Simon Heffer

England from above

A highbrow vision of our country

Text settings

Visions of England

Roy Strong

Bodley Head, pp. 240, £

It is a shame that Sir Roy Strong is subjected to the now-obligatory drivel about his being a ‘national treasure’, because this unthinking cliché diminishes his contribution, over more than 50 years, to our cultural life, whether as a curator or, in later times, as a gardener. Sir Roy has also written a number of books, and in his preface to this one describes his mission to bring the past of our country before a general readership. His last, A Little History of the English Country Church, certainly furthered that aim: it described how our shared past could be discovered by looking in these buildings.

In this book, Sir Roy wishes to answer a question that many have asked before him, and one that most of us have never seen satisfactorily answered: ‘Who are the English, and what is England?’ He says that ‘I believe the answer to that question will only be found if we understand what constituted the shared vision and purpose of the country in earlier ages.’ One wonders how far that is true. Did the country ever have a shared vision and purpose? Or were there visions and purposes common to certain classes, and not to all classes, that therefore prevented all the English people from sharing a ‘vision’?

And why, in any case, should how people saw England ‘in earlier ages’ have any relevance to a vision of England today? There are some atavists among us — Sir Roy, with his understanding of English literature, art, landscape and architecture, is one such — who understand that the idea of an institution, such as a country, is bound up in its past. But few of those who search for an English national identity today have Sir Roy’s sense of the past and all its elements: his knowledge of history, of the fabric of the country and its literary culture. For most of those who can be bothered to seek an English national identity go no further than an empathy with the national soccer team: having a sense of Englishness derived from history or high culture is fanciful, but we should I suppose be grateful that Sir Roy, at least, has not abandoned hope of the masses feeling about the old country in the way that he does.

If one accepts that this book is a guide to finding an English identity for those who have an experience of culture, or who are prepared to acquire that experience, then one should not be too disappointed. That does invite the question, though, about whether the more rarefied being will still be searching for that identity, rather than having found it some time earlier. However, for someone who would like to know what it is to feel identifiably English, Sir Roy provides a useful tour. He takes us through some of the main iconography of the Tudor period, finding for himself the roots of his definition of the English temper and achievement. He moves beyond the Tudors soon enough, describing poetry, landscape and building, and by the time he reaches the Victorians he is also looking at interpretations of English culture by critics such as Matthew Arnold.

It is too easy to say — as Sir Roy emphatically does not — that a sense of what constitutes Englishness is indefinable: but one fears it is. Like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. As Sir Roy beholds it, England is about Elizabeth I, the defeat of the Armada, Shakespeare, Capability Brown, stately homes, the King James Bible and the 1662 prayer book — which he rightly describes as having, until swept away by liturgical vandals, provided a sense of cultural continuity for 300 years. But what it is to be English has not been a different idea at different times: it is a different idea to each individual, even to members of the same family.

Sir Roy is right to concentrate on the industry that existed in the early part of the last century to celebrate and develop an idea of Englishness: it is a tradition he is self-consciously following. He writes of the efforts by Harry Batsford to capture Old England on the cusp of momentous change before the second world war, in his publishing company’s series of topographical books. Sir Roy grew up a victim of these superb books, with their concise but detailed descriptions of the English landscape and fabric, their photographs of ivy-mantled houses, sleepy half-timbered inns, winding lanes lined by immemorial elms and sun-drenched churches. Our grandparents’ generation was the first to make its prime contribution to the national culture in the form of a cataloguing and celebration of the national culture. As a result those of us who read their books were spoon-fed what we were supposed to understand by England, and what were considered to be its defining points. Never before, or since, has the idea of Englishness been so prescribed.

In a sense, Sir Roy does not move this on. His own formative years coincided with the last great flourishing of the monoculture: that period of Giles Gilbert Scott and Raymond Erith, Vaughan Williams and Britten, Waugh and Greene, Auden and Isherwood, Whistler and Ravilious. To many of us, their achievements will describe well enough what we should understand by Englishness. We might add to it — Sir Roy is not so vulgar — fish and chips, best bitter, Southend pier, Catford dogs and, of course, roast beef. Sir Roy does not tell us what Englishness is: he can’t. He can only tell us what his particular idea of Englishness is. It is, manifestly, a terribly private thing. Each of us who is English knows in himself what that set of experiences, institutions, values, culture and art is that makes us understand our identity. Sharing it among so diverse a people as we are today — a diversity to be found among the English, I mean — is always going to be the most impossible concept to transmit to others, because it is so elusive to define. It usually takes a war to forge such a common experience, and we can probably agree we could do without one of those.