Old folk at lunch

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What England means to me



Gareth Young has invited essays on "What England means to me" which he posts here. Below is my submission.

Most unusually for an Australian, I agree with Andrew Ian Dodge about English beer. Australians are used to German-style beer only (Lager) so it was an enormously pleasant experience for me to discover the English alternative: Real Ale. It is over 20 years since I have been in England but I still have fond memories of Ruddles County in particular.

I grew up on English books. I was born in the 1940s and just about the only children's books available in Australia at that time were imported from England. Additionally, the writers seemed mostly to be from the higher social strata of English society so the boys' books that I read were mostly about life in English Public Schools (now usually called "independent" schools to allay confusions among Americans). So there I was in small-town tropical Australia among crocodiles, sharks, deadly snakes and insects reading about crocuses and nightingales. And schoolboy cries of "cave" and "pax" had to be understood too. Fortunately Latin was still taught in my local High School at that time so I eventually understood where those cries came from.

And while I always felt that "bounders" and "cads" were excellent terms of disapprobation, it was the man "who goes too far" who best summed up Englishness for me. It was a not uncommon term of disapprobation in my boys' books and was a particularly final dismissal of anyone. To this day I still think it embodies a central English value and one that I still heartily agree with -- although I suspect that I myself may "go too far" on occasions. The concept is of course that there is a broad range of behaviour that can be tolerated but that there are nonetheless important limits that must not be transgressed. It is both a celebration of tolerance and a condemnation of "anything goes". It means that there ARE important standards that are needed for civility and that some things CANNOT wisely be tolerated.

Does that England still exist? I rather doubt it. Pockets of it no doubt remain but the relentless grinding-down of people by an educational system that transmits as little as it can from the past has left only instinct to guide Brits in that direction these days. I fervently hope that the instinct is strong but I am not optimistic.

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