Echoes Of The Elusive English

The essays of Ferdinand Mount offer a conflicted but compelling account of national identity

Critique
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”.

Brooke had died on St George’s Day as he headed for Gallipoli, and still remains the quintessential Englishman, thanks in no small part to good looks eternally preserved by his untimely demise. He represents the lost England for which we yearn, while Wilfred Owen stands for the more cynical nation that survived the Great War. Though Brooke’s verse has become unfashionable and is routinely dismissed as syrupy to the point of mawkishness, the landscapes described in poems such as “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” serve as a snapshot of an England remembered by no one alive today, where a full honey pot was the summit of appetites both quaint and winsome. In 1913, Brooke was elected a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge; the Provost was M.R. James, delightfully described by Mount as a “sexless ghost”, a term then applicable to a large percentage of Cambridge Fellows, and to a somewhat smaller percentage today. Preferring the earthy attractions available to an achingly handsome young man in the South Sea Islands, Brooke himself had mixed feelings about England, which were only fashioned into fervent ardour by the outbreak of the Great War.

“An Unusual Young Man,” Brooke’s prosaic ode to England, was published in the New Statesman on August 29, 1914, and is narrated from the perspective of a “friend” who contemplates his feelings about the declaration of war with Germany. Fondly remembering times spent in the company of German people and drinking German beer, he ponders the need to rid himself of affection for his former friends, as he surveys the vistas of his memory and the homeland which surrounds him. Stronger than any hatred he can muster for Germany, however, is the overwhelming love he feels for England. He is “immensely surprised to perceive that the actual earth of England held for him a quality which he found in A–, and in a friend’s honour, and scarcely anywhere else, a quality which, if he’d ever been sentimental enough to use the word, he’d have called ‘holiness’. His astonishment grew as the full flood of ‘England’ swept him on from thought to thought. He felt the triumphant helplessness of a lover.”

After leaving England in February 1915, Brooke would never again set foot on its hallowed soil. He succumbed to septicaemia, thought to have been caused by a mosquito bite, and was buried in his own “corner of a foreign field”, near an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. Far less fortunate, if one can ever use such a word to describe the death of a 27-year-old, were the countless soldiers both unusual and usual cut down in muddy trenches on the continent.

On July 1, we will mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, whose great charnel house levelled all the classes sent to the front. Not only officers such as Brooke’s younger brother Alfred, killed in action only six weeks after the poet’s death, and Ferdinand Mount’s own grandfather, who with typical English stoicism lit a pipe before climbing Scimitar Hill, never to be seen again; but the smiling Private Perkses who had equally marched off to be entombed under the Flanders countryside, and the Johnny Browns who suddenly found themselves in khaki and irresistible to the opposite sex.

Patriotic sentiment surged to dizzying heights during the Great War, encouraged by official propaganda used as recruitment tool prior to the introduction of conscription in 1916. The last many saw of England was watching the White Cliffs of Dover turn into a speck on the horizon. Those who came home returned to a different place: similar by all accounts, but lacking its previous bombast, permanently scarred and suffering the loss of a generation of its brightest and best. Ideas about Englishness would inevitably need to evolve to accommodate a new and discomfiting reality.

To see the lasting damage inflicted by the Great War one only has to look into the doleful eyes of Harold Macmillan, whose sympathetic handling by Mount is enough to make even the stiffest of upper lips quiver. A Grenadier Guard and witness to unimaginable horrors at the front, he returned to England as an invalid in 1916. Four years later he married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, and the pair went on to have four children; Macmillan believed the youngest, Sarah, was the product of his wife’s longstanding affair with Robert Boothby. Macmillan never failed to present a veneer of unflappability and seems to fit seamlessly into the mould of the stereotypical “Englishman”, but he was already part of an unhappy and dying breed. For Mount, “Most often the dominant tone of English discourse is one of regret, of nostalgia rather than self-congratulation.”

The popularity of inter-war pacifist movements proved that England had become less sure of its place in the world. Among intellectuals, it was increasingly seen as chic to shun patriotism. “In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman, and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings,” George Orwell would write. “It is a strange fact,” he continued, “but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save the King’ than stealing from a poor box.” Fifteen years after the Armistice, the Oxford Union passed a motion by 275 votes to 153, “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”. Some of those undergraduates would later be moved to go to Spain after the outbreak of the civil war there in July 1936.

They only had to wait three years until England would again be struck by the tragedy of war, with Mount himself born two months before Chamberlain’s dejected broadcast to the nation. Much of what we think of as typically “English” today derives from the Second World War. The enduring “Blitz Spirit”, Churchill’s rousing and endlessly quoted speeches, and the idea that the English are somehow always on the right side of history. Such notions predate 1939, yet fighting the Führer seemed to bring them to the forefront in an unprecedented way. The military entanglements of our own century have called such sentiments into question more than ever before.

Despite the elation that followed VE day, austerity marked the immediate post-war period, and rationing continued in Britain until 1954. The loss of the Empire dealt a further calamitous blow to national pride, but it took a while for the repercussions to be fully realised, because, as H.G. Wells wryly observed, “In England we have come to rely upon a comfortable time-lag of a century intervening between the perception that something ought to be done and a serious attempt to do it.”

By the 1960s, with the onset of the “permissive society”, Britain began to change even more rapidly. A change reflected in the political figures that towered over the decade. Mount ignores Harold Wilson, who smoked a pipe in public (cigars in private) and readopted the Huddersfield accent he had dropped at Oxford in a bid to broaden his appeal, but pays due respect to the more literary politicians Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey. The 1970s was from beginning to end a decade of even greater contrasts. Beginning with the election of Edward Heath, who opened the floodgates in the handover of a millennium of sovereignty to Europe by facilitating Britain’s entry into the EEC, the decade culminated in the 1979 election of our first and, so far, only female Prime Minister. When examining Heath’s record, Mount fulminates with righteous indignation at his 1972 Local Government Act, which redrew the boundaries of some of England’s most ancient counties, including Mount’s — and my own — home county of Berkshire, which had remained virtually unchanged since the time of Alfred the Great.

“The real tragedy of England as I see it,” D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile.” Discussing Betjeman, who in 1937 famously implored “friendly bombs” to obliterate Slough, which was actually then in Buckinghamshire, and the German-born Nikolaus Pevsner, who described Berkshire as “half home county, half West Country”, one gets the impression that just as Brooke felt a spiritual pull towards the sacred earth of England, Mount retains a comparable veneration for the county. 

The natural landscape of England has been the nurturer, muse and lover of its inhabitants throughout our history. The English have a robustly physical, indeed carnal, connection to their land. Why do you think Englishwomen were once supposed “to lie back and think of England”? As Mount explains, the widespread misconception that the English are sexually repressed is primarily a construct of the late Victorian age. The Hungarian George Mikes, however, in his 1946 book How to Be an Alien still claimed: “Continental people have a sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.” Married to an Englishwoman, Mikes tells us more about the mischievous Hungarian sense of humour than the ability of our girls to satiate them.

When it comes to sex, the key to the English approach is not bashfulness but understatement. Mount tells us that even the debauched Lytton Strachey, who never missed an opportunity to sneer at the “eminent Victorians”, was curiously reticent when discussing sexual matters beyond the confines of Bloomsbury. Although it must be remembered that Strachey’s homosexuality might well have landed him in prison, Mount estimates that the number of men of his social class imprisoned for homosexual acts was so small as to be negligible.

As Mount acknowledges, working-class homosexuals were rarely afforded equal licence for their indiscretions, which brings us back to the unavoidable subject of the English and class. In Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (1908), Hotchkiss declares that “the whole strength of England lies in the fact that the enormous majority of the English people are snobs.” We are told that class does not matter any more because we are all now essentially middle class, but Shaw’s maxim rings almost as true today. No doubt some will wince at the unquestionably elitist bent of Mount’s collection, but that is surely preferable to the reverse snobbery that has permeated English society over the past half a century.

In the Irish playwright Arthur Murphy’s 1758 farce, The Upholsterer: or what news?, after contemplating the dismal state of European politics, the character Mr Pamphlet concludes that “the People of England are never so happy as when you tell ’em they are ruined.” A year after the play was first performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, William Pitt the Younger was born. After his meteoric climb to the top of the greasy pole at the tender age of 24, he presided over major upheaval domestically and abroad. As his health steadily declined, aided by his penchant for port, his fears for the future of England grew. His final public speech, given at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet on November 9, 1805 — a fortnight after the Battle of Trafalgar — both embodies how the English have always seen themselves, and is remarkably pertinent today. “England has saved herself by her exertions,” he said, “and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.”

At Holwood House, Pitt’s country retreat, he and William Wilberforce resolved to abolish the slave trade as they wandered the grounds. Discussing the spread of civilisation and liberty under the shady refuge of an oak tree — what could possibly be more English?