An illuminating tale. I shall refrain from giving any details; needless to say, a tradesman was in our house doing some work this morning – and this is not a moan about tradesmen. The work he did for us was excellent: neat, professional and honest; he turned up on the day he said he would, at the time he specified, and the price he charged us was the price he’d quoted, give or take the cost of materials. I’d like to say I’d recommend him and use his services again myself. But there is a problem.
A chatty fellow, he arrived at 8.30, and as he brought his equipment in from the van, I made him a cup of tea (strong, white, no sugar). He then stood at the kitchen doorway for a natter before starting work. In the end, he nattered for the best part of an hour. Now, this is quite a long time to have to engage in conversation with a man you’ve just met, when you’re kind of hoping he’ll start the work. (As I say, once he did start the work, he was everything you could hope for, and he finished it well ahead of time, and he didn’t put on a tinny transistor radio either, so in the event, this wasted hour had no great repercussions.) However, he seemed a nice chap, and if the bloke fancies a chat, I’m not rude enough to deny him the chance. He told us he was in the process of selling his house – he and his wife wanted to move to France. This is interesting. On the face of it, such a move suggests character and wordliness. (Friends of ours did the same thing two years ago, and I admire them for it.) However, the man’s reasons for moving seemed to be based on the number of speed cameras in Britain.
This wasn’t literally the only reason he was moving (although he and his wife only saw one when they went to France). He seemed to have a broader problem with this country. Problems with the government, and with regulation, and with the media, and with the amount of traffic lights. At one stage – I think we’d been moaning about Tony Blair, which gave him his way in – he said he was “conservative through and through”, and reminded us that he was a “small businessman” to underline why. (This was his first leap to a conclusion that I wouldn’t leap to. After all, I am a small businessman as well. It is possible to be self-employed and not get down on your knees and thank Mrs Thatcher for the opportunity. You can be in the market and not worship the market.) He also told us that he had come back from bankruptcy. I admired him for this, although by this time the prospect of learning more about his rise and fall and rise was less enticing than him starting work.
Anyway, to cut a long story short (an advantage you have that we didn’t), the man turned out to have very strong views on England. He used the following dread words:
I’m not a racist, but …
He was not a racist, because, guess what, he had two Asian friends and some “coloured” ones. He also liked Indian food and admitted, magnanimously, that Polish builders are very good at what they do, even though they’re over here taking our jobs. My gut instinct is that anyone who feels the need to use the prefix “I’m not be a racist,” is a racist. (I don’t believe I have ever said to anyone, “I’m not a racist.” You don’t need to if you’re not one, do you?) The man basically believed that England the way it is now is not the way it should be. He started to talk about the UK Independence Party, at which point my heart sank, as I thought he was going to give us a leaflet. Instead, he went to his van and brought in a poem that his mate had given him. He handed it to me to read. I kept it.
I find it fascinating that a man in our house to do a job of work might give us this poem to read first, so I will reproduce it in full for the record (the CAPITALS are the author’s, as is the punctuation, but I have corrected the spellings, except one, which is significant):
Just Don’t Say You’re English
Goodbye my England, so long my dear friend,
Your days are numbered, being brought to an end.
To be Scottish, Welsh or Irish is fine.
But don’t say you’re ENGLISH, that’s way out of line.
The French and the Germans may call themselves such,
As may Norwegians, the Swedes and the Dutch,
You can say you are Russian, Polish or Dane, BUT,
Don’t say you’re ENGLISH ever again.
At Broadcasting House that word is taboo,
In Brussels they’ve stopped it, in Parliament too.
Even schools are affected, staff do as they’re told,
They must not teach children about the ENGLAND of old.
Writers like Shakespear [sic], Milton and Shaw, the kids do not learn
About them any more.
About Agincourt, Hastings, Arnhem and Mons, when ENGLAND
Lost thousands of her brave sons.
We are NOT Europeans, how CAN we be? ENGLAND
Is miles away over the sea.
We’re ENGLISH from ENGLAND so let’s be proud
Stand up and be counted, shout it out loud! Let’s tell our
Government and Brussels too, we’re proud of our heritage
And the red, white and blue.
Fly the flag of ST GEORGE or the UNION JACK,
Let the whole world know WE WANT ENGLAND BACK.
OK, let’s go through this verse by verse. (If you look up this quite rubbish, anonymously-written poem on the internet, you’ll end up on various forums, and not necessarily far-right ones – I found one for the over-50s and another for bikers.) Its thrust is clear: that England is being taken away from the English. That to be English is somehow a crime. Well, first of all, I’m English. I would instincitively tell someone in, say, France, that I was Anglais. I’m also British, by geographical definition, and European, but I don’t really need a map to define me, and I’m certainly not proud to have been born somewhere and not somewhere else. I speak English. English is the most commonly-spoken language around the world – about a third of the world’s population speak it.Unlike, say, the Welsh language (“To be Welsh is fine”), it’s anything but under attack. It is flourishing. It is dominant. England, on those terms, still rules the waves. On any other terms, however, it doesn’t any more, no matter how nice we are to America. We’re just a little country with a good economy and some US air bases. I have no great pride in the Empire. As far as I can see, when we ruled the waves, we used them to sail to other countries, plant our flag, ship the minerals home and fuck the place up. Now I sound like I’m ranting, but this poem has gripped me with its storming SELF-CONFIDENCE.
