It so happened that in 1961 I was part of a little group — three of us — which welcomed ‘Mr Jazzman’ to London. That was the code name for Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer, who had that day jetéed over the barrier in Paris and defected to London. He had very little English but he was already amused, and giggling, at what he regarded as the quaintness of Englishness. ‘All the same, all the same’, he kept saying, meaning the rows of terraced houses he had glimpsed as he was swept from London airport to the Brompton Road.
A year before this I had crossed on the ferry to the Isle of Wight with my mother-in-law, née Lehmann. She looked about her. ‘What an extraordinarily ugly race we are,’ she remarked. We were certainly a varied lot (Saxon? Celtic? Many different skull-shapes). To me, newly returned from Java, it was a relief that not everyone had black hair. Certainly we were dramatically ill-dressed (it was a hot day, and this was the epoch of the string vest). However, with surnames like ours, though both of us born and brought up in England, we seemed in no position to puzzle the enigma of what made the English.
Now, 50 years on, after successive waves of change and immigration, Harry Mount valiantly addresses this slippery topic. One sign of Englishness for him, and an example of his difficulty, is our dislike of uniformity and a fondness for muddling through. Yet at the same time he decides that England’s greatest contributions to urban architecture are those regular terraces that so amused Nureyev. Most of these consist, or consisted, of houses small enough to be privately owned, whereas in most great cities people live in purpose-built flats. To Mount, this indicates a difference in the English temperament: a preference for ownership, for privacy, and above all for the human scale.
Of course, while Nureyev smiled, the wrecking-balls were levelling mile after mile of terraces, to be replaced by tower blocks. These, Mount says, are in their turn being knocked down, another example of English ‘adaptability’, of the English temperament manifesting itself and winning through.
This is a lively, young man’s book, heartening to us greybeards who can only wince and look away. When we were young, we hardly dared to admire a quirky building with a patina for fear that it would be a curse, and the next time we looked it would have gone. There is a puritan, destructive streak in the English temperament which Mount does not mention. He has barely room to do so, his topic being so vast and elusive.
He tackles it stoutly, with chapters on ‘Weather’, ‘Geology’, ‘Rivers’, ‘How railways made the English suburban’, and does so honestly. One chapter is called ‘Why English towns look English’. Another, later, is headed ‘Why England doesn’t look like England’.
His paragraphs explode with information, enough to enable a close reader to win a pub quiz: ‘In the Middle Ages there were three sheep for every person in the country.’ As for English place names, he doubts that all Celts were driven out by the Anglo-
Saxons; he quotes a historian, Margaret Gelling, who cannot imagine an Anglo-Saxon going up to an Ancient Briton and saying, ‘Look here, before I cut off your head, just tell me the name of this place.’ ‘In 2001, Dr Gelling was proved right. Tests showed that most of us living in south England share DNA with pure-blooded Celts.’
As for Mount’s beloved terraces — ‘the developers often built a pub first, and that’s why a pub is often on a corner site … it provided a place for builders to eat, drink and sleep in.’ I love all this, want more, and am given it. About the English fondness for lawns: ‘It spread to back gardens, spurred on by the invention in 1827 of the cylinder lawn mower by Edwin Budding, a foundryman from Stroud, Gloucestershire.’ More! More! About the banning of advertisements on motorways, and elsewhere: ‘Only one side of Piccadilly Circus, owned by Land Securities Group, is plastered with advertising; on the other, owned by Crown Estate, it is banned.’ Not many people know that. ‘Roman roads are responsible for the narrowness of our train seats today. The first Victorian trains were built to the same width as horse-drawn wagons; they, in their turn, were designed to fit ruts left in the roads by Roman chariots.’
One last tit-bit:
Herbert Chapman in 1925 was determined to change the name of the nearby tube station, Gillespie Road, to that of his football club … He got his way, and in 1932 Gillespie Road changed its name to Arsenal. They went on to win the First Division title in 1933, 1934, and 1935.
This book is a delight. Indeed it is the sort of book, in its temperament and in its detail, that has helped to make England English.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 2, 2012Tags: England