive a brief mention, but only because of a faint Arthurian echo in one of his verses.)

In his alarmingly slight chapter on Shakespeare, Ackroyd touches all the familiar references to "the Genius of our Isle" and "the god of our idolatry," and makes the useful point that the modesty of the great Stratfordian is the glass of fashion and the mold of form when it comes to the national liking for self-effacement. (Can one be proud of one's self-effacement?) However, we cannot know whether the obscurity—almost anonymity—of the man was willed by the man himself. And in any case, Ackroyd pushes eagerly past this problem in order to engage at inordinate length with the likelihood that the national bard was a closet Roman Catholic. That might or might not explain his personal reclusiveness; in any case, I think we may doubt that "in the ritual drama of his last plays he even seems to mimic, or adopt the postures of, the Catholic Mass." What we may not doubt is Shakespeare's absolute mastery of the art of annexation and incorporation—the way that he helped inaugurate the momentous expansion of the English language, in part by borrowing, and thereby lending, so many words. And here again Ackroyd is working somewhat against his own project: "Like the language and the nation itself [Shakespeare] is altogether receptive, taking up external or foreign constituents and molding them instinctively to his purpose." If we exempt the exaggeration "altogether," at least as it applies to the nation, all this means is that the "Swan of Avon" is perfectly intelligible as an internationalist. Indeed, those lonely but honorable crackpots convinced that the plays were composed by the Earl of Oxford rest their case on the evident fact that the author had an uncanny knowledge of Renaissance Italy. One rather well studied play is set in Denmark. To say, as Ackroyd airily does, that this cosmopolitanism "corresponds to the English archetype" is to say too much and prove too little. After the time of Goethe, as Ian Buruma tells us in his fascinating book Anglomania, the cult of Shakespeare flourished in Germany as in no other country except, perhaps, America. Ackroyd, discussing Englishness, reports that "an enthusiast once created an enclosure in which were to be planted all the trees of Shakespeare's plays." In Central Park in the early 1890s, as I could have told him, some idiot desiring to release every bird cited in Shakespeare thus introduced the vile starling into the United States. Either Shakespeare is universal, in other words, or he is not.

There are those, preoccupied with Stonehenge and other numinous English sites, who pore over ley lines and claim to detect special energy and presence in certain ordained spots. Ackroyd doesn't quite tear off his false whiskers and announce himself as one of these, but he is very much preoccupied with the "genius loci," and the means by which a place becomes invested with significance. Again, this sense of place is a matter of feeling rather than seeing. When I drive into Virginia, I can be reminded of England very easily, but there is no doubt that the landscape is somehow "newer," lacking the enfolded antiquity of, say, the Sussex downs, where one might come upon a Saxon steading or a prehistoric symbol cut into the chalk on a hillside. Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, is especially evocative here, and Ackroyd employs the term "inscape," a favorite usage of Gerard Manley Hopkins, to convey the impression of something more in nature than meets the eye. And perhaps something more in art: About three decades ago the elm trees of England were laid waste by a blight known as Dutch elm disease (the English always name diseases after foreigners). I remember reading an account of the devastation that said the paintings of Constable and Gainsborough would no longer seem realistic, or naturalistic, to future generations. Citified as I had become by then, I was surprised by my own distress. In some schoolroom long ago, with chalk motes drifting in the sunbeams, I had been instructed that the line "the moan of doves in immemorial elms" was a near perfect onomatopoeia.

Something similar is to be sensed in towns and cities. George Eliot, in The Mill on the Floss, depicts a town "which carries the traces of its long growth and history, like a millennial tree." One knows what she means: place-names ending in "-chester" were once the sites of Roman camps, or castra, and some locations are much more ancient even than that. But again, the idea of the mystical place is at least as old as Delphi, or Hebron. Mention of the latter brings one up against Ackroyd's discussion of another national myth—the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century belief that the English were in fact "the chosen race," the lost Hebrew tribe specially favored by Divine Providence. This flailing nonsense, which intersected with the legend of Glastonbury and Christianized the story by incorporating the Holy Grail, held that Joseph of Arimathea had brought the boy Jesus to England. Echoes of it are to be found in Milton, who wrote of God's Englishmen; in Blake's "Jerusalem," of course; and in the oratorios of Handel, whose Messiah became the anthem of the concept. Ackroyd notes, "Handel himself became a naturalised Englishman in 1727, after his art had been thoroughly assimilated. The power of place is once again manifested. We may call it placism, as an antidote to racism." I find this a trifle glib.