The right, as embodied by the tradesman in our kitchen, are so confident. (I would never walk into someone’s house and give them a poem about my political beliefs. Couldn’t he see the Guardian on the kitchen table?) Confident, and yet so defensive and wounded and self-pitying at the same time. This poem is one long whine, and most of its facts are baseless. True, my passport says European Union at the top, followed by United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That’s factually correct. It says I am a British Citizen, but it also specifies my place of birth, Northampton, which is far more specific than just England. Where is it “out of line” to say you’re ENGLISH? This is simple paranoia. “Don’t say you’re ENGLISH ever again”? Calm down. The word “ENGLISH” is not taboo at Broadcasting House, I can vouch for that. We’ve just had a World Cup in which England were the only competing team from these islands. The media was saturated with the word ENGLAND, and the ENGLISH fans were never off the news – for keeping out of trouble as much as for getting in it, I might add. It was a PR victory for the ENGLISH. The flag flew, annoyingly, from every white van. You couldn’t get away from the red cross of St George. To not be ENGLISH in this country for those weeks must have been highly irksome. The English were hardly cowed and pathetic.
Now, the devolution of Wales and Scotland and its effect on Parliament, where Welsh and Scottish MPs still vote on issues affecting England, is one worthy of debate. But the word ENGLAND is not taboo. And the ENGLAND “of old” is taught in schools. That’ll be the ENGLAND that oppressed the Welsh, the Scottish and the Irish. We learnt about that. How about the ENGLAND that went to war with France just to make some money by holding their noblemen to ransom? That’ll cover Agincourt, where, apparently, “thousands” of our “brave sons” died. I’m not doubting the bravery of the outnumbered English soldiers in that clearing, but it’s not as if France started the war. Henry V invaded to increase his approval ratings at home. It’s an old trick.
As for Hastings. Yes, the French invaded us on this occasion, but it was over a disputed claim to the throne. Harold claimed it, William, who was Edward the Confessor’s cousin after all, opposed his claim. All I’m saying is, there’s some dispute. It’s not cut and dried.
Arnhem – a battle fought in the Second World War, which is never off the current curriculum in schools, wounded ENGLISHMEN – was a British defeat. Not an English defeat. In fact, it was a British-Polish defeat. The Germans held British and Polish forces on the Arnhem bridge (the Bridge Too Far, in fact), and we withdrew, a great many of our men never actually making it to the bridge in the first place because they were parachuted in to the wrong spot. Hardly a glorious victory for our boys. They fought valiantly obviously, but here again, I’m uncomfortable using the theatre of war to glorify the country I was born in. By the way, the Canadians eventually secured Arnhem. And the British army included Welsh, Scots and Irish, not to mention soldiers for the Commonwealth. Why pick out the ENGLISH who died for special treatment. Were they braver thant the Scots or the Poles? (Ha! The Poles were over here stealing our work even then!)
As for Mons – which doesn’t rhyme with “sons”, I hate to break that to the Unknown Poet – it’s in Belgium and was the setting for the first battle of the First World War. Another British defeat, I’m afraid. The Canadians took it eventually. Are these four battles listed to make us feel sorry for our boys? If so, fair enough. British soldiers (not just English) have died all over the world for their country. They are remembered every year on Remembrance Sunday, a massive public event, which the media always covers.
Shakespear [sic], Milton and Shaw are apparently not taught in our schools. First, it’s Shakespeare. Second, he is rammed down the throat of every schoolchild that’s ever passed through any school in this country, and will be forever more. Milton, I never learnt at school. But we did Dickens (English), Eliot (American-born but based in England after the First World War) and Chaucer (English), not to mention Arnold (English) and Tennyson (English). Too many English authors if you ask me. It’s biased the other way. And, you’ll be ahead of me here, but George Bernard Shaw was Irish.
By all means, be proud to be ENGLISH if you must. No need to “shout it out loud” though, that’s just boorish and stupid. Imagine me shouting, “I’m from Northampton!” out loud. Or, “I’m a man!” Equally silly. And if you’re so hung up on being English, why are you so keen to fly the “red, white and blue”? That’s the flag of the United Kingdom, something the English nationalist must surely be against with its woolly acceptance of other nations in graphic form? It’s got the Scottish and Irish flags in it! It’s about being united, not divided – it’s about the bigger picture, not the smaller one. I suppose the author of the poem and the man who came to our house must yearn, painfully yearn, for a time when the Union flag was flown by the ships of the British Empire (hence the “Jack” part, which relates to a ship’s ensign), off to lord it over Johnny Foreigner with his spices and his gold. If you really care about this country, get worked up about the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables we import when we could easily grow our own.
Oh, and if the man in our kitchen, who kindly showed us the poem, loves England so much, why’s he planning to move to France? (God help France.)