By The Landlord
“England is a nation of shopkeepers.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
“We’re the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine
We're the future, your future
God save the queen, we mean it, man
There is no future in England's dreaming.” – John Lydon
“Y'all are so cute and y'all talk so proper over here. I love England.” – Beyoncé Knowles
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England …
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” – Shakespeare, Richard II
Oh England! What is it? Who are we? What will become of us? Once great and glorious? It’s a country that’s in some ways no longer sure what it is anymore or where it belongs, but wrestles with problems of identity and politics, of past conquests and confidence, and now companion continents. Never have the final words of John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II been more apt. Or is that really so? Aren’t we still cocky, creative, ironic and arrogant? This week we’re not to get bogged down in current issues so much, but instead explore the colourful charms and oddnesses of this country as mentioned in song, in all its beauty and its ugliness.
Previous topics have touched on, in general, a handful of songs about northern England, as well as Yorkshire, and focused on Manchester in particular including songs from there, and these areas can still count, but there’s also much else to explore. Songs about New England have also been done in the past, but of course that’s elsewhere, so instead remember we’re talking not about Wales, or Scotland or Northern Ireland (these have their own place for topics), but within the borders of that body country within so-called Great Britain, something that is in many ways old England, but also a different, new England.
Ideally our quest is to dig up songs with English place names, well-known or obscure, but of course that also helps define Englishness. So what does it mean to be English, and what qualities have we exported to the rest of the world, to America to Europe, to India, to Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere?
Who are the English? A nation of inventors, eccentrics, big drinkers and fighters, fashion designers, pop artists, world-changing scientists? Does that hail from stiff upper-lipness, a contradictory class system, urban cool and urbane uptightness, pagan rituals and folk frolic, strange, snoozy shires, complicated, lengthy games like cricket filled with silly terms and statistics, or sports to fail at, or excel at that all involve sitting down and repetition – rowing, cycling, showjumping. Perhaps Napoleon was right about us as shopkeepers, we like to keep records, keep our castles tidy, we do indeed like sitting and quizzes and repeats, we’re the best at sport in pubs - snooker, darts and of course, drinking. And yet while we like fish and chips (a dish that could have come from the French), our favourite national cuisine is curry.
England is a melting pot, a Monopoly board of opportunity, all sorts of people can come in, but are you allowed to fit in? Hopefully you are, and can, and will, if you can untangle the madness of our silly spellings and our unwritten constitution, our absurd levels of secrecy and discretion, our ruling elite and ridiculous royals, our piss-poor parliament and crazy councils.
But this week it’s also all about stretching musical and lyrical exploration to every corner of this core nation. From Alnwick to Abingdon, Blackpool to Bristol, Bury to Bugbrooke, Canterbury to Cambridge, Colchester to Carlisle, Clovelly to Cleethorpes, Luton to Leicester, Lincoln to Leeds, Folkestone to Kingston-upon-Hull or on-Thames, Penzance to Pontefract, Redcar to Rochdale, Scarborough to Southwold,Windermere to Wookey Hole.
And yes, England is full of strange place names that are variously descriptive, musical or wobbly bottom rude, including street names. Perhaps our journey will take us to Chew Magna, Cheddar or Butcombe? Blubberhouses, Besses o'the Barn or Bunny? Need some rest if you've gone to Droop or Horrid Hill? How about a short stay in Great Snoring? Have a laugh in Giggleswick? Take a ride in Donkey Town? Discover Catbrain? Short of ideas? Then travel to New Invention, or go crazy in Crackpot? Feeling hungry or sorry for yourself? Then maybe Curry Mallet or Pity Me?
English place names get earthier still - belchingly beautiful or in raunchily rude health. By the time you've arrived in Cum, or Come, you've probably gone. That's because they are tiny hamlets, or even street names. Then there's Bell End or Minge Lane in Worcesteshire, Brown Willy in Cornwall, Dicks Mount in Suffolk, Crotch Crescent in Oxford, Boggy Bottom in Hertfordshire or a Scatchy Bottom in Dorset, Nob End in Lancashire or Fanny Barks in Durham.
But remember, we won't be visiting Twatt in Orkney, Scotland, or waving any anatomy into Wales, or Northern Ireland. This is an England-only event, and there is plenty of scope for crossing those borders in the future.
So then, there’s endless opportunites for exploration, and of course in this very Briish pub that welcomes readers from all around the world (particularly now huge numbers from our friends in the US), come in and have a pint, and a chat, and among these let’s see what some of our guests have to say about England.
“What other country … could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start?” says the travel writer Bill Bryson. Spot on, Bill.
Another oddity about England is, in comparison to other countries, how despite media and internet and everything else that keeps us in touch culturally, we have so many dialects and accents. “There’s an accent shift, on average, every 25 miles in England,’” says the scholar David Crystal. When I was 15, I walked the Pennine Way with a couple of school friends, and it’s astonishing to witness those changes by the step.
Ian Brown of strides into the Bar now, with that distinctive simian gait. “It’s like this, right. You with me?” he snaps, and suddenly everyone is listening. “England's a small nation, and the pop music industry is built on fashion.” And then off he goes.
But talking of fashion, here’s supermodel Naomi Campbell, who is, let us not forget, English. “I love England, especially the food. There's nothing I like more than a lovely bowl of pasta.” That’s a bit like the UKIP candidate who said: “What’s the French for croissant?”
We can also take the piss out ourselves. “The willingness to be self-critical in England is much greater than the willingness to be self-critical in America,” says Malcolm Gladwell.
England is all about pasta and curry and diversity. But what about the class system. It’s rife, even now, even though people don’t like to admit it. Here’s Pete Townshend, seeing a downside and an upside to it: “Even modern English people are imperious, superior, ridden by class. All of the hypocrisy and the difficulties that are endemic in being British also make it an incredibly fertile place culturally. A brilliant place to live. Sad but true. Pete Townshend. And JK Rowling has just walked into the Bar. “I think you could ask 10 English people the same question about class and get a very different answer,” she says.
Here’s wise old owl Brian Eno on the subject: “The biggest crime in England is to rise above your station. It's fine to be a pop star. 'Oh, it's great, lots of fun, aren't they sweet, these pop stars! But to think you have anything to say about how the world should work? What arrogance!’
It created punk and so much more, but England is also conservative, at least with a small c. “In England we have come to rely upon a comfortable time-lag of fifty years or a century intervening between the perception that something ought to be done and a serious attempt to do it,” says HG Wells.
But how is it perceived by those abroad? Perhaps that’s an interesting, if not always accurate perspective. We’re already heard from Beyoncé. Now let’s hear from the great Otis Redding: “I love England from head to toe. I love the weather, the people. I was there in the summer and it was nice. The people are so groovy.” Yeah, groovy, baby!
If I could create an ideal world, it would be an England with the fire of the Elizabethans, the correct taste of the Georgians, and the refinement and pure ideals of the Victorians,” says H.P. Lovecraft. That’s the thing, England is especially associated more with its past, Elizabethan (the first), Jane Austen, A Merchant-Ivory glimmering vision. It’s all Dickens and Brideshead Revisited, or even in the present, more Four Weddings And Funeral, not so much Kes or Saturday Night-Sunday Morning.
“Americans like to think ‘Monty Python' is how English people really are. There is an element of truth to that,” says Eric Idle. Is he right. What do you think, whether you’re English, American or from elsewhere?
And of course there’s many upsides to being in England. We tend not to shoot the shit out each other. We bite our lip. We have long fuses, or at least use to. Here’s WH Auden on that: “It's frightening how easy it is to commit murder in America. Just a drink too much. I can see myself doing it. In England, one feels all the social restraints holding one back.”
And yet when the English snap, they really snap. Noam Chomsky joins our learned throng to point out that, “The first democratic revolution was England in the 1640s.” Indeed. We chopped off Charles I’s head, with the aim create a new democracy. Unfortunately it wasn’t as much fun as we’d hoped, so we did a reverse-ferret. How very English. We like to rock the stage, but not the boat.
Rocking this stage, and no doubt bringing with it many insights and great guidance, I’m delighted to reveal that this week’s guru helping us take a tour of merry and otherwise England, is the brilliant barbryn! Place your songs on this topic in comments below - deadline Monday 11pm UK time, for playlists published on Wednesday. Everyone is welcome, and remember – England is not just for the English.
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