Ackroyd's unresolved difficulty, then, is his frequent inability to identify as "English" anything that could not be attributed as well to other nations. Admittedly, not very many peoples have identified themselves with the wanderings of the Children of Israel (the Mormons might be the most recent example), but it is a rare country that does not cultivate some idea of a special relationship to Divine Providence, and I would want to argue, against Ackroyd's sickly religiosity, that any such illusion is rather antithetical to the mainstream English character in any case. The potential for embarrassment is simply too great ... However, in two related departments Ackroyd is better at isolating something distinctive: the empirical tradition in philosophy does have something particularly English about it; and this in turn does appear to be congruent with something phlegmatic in the national temperament. The easiest way I can devise to justify this assertion is to invite you to picture the figure of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and then to imagine him as an Italian or a Hungarian. Can't be done, can it? It takes less effort to visualize Shakespeare as a Frenchman.

The intellectual traces go back a considerable way, at least as far as the thirteenth century, with Roger Bacon, who stressed pragmatic inquiry as a basis for philosophy; he was succeeded by William of Ockham (he of the razor), who in the fourteenth century stated roundly that all knowledge is derived from experience. From this it is no great stretch to the work of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and indeed, to the robust and commonsensical figure of the good doctor, tossing and goring the flighty theoreticians and speculators. For good measure, Johnson was a staunch Shakespearean, and a close reader of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, which, Boswell records, "was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise." Getting up early in order to scrutinize Burton seems pretty English to me; Ackroyd is again right to see a connecting thread of melancholia in the national makeup, and to relate it to the skepticism and even pessimism that are its close cousins. Gray's "An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard" was more or less the national poem for two centuries; indeed, in some ways it still is. And it's easy to intuit a connection between the writings of Burton and those of such equally classic Englishmen as Thomas Hobbes, Anthony Powell, George Orwell, and Philip Larkin—the latter three almost untreated by Ackroyd. I had intended to see if I could write about Englishness without mentioning the weather, but there's something inescapable in the innumerable implications of the cliché, and I cannot help thinking that Burton's gloomy but strangely bracing reflections had something to do with the dolorous climate of Oxford itself.

It is from the medieval concept of the four prevailing humors, so well adumbrated by Geoffrey Chaucer, that we derive the image of the phlegmatic. Transmuting this term is not easy, but many people (Americans especially) claim to recognize a uniquely English sense of humor. One is on very treacherous ground here. I remember being told quite deadpan, soon after arriving in the United States, that "of course you guys have irony, which we don't." The best I could do was to murmur "Apparently not," but I took care to do so somewhat under my breath. Ackroyd likes a laugh, all right, but his attention to comedy is usually focused on the broad and farcical tradition in English entertainment, with its heavy stress on bodily functions and collapsing scenery. The Monty Python school is fond of anarchy and vulgarity also, but this manic energy would be directionless if it were not a satire on understatement, dryness, and self-deprecation, which are the outward forms that reserved English irony chooses to adopt. In this connection it is astonishing that Ackroyd can have left out P. G. Wodehouse, another individual who meets the test of being unimaginable as a product of any other culture.

But "what should they know of England who only England know?" Kipling and Orwell and Wodehouse spent a large part of their lives outside the country, far away from the reassurance of warm beer, cold beef, drizzle, cricket, and oak-and-elm-infested landscapes. Professional Englishmen like Alistair Cooke, or Anglophile enterprises such as Masterpiece Theatre and the Merchant Ivory school, can operate well outside the insular context itself. This is probably why another national elegiac poem—Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier"—is best known for its tear-inducing line about "some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever, England." It is said that the English regiments about to be immolated in Flanders during World War I requested a reading of John of Gaunt's deathbed speech from Richard II, replete as it is with semi-magical nationalist references, before advancing patiently and doggedly into the killing fields. "This precious stone set in the silver sea ... this fortress built by Nature for herself ... this sceptred isle ... this little world." Plainly, the officers or chaplains who read the speech must have broken off before reaching the climax, where old Gaunt speaks of the degeneration of the island into something more resembling "a tenement or pelting farm." But the main oration perfectly enshrines much of the sentimental self-image of England as something miniature and vulnerable, albeit stern and defiant. In its evocation of "this other Eden, demi-paradise" and "this blessed plot," it further satisfies Ackroyd's insistence on the sacralized sense of place. His own Albion, however, overlooks the way in which Englishness was imposed upon others, underplays the emaciation of England's central monarchic symbol, glosses over the spread of parodic "heritage" tourism, and in general reviews the pageant while omitting the elements of tragedy.

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest book, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, has just been published.
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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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