This summer while we on the continent of Europe are enjoying doing whatever we can afford to do under the Mediterranean sun, we should all spare a thought for the English and their other Brit cousins.
They will be living through the continuing economic and social disaster created by Brexit and other agonies that are certain to multiply and crowd around like flies at a July barbecue.
A large slice of the pain of modern England comes from its identity and Brexit is only one symptom of this disease. I recently read an exceptional book titled ‘God is an Englishman’ published exactly 50 years ago, and all the way through it the Australian author Donald Horne, (who also wrote the well-known book ‘The Lucky Country’ about his own homeland) shows as much penetrating insight into who exactly the English are as anyone else I know of.
Using his book as a measuring stick against the past, it’s remarkable how little England seems to have changed (especially for the better) in that half a century that I have now lived through.
Facing up to the coming instability of the 1970s, Horne found that Britain’s history meant that it too deserved to be called a fortunate country. As he saw it though, “what gets on British people’s nerves is that they no longer know who they are.” (Loud echoes of today’s Brexit confusion?)
He saw a culture where people “find reality in excitements of..fashion and the entertainment businesses.” This led to an emptiness and general dissatisfaction with their lot. For him, it meant too that almost half of young British people alive then were fantasizing about emigrating. Of course, many did or already had (including my father.)
Some of Horne’s other best observations come from his clear understanding of the social class system that still operates deeply all through life there. He recognised that all Brits essentially operate to serve the comfort and ease of the “Upper English” but that a visitor who stayed for years might not notice that England is genuinely one of the world’s most working class nations.
Here, the author, who did in fact marry an Englishwoman and live for five years on a farm in Cornwall, west England, relates a truth that few Brits would have liked to admit, even in the unlikely event that they knew it. Twice as many manual workers as white-collar workers went out to their jobs in this “antique economy”; one that directly made it possible for the queen to stay happy in her castle.
The average Brit was in fact a relative of a peasant who had been tossed by need into the provincial towns or London, just like so many ’internal immigrants’ who arrived in Catalonia from (other) parts of rural Spain in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Soon after the time that Horne was writing though, it was estimated that at least half of England’s land was entirely unregistered: a hotchpotch of inherited wealth. Today we now know that this half a nation is owned by just 1% of its population: 25,000 landowners – typically members of the aristocracy and corporations.
These crucial numbers of course ignore the ironic title of the book. It refers to the 16th century monarch Elizabeth’s bishop of London who specifically claimed that “God is English” and “His nation was to be the New Jerusalem” of the British Isles.
The very English genius George Orwell warned against the “habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects” but if we think about today’s English people I’d compare them to that little desert lizard who hops from foot to foot to avoid getting its feet burnt on the hot sand.
Here I mean the political and social temperature, not that from the sun.