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.
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’?