The Icons of England initiative looks like yet another attempt to define the undefinable, reducing culture to a set of simplistic cliches. The nominated symbols are a bizarre set, not least because many of them trivially do not qualify. The man who gave his name to the King James Bible was Jame VI of Scotland before he took on the English throne, so it is hard to see how his initiative is quintessentially English. The Spitfire won us the Battle of Britain, and seems to me a British rather than English icon. Likewise with the mini. The FA Cup takes in Welsh teams, and Stonehenge is made from Welsh stone. The Routemaster Bus has (a) just been abolished and (b) surely an icon of London, not England.
I think we have difficulty in defining Englishness precisely because it has for so long acted as a dominant culture. The English are the dominant group in the wider nation of Britain. The history of the country has percieved no cultural antagonist to guard against, and therefore there has been no need to exclude its smaller partners from sharing in the creation of ‘Britain’. Thus anything that we might hold up as an achievement for the English will invariably have hadsome Scottish, Welsