Saturday, 13 May 2006

We English

SATURDAY AFTERNOON: A Derbyshire Village. L.S.Lowry, 1943

In a post about warm beer a couple of years ago I commented on some of George Orwell’s much misquoted remarks about the characteristics of the English which he made in a 1941 essay called The Lion and the Unicorn.
I have just been re-reading a book he published in 1947 called The English People which goes into much more detail about what he considered to be the defining features of Englishness as they might be observed by an unprejudiced foreigner. It is interesting, nearly sixty years later, to look at those he chose, and to decide which are as accurate today as they were then and which are no longer true. Here is a selection of both kinds, unsorted:

• The language of the BBC is barely intelligible to the masses.
• The tall, lanky physique which is traditionally English is almost confined to the upper classes: the working classes, as a rule, are rather small and with a tendency among the women to grow dumpy in early middle life.
• [A foreign observer] …would find the salient characteristics of the English common people to be artistic insensibility, gentleness, respect for legality, suspicion of foreigners, sentimentality about animals, hypocrisy, exaggerated class distinctions and an obsession with sport.
• Except for certain well-defined areas in half a dozen big towns there is very little crime or violence.
• There is a general feeling that the law will be scrupulously administered, that a judge or magistrate cannot be bribed, and that no-one will be punished without trial.
• Almost never is any major honour bestowed on anyone describable as an intellectual.
• For perhaps a hundred and fifty years, organised religion, or conscious religious belief of any kind, have had very little hold on the mass of the English people.
• A tendency to support the weaker side merely because it is weaker is almost general in England; hence the admiration for a “good loser” and the easy forgiveness of failures, either in sport, politics or war.
• They will refuse even to sample a foreign dish … they regard such things as garlic and olive oil with disgust, life is unlivable to them unless they have tea and puddings.
• Poetry, the art in which England has above all others excelled, has for more than a century had no appeal whatever for the common people … indeed the very word “poetry” arouses either derision or embarrassment in ninety-eight people out of a hundred.
• At this moment the mass of the English people are mildly republican. But it may well be that another long reign, similar to that of George V, would revive royalist feeling and make it—as it was between roughly 1880 and 1936—an appreciable factor in politics.
• Imported labourers with low standards of living, such as the Irish, are greatly looked down on.
• The man of obviously upper-class appearance can usually get more than his fair share of deference from commissionaires, ticket-collectors, policemen and the like.
• It is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner.
• Except for a handful of “self-made men” and Labour politicians, those who control our destinies are the product of about a dozen public schools and two universities.

[A very few of these comments may have been inaccurate then and remain so. Even Orwell, acute observer and honest critic that he was, didn’t always get it right, as we can now see. But on almost everything he was more nearly right than any of his contemporaries.]


doris said...

Thanks for tipping me off on this book. I am much unread but love it when I do come across a gem.

On the last item you listed I reckon that we can now count Labour politicians as also coming from those few schools and universities.

As an aside, I like it that you list reviews of your blog and then give your own rating to their review. What a laugh!

David said...

i followed doris here, and I am glad I did

Anonymous said...


Tony said...

What for? And who are you?