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The lost ideal: Rupert Brooke, photographed by Sherrill Schell in 1913 (© Universal History Archive/Getty Images)


In 1936, a people already responsible for an indelible influence on the modern world could nevertheless prompt the Australian writer Jack Lindsay to ask, “Who are the English?” Lindsay urged the countrymen of his adopted homeland to reclaim their sense of identity by drawing strength from their “many voices”. The English have never been better portrayed or more audible than in Ferdinand Mount’s English Voices: Lives, Landscapes, Laments 1985-2015 (Simon & Schuster, £25). The elusiveness of our character has often been worn with a certain lightness of touch. Such deftness is mirrored in this collection of essays — so much so that, in some cases, one feels that the biographies reviewed here have been rendered redundant.

Mount, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, begins by telling us that biography and autobiography have always been a singularly English tradition. Memoirs can, however, frequently leave the reader cold. As Virginia Woolf noted, the quest for detail can so often lose sight of “what the person was like”. Frequently able to condense a long and extraordinary life into a mere four pages, Mount admirably allays Woolf’s misgivings, while still leaving readers as satisfied as if they had just turned the final page of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

To arrive at an authoritative definition of Englishness is a frustrating endeavour. History has long since blurred lines that were once decided by geography and genetics. A more English chap could scarcely be imagined than the professional footballer Walter Tull. An infantry officer descended from Barbadian slaves, Tull was praised for his “gallantry and coolness” during the First World War. We have no national dress and no national holiday on which to rejoice unashamedly in our Englishness, both derided by David Starkey as consolation prizes for more “feeble” countries. Though English music is instantly recognisable, it is hardly pervasive. In every shop or café in Vienna you will hear Strauss or Mozart. A Starbucks in London would be more likely to be piping out pop music than Elgar or Vaughan Williams.

Mount shows how we do share a political heritage, founded on personal liberty and freedom of speech, and a culture, both languorously formed and profound in its riches, that is never so exclusive as to be impenetrable to those born elsewhere. Immigrant writers such as Germaine Greer or V.S. Naipaul serve as a further reminder that above all else sits our language, which “shaped almost everything about us,” writes Mount, whose own career as a man of letters makes him pay heed to numerous literary lives from Keats to Kipling.

For the English, literature and politics so often go hand in hand that few of our most revered statesmen have not also been accomplished wordsmiths. In a nod to his own background, Mount devotes equal attention to some of our most notable and in some cases notorious political figures of the past 200 years. A few holy men are thrown in for good measure; a dishonourable mention goes to Sir Oswald Mosley. Slightly remiss perhaps, is the insufficient emphasis on military men. The English have always been a pugnacious breed. Of course, a good many of our politicians once saw active service. Yet Winston Churchill’s finest hour is adroitly sidestepped by Mount, who instead examines his disastrous involvement in the Gallipoli campaign. Published on April 26, 1915, Churchill’s obituary of Rupert Brooke for The Times, generally believed to have been written by his private secretary Edward Marsh, has passed into legend as one of the defining public expressions of loss wrought by “the hardest, the cruellest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought”.

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