Bleeding-heart liberal lefty internationalist remoaner I may be, but I love my country. My original plan had been to make a playlist based on specific places, but it turned into more of an exploration of English identity, and a celebration of England for those of us who don’t go in for the flag waving and the pomp and circumstance.
The English pastoral music of the early 20th century tugs at something deep within the soul. Delius, Holst and Ivor Gurney were all nominated, but it’s hard to look past Ralph Vaughan Williams and The Lark Ascending (played here by Iona Brown and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, conducted by Sir Neville Mariner). Written on the eve of the First World War, it’s “the most gorgeous evocation of a summer’s day out in the fields”, according to nominator Abahachi/Neville Morley. That yearning for a prelapsarian green and pleasant land is hardwired in the English psyche: it’s no coincidence that BBC listeners chose it as their number one Desert Island Disc.
The same longing runs through Oh England, My Lionheart by Kate Bush. A spitfire pilot falling to his death clings to images of home – Peter Pan in Kensington Park, flapping umbrellas, orchards and apple blossom.
There’s a vast distance between the England of 1920s variety shows and the England of 1970s punk, but Max Wall’s version of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory bridges it, rattling off a list of English icons: “Lady Chatterley, Muffin the Mule, Winston Churchill, Robin Hood / Beatrix Potter, Baden-Powell, Beecham's powders, Yorkshire pud.” As nominator Vasteriner says: “The Citizenship Test would be better off based on the subjects of this song rather than constitutional technicalities.”
Luke Haines, who could have easily filled this playlist on his own, offers a more sardonic take in Here’s To Old England: “Here’s to old England / Current buns, the bulldog breed / God bless Enoch Powell, rickets and TB.” Released in 2006, it seems prescient today, when many want a return to England circa 1973 while promising a glorious if unlikely future: “The first manned mission to Mars / An all-England Wimbledon final.” How about £350 million a week for the NHS and a free trade deal with Neverland while we’re at it?
I love my country, but I often feel ashamed of it too; contrary to populist belief, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey isn’t singing any anthems: “They say God save the queen / Britannia rules the waves / Britannia's in my genes / but Britannia called us slaves.” Written in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, Dear England lambasts a country that condemns looters but doesn’t question the culture that created them.
Nerina Pallot is the London-born daughter of an Indian mother and a half-French father. In English she despairs of the xenophobia directed at “those bloody strangers… doing jobs you’re too damn lazy to.” But she concludes:
I will always be English
And all I hope it is
These shores that I will claim as my own
This broken-down Jerusalem
Is still my home...
A broken-down Jerusalem you say? That’ll be Mark Stewart & The Maffia with a unique dub take on England’s unofficial national anthem (and what a strange kind of patriotic poem it is, the answer to all four questions posed in the first verse famously being “er, no”). Substitute this for The Fall, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Elgar’s orchestration if you prefer. Hubert Parry composed the music half a mile down the road from me, incidentally; I walk past his house with its blue plaque most days.
When songwriters want to get poetic about England, they like to call it Albion. In Pete Doherty’s hands, the name lends a washed-up romance to images of decay and despair, and elevates a litany of English anywhere-towns into something strangely grand. Doherty was 16 when he wrote it.
For comic observations on the minutiae of contemporary English life and references to English places, no one can match national treasures Half Man Half Biscuit. Somebody’s even made a map of all the locations mentioned in their collected works. For What Is Chatteris… is one of their very best. What good is the commendable one-way system, public transport and range of shops if the one you love isn’t there? “A market town that lacks quintessence / That’s Chatteris without your presence.”
I tried to avoid songs about That London, but Losing Haringey is far enough from the city centre to be anywhere – “Turkish supermarket after chicken restaurant after spare car part shop… Gravel-dashed houses alternated with square 60s offices, and the wide pavements undulated with cracks and litter.” The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean (English, despite the name) describes a transcendent experience, where he finds himself transported into a photograph taken in 1982 at his childhood home in Hampshire.
Frank Turner, too, sings of the pull of his Hampshire hometown of Winchester. This song was new to me and felt special: like him, I’m a Wessex Boy, having grown up in the next cathedral city to the west, Salisbury (much the same but with added Russian spy dramas.). But the sense of coming home should resonate wherever you’re from.
I shouldn’t pick another singer from Hampshire, and Maggie Holland’s original version of A Place Called England is zedded anyway. Luckily, the Young-Uns are from County Durham, and they turn it into an anthem to stir the heart of anyone who loves English earth:
England is not flag or Empire
It is not money it is not blood
It's limestone gorge and granite fell
It's Wealden clay and Severn mud
It's blackbird singing from the may-tree
Lark ascending through the scales
Robin watching from your spade
And English earth beneath your nails.
The English A roads:
Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
Kate Bush – Oh England, My Lionheart
Max Wall – England’s Glory
Luke Haines – Here’s To Old England
Lowkey ft. Mai Khalil – Dear England
Nerina Pallot – English
Mark Stewart & The Maffia – Jerusalem
Babyshambles – Albion
Half Man Half Biscuit – For What Is Chatteris…
The Clientele – Losing Haringey
Frank Turner – Wessex Boy
The Young-Uns – A Place Called England
The English B roads:
Patty Duke – England Swings (daft and fun – preferred this to the original)
Kano – This Is England (a reality check was needed)
MC Lars – UK Vice Versa (we like it when American dudes say nice things about us)
The Creepers – Derbyshire, 1987 (national-treasure-in-waiting Mark Riley in an earlier incarnation)
The Long Blondes – Peterborough (I lived in Peterborough – this song is more than it deserves)
Darren Hayman – Pram Town (why would you live anywhere else?)
The Jellybottys – Peter Cushing Lives In Whitstable (this was before it got gentrified)
Billy Bragg and the Blokes – England, Half English (discovered this was zedded, necessitating a last-minute rewrite)
The Oysterband – My Country Too (and I want it back!)
PJ Harvey – White Chalk (another Wessex girl – chalk downloads are the landscape I grew up in)
George Butterworth – Is My Team Ploughing? (a haunting song from A Shropshire Lad)
Dreadzone – A Canterbury Tale (I lived in Canterbury too – and we’re back to The Lark Ascending)
Guru’s Wildcard Pick:
Saint Etienne – Sweet Arcadia
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Merry? Divided? Dreaming? It's songs about England. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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