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.

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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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