Images of Englishness II

Dot writes: it’s peculiar to see your own country through other people’s eyes. I was struck by this most recently when Anne commented on my recent post on the children’s story Guess How Much I Love You, saying that it was ‘too twee, too English’. I was really disconcerted by this comment, because I don’t associate the English and the twee; the parts of England I have lived in longest, Norfolk and Yorkshire, are both places where the skies are big, the winds are keen, and the locals take no nonsense. But the association seems to be a familiar one for the Irish; or at least, as Ken pointed out to me, Anne Enright has her narrator make this connection in The Gathering:

I look out the window and am surprised that the Downs exist. There has always been something childish about England for me.
Haywards Heath
Burgess Hill
Names so silly and twee they must be made up. The constant surprise of this land, that it is actually green and actually pleasant. (p. 41)

When I moved to Ireland I was rather conscious of being a representative, albeit by inheritance only, of the forces of colonial oppression, but nobody ever mentioned it. What I didn’t expect was this curiously patronizing attitude. I suppose it is analogous to the attitude the English often show towards the Americans, as a nation conceived as being richer and stronger but concomitantly more naive, less wise in suffering than ourselves.

For what England conspicuously is in contrast to Ireland, is populous and rich, and well-groomed in the way that only a country that has been wealthy for some time can be. Now I’ve moved away I notice just how many beautiful old buildings there are, lovely old farm buildings and cottages in brick or stone (flint in my native Norfolk) or even timber, and handsome town-houses in even many of the small towns (often sensitively adapted to host branches of Woolworths, but there you go). Parts of Dublin are as fine as anything you might meet in an English city (I’m thinking particularly of the Georgian area around Merrion Square), but the small towns and hamlets, such as I have seen, are surprisingly drab, and the practice generally seems to be to allow older buildings to collapse and erect characterless pebble-dashed new ones instead rather than spend money on maintenance or restoration. The Irish landscape is sometimes stunning, but the built environment is rarely as sheerly pretty as some (by no means all) English towns and villages can be. Once you get used to Ireland, or indeed Scotland, England can seem very opulent, very soft, very floral, and at its softest and fanciest – golden stone and cream teas in the Cotswolds, or half-timbered cottages with roses round the door in Suffolk – it might get a bit too much like a postcard. It’s all a question of perspective. When we were living in Scotland, we took a trip to Caithness and Orkney, and on our return we realised that Fife was actually a land of milk and honey.

By the way, who could seriously maintain that ‘Haywards Heath’ is as silly as ‘Ballybogy’?


10 thoughts on “Images of Englishness II

  1. Helen Conrad O'Briain

    I can remember our Alice at about the age of twelve, snickering over Biggleswade when she discovered it on the map.
    She lives there now.
    In fairness, Tidy Towns has made an enormous difference – and there are some truly charming – perhaps even ‘twee’ towns – I’m thinking of Abbeyleix for example, one of the prettiest bottlenecks in the world.
    I am not sure that the white pebble dash is a bad idea. One of the most stunning things about Ireland is that shocking white against the green.
    By the way, I’ve always liked Twomile Borris as a name.

  2. Dot,

    But ‘Ballybogy’ was made ‘Ballybogy’ by the English; in Irish it is Baile na Bhogaigh!

    Irish culture has always been expressed much more strongly in literature and music than in visual artefacts, perhaps a function of the centuries long impoverishment of the country.

    Irish villages are drab compared to those in the south of England; but then how well do English villages compare with those in the French Midi?

  3. Dot

    My view of Ireland’s small towns is rather an unfair one, as I haven’t been to Cork or Kerry and the part I know best is the Midlands – unlovely by anyone’s standards. White pebbledash can be good. Unfortunately it is often grey pebbledash.

    Norfolk placenames are remarkable chiefly for the often bizarre disparity between how they are spelt and how they are pronounced. ‘Happisburgh’, for example, is pronounced ‘Haysbruh’. ‘Stiffkey’ is ‘Stookey’.

  4. But I love the English placenames – hence the hours spent pouring over maps.

    I have always rather cringed at the proliferation of the pebble dash and the new bungalows that you see about the countryside in Ireland, sitting “plonk” right on an an area of concrete, all around it unfinished, in a former field.

  5. Helen Conrad O'Briain

    Point taken on the siting of a lot of new building in Ireland.
    Don’t let the ‘English’ take all the credit. It couldn’t have helped that the Irish had cattle-raiding as an off-season alternative to hurling.
    I shall probably start a fire storm here, but when you have a reasonably organized, land-hungry neighbour (particularly Normans of any hyphenation) you can not afford to indulge in internal squabbles over anything, including wives.
    My favorite English place names unfortunately don’t really exist, although I wish they did: Dunnamanywenches and Duke’s Doddery.

  6. We were talking about this post this morning, the Chris and I, before becoming distracted by the need for breakfast (we are but weak). I wondered about this as a matter of cultural identity (colonial oppression aside).

    Take as a point of comparison the several nationalist movements around the European fringes between about 1880 and 1900; at that point or recently under other bigger people; linked to variants on arts & crafts, art nouveau, Jugendstil, etc. Belgium (where I grew up), Austria, and the Scandinavian and Baltic countries (ex. Finland). Yes, there are things going on in Britain, France, and Germany, but either of a socialist persuasion (ex. Morris), and hence tied to marginality; or (ex. Galle) as a spin-off or not necessarily considering themselves part of the same general thing). With novelty (and refashioning, renaissance, and some revisionism) happening in architecture, assorted visual arts, music, literature, plus history “proper.”

    And then there’s the Irish renaissance that can be considered, to some extent, part of that same broad European historical moment. Mainly – and this ties in well with Ian’s response – in the less tangible and concrete arts, especially poetry and music (OK, we’ll allow other forms of literature too).
    And stereotypes about Irish culture today? Poetry, music, dancing, the art of conversation, with the assistance of pubs.

    If you add in the other historical feature, of emigration – before that renaissance of a century or so back, as well as after it – it’s all quite sensible. Cultural products that cost little or nothing, can be carried about with one, and may be transplanted elsewhere, without causing any disruption to one’s new habitat.

    And then the 1980s rapid enrichment maybe happened too fast for cultural distinctness to spread to more expensive and solid cultural artefacts? I’m looking out a window towards some of those clunky ugly four-square houses that could have been built at any point between 1950 and 2000, and could just as well be anywhere else in this archipelago …
    But I suppose the good news is that come the recession, literature and music can be as strong as ever. Even if we have to share books, learn their contents off, put up more stuff for free online – bah to expensive print-culture as an evolutionary blip.

  7. Helen Conrad O'Briain

    1980’s? – no, we were going bankrupt in the ’80’s. things didn’t really start to turn around until the ’90’s.
    How soon we forget.

  8. Um, Dot, could I just clarify here that I thought you were antipodean. It’s all very confusing. I would never actually have said that about being too twee and too English had I known you were English. Obviously, I would have thought it, but you know, I might have made my comment slightly more polite. Does this make things better or worse? Yours in mortification, Anne

  9. Dot

    Anne, Ken is from New Zealand, so there is some excuse for your confusion! I felt a bit bad about targeting you, as it were. I always enjoy reading your blog; let’s hope I’ve generated you some hits, at least.

    It does us good to look at ourselves from an unfamiliar point of view. I found your comment surprising and was trying to excavate some of what it might be about. I probably ended up being ruder about Ireland than I meant to be – though I stand by my comments on the ugly houses; I’d just like to balance it by saying something about Ireland’s many good qualities. A future post.

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