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Britishness

Britain is a bewilderingly motley nation of phlegmatic grumblers, says the author and editor – a seaside resort-going, class-conscious people haunted by loss of empire, and we can’t even agree on what the country is called

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    1

    The Kingdom by the Sea
    by Paul Theroux

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    2

    Waterland
    by Graham Swift

  • The British Common People

    3

    The British Common People
    by GDH Cole and Raymond Postgate

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    4

    Farewell the Trumpets
    by James Morris

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    5

    Collected Poems
    by John Betjeman

Matthew Engel

Matthew Engel is a British writer, editor, and author of Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain. He was a journalist at The Guardian for nearly 25 years, and now writes a column in the Financial Times. In 2011 Engel was the News International Visiting Professor of Media at the University of Oxford. He also edited the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack for 12 years

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Matthew Engel

Matthew Engel is a British writer, editor, and author of Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain. He was a journalist at The Guardian for nearly 25 years, and now writes a column in the Financial Times. In 2011 Engel was the News International Visiting Professor of Media at the University of Oxford. He also edited the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack for 12 years

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How hard was it to put together this list? It’s pitiless of us to only give you five selections with which to capture something of what it means to be British.

It was impossible. Reading some of the other interviews on your site, I notice that people write comments saying: “You should have chosen such and such!” I decided two things. First, that I wouldn’t choose a book by anyone I knew, from very close friends – possibly ex-friends now I didn’t choose their book – to casual acquaintances. Second, that I wasn’t going to do this to impress anyone. I simply chose the books on my shelf that I felt the need to read again. I have read all but one of them at least twice, and in the case of John Betjeman many times over. Every one of them I want to read again.
I thought about selecting some of the books that have been written about new Britain – Monica Ali [Brick Lane] or Zadie Smith [White Teeth]. That’s one aspect of the country. Then there are the elegiac writers about traditional England, and you get a completely different view of it.

For Britain, as for anywhere else, there are a lot of stereotypes about, and from the outside it can be seen as homogeneous. I come from Oxford, and tourists persistently seem to think that everyone in Britain talks like me.

This is a place of extraordinary complexity. I will always remember when I attempted to explain to my son, aged eight, the difference between England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Britain, Great Britain and the British Isles. There is no other country that doesn’t know what it’s called. There are more accents in this tiny area than, I believe, anywhere else in the world. And there’s no accurate way of describing the team that will compete for this country in the Olympic games.
Within Britain, there are many gradations. You could move 20 miles and be somewhere with different traditions and a different way of life. In London you only have to move one stop up the underground line and you’re in a completely different world. It’s a phenomenally diverse and fascinating country, which no one person can get entirely. Nobody has ever been sure of the difference between England and Britain, for instance – or rather, the two have been used interchangeably and confusedly for generations. Walter Bagehot’s famous book was called The English Constitution, even though it was about all of the United Kingdom.

Where does your own love of the country spring from?

It starts with being here as a slight outsider. My father was born in Antwerp, and came to England as a two-year-old when the First World War broke out. I’m Jewish, which means I have another culture in which I was educated. So I think I have something of an outsider’s eye.
I lived in the US for two years, and am fascinated by America, but decided I really didn’t want to live in any country other than this one. I hated being an expat. I particularly hated in Washington that summer is not something you look forward to – it is something you dread and avoid because it is hot, humid and mosquito-ridden. I missed the rhythm of the year here, culminating in mid-summer. This is a wonderful time to be in England. I have never quite understood why people take holidays abroad in the summer.

Talking of an outsider’s eye, in The Kingdom by the Sea Paul Theroux looks at Britain from an American’s perspective.

This was his journey around Britain in 1982, with the Falklands war as a backdrop. He travelled around the British coast, taking trains to seaside towns. The Kingdom by the Sea is a lovely title for a book. He brought his American view to the most British part of Britain – the seaside resort. There is one wonderful riff in it, after his brain had been sufficiently addled by travel, where in two pages he creates a composite seaside resort. It’s a sustained joke with a huge amount of truth to it, and one of the most memorable and funniest passages of travel writing that I know.

What else do you enjoy about Theroux’s writing?

He was an enormously fresh writer at that stage, and had a wonderfully unflinching eye. There are two other travel authors who share that quality in particular. One is Geoffrey Moorhouse, my old mentor, who had an unfailing honesty to him – he was an absolutely trustworthy guide. The other is Bill Bryson, who is a captivating writer but he’s there primarily for the jokes rather than the insights. I think Theroux is somewhere between the two.
He was also immensely prolific. I read The Great Railway Bazaar when I was 25, on my first long distance travel trip. I was in Africa and he was writing about Asia, but it had an enormous influence on me as the kind of book that I would one day like to write.

You certainly share a love-hate relationship with trains.

Yes, and in fact The Great Railway Bazaar was the seed that became Eleven Minutes Late.

Moving from the sea to the Fens, I remember reading Waterland at school. In the reading the book feels like a swamp itself, impenetrable and runny.

I have never enjoyed any of Swift’s other books quite as much as Waterland. But then I have never enjoyed any other book quite as much. This was written at the same time as the Paul Theroux, published in 1983. It’s a delightful marriage of fiction and landscape. It’s set in the Fens, mixing real history, fictional history and a present-day story. And it insinuates itself into your mind in the same way that the waters of the Fens insinuate themselves into the landscape – the way the water and the land intermingle.

He makes a thing of the phlegmatic quality of the characters in the book. Do you think there is something phlegmatic about British people in general?

Yes, it is absolutely one of our perceived characteristics. It ties into our nature as a nation of grumblers rather than complainers. We’re too shy to say what we think to the people we want to say it to, so we say it to ourselves and to others instead.
Swift also makes you see the processes of history that are nothing to do with kings, queens and prime ministers. There’s a quote that captures this:

“So forget, indeed, your revolutions, your turning points, your grand metamorphoses of history. Consider, instead, the slow and arduous process, the interminable and ambiguous process – the process of human siltation – of land reclamation.”

I’m not in any way a novelist. My only attempt lies in a computer file which I hope no one else will ever find. But what I value most about writing in general, and what I aspire to when I’m doing it myself, is seeing things from the bottom up. I believe that five hours with the managing director will teach you far less than five minutes with a bloke on the shop floor. That’s what I’m always hunting for. Writers who can tell you about a place, or a subject, and make you think of it in that way are rare – and incredibly rare in newspapers.

Tell us about the common people, if that’s not too grand-sounding a question.

There are quite a few radical histories like this being written now, but this one is from 1938. A lot of it is incredibly dated, like the use of the phrase “post war” to mean after the First World War. It was written at a time when socialism was not totally discredited as an ideology, and you would be wrong to accept every one of the assumptions that lie behind it. But with that caveat, it’s full of absolutely fascinating facts about the small changes in British life from 1746 to 1938, and about the working class. It’s a classic book that makes you think about Britain in a different way.

Give us a word on class. How informative is it to British culture?

Every country has a class system, especially the ones that tell you they don’t. What is unusual about this country is the extent to which accent comes into it. We classify everyone we meet based on their accent, which works on two levels – regional and in class terms. Some accents are effectively classless: Edinburgh, for instance. Other accents are emphatically not, such as cockney. I think that classification based on accent is the key to the class system here. It permeates the way in which we think about each other.

Let’s move onto Farewell the Trumpets, by James – later Jan – Morris.

This is the third book in the Morris trilogy, which she wrote in a period of her life when she was doing something very unusual indeed, changing sex from James to Jan. There is a feyness – “fey” is a very Jan Morris word – to the whole work which I like to think is a product of this extraordinary decision that the writer had taken. She was researching the books and travelling around the former British Empire in a state of sexual ambiguity.
There are probably other books on the British Empire that are more factually reliable, but none are as evocative and as beautifully written as these. She was also the absolute – I’m trying to find a non-sexual word here – queen of the dying art of the footnote. Hers are the best footnotes of any book I have ever read. They’re not sources, just wonderful asides on curious but slightly irrelevant facts, and they are absolutely adorable.
The first book in the trilogy, Heaven’s Command, is about the rise of the British Empire. Then comes Pax Britannica, a portrait of the Empire as it was at its zenith, in 1897 with the diamond jubilee [of Queen Victoria]. Farewell the Trumpets is about what happened after 1897 – the long, slow decline – and it has an elegiac quality to it which I adore.

How important is the loss of empire to how contemporary Britain views itself?

It is one of the central facts of our story. When we talk about not knowing who we are, or what the name of our country is, the old Empire is a major part of that. A hundred years ago, Australians thought of themselves – and were thought of – as slightly different Englishmen, no more exotic than the Scots. Rather less so, in some ways. Even in my lifetime, Australians habitually referred to England as home, until that was knocked out of them by the Commonwealth immigration acts. We are totally bound up with the Empire. That a city like Birmingham is now on the cusp, if it hasn’t already happened, of being more than half non-white is just one of its legacies.

Is nostalgia more broadly a particularly British quality? I occasionally feel it is.

Well, I pity the country that isn’t nostalgic. If you don’t have an idealised past in which everything was better than it is today, it probably means that the actual past was bloody awful.

What does John Betjeman mean to you as a poet?

I considered the possibility of choosing an obscure poet to impress you, but kept coming back to Betjeman, who conjured up an Englishness that nobody else has. There is more mundane reality with Philip Larkin. Larkin is the poet of the way we are. Betjeman is the poet of the way we would like ourselves to be. He combined an evocation of England with a command of ordinary human emotions. There is one poem he wrote called “The Hon. Sec.” which I’ll read the final verse of:

“A gentle guest, a willing host, / Affection deeply planted –
It's strange that those we miss the most / Are those we take for granted.”

It makes me a bit teary actually, because it brings back precisely those people without ever knowing how much their loss would mean.

How were his poems particularly English?

It was his use of landscape. He had a wonderful sense of place. He did the Shell guides for Devon and Cornwall, which are among my set texts whenever I am travelling there.

He was also a great champion of architecture, and saved some of Britain’s most British buildings, such as St Pancras railway station in London, from destruction.

It’s much broader than that. He had an eye for the spirit of a place. I believe that every county, every town and every village in Britain has its own particular genius. That is what I’m working at describing in the book I’m writing now [to be published in 2014]. If I can sum up in 160,000 words what Betjeman was capable of capturing in 160 words, then I will be happy with what I have achieved.

Right, I’ve got to ask it now – do we have special occasion to be proud of Britain with the summer Olympics?

Oh, give me a break. I am due to report the Olympics, I am absolutely determined to enjoy the Olympics, but I wish they were being staged in Paris. It’s true I don’t like leaving England in the summer, but in this case I wish I was far away from the Olympic bubble, where the laws of our country will be subordinate to the whims of the International Olympic Committee. The whole thing is a completely mad act of self-aggrandisement.

I also can’t let you go without a word on cricket, that perennially English game, given your long editorship of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.

Cricket is a part of us. No one else could have invented quite such an absurd game. Cricket is protean. It can be a serene game played on a country field where nothing much happens, watched by half a dozen snoozing people in deck chairs with the sun in the sky and the kettle on. Or it can be a hundred thousand Indians packed into a stadium, watching helmeted figures dressed in colourful clothing whack the ball all over the place amid deafening roars and dancing girls. It is an incredibly adaptable game, with myriad qualities. And that, of course, is the essence of the United Kingdom itself.

Interview by Alec Ash

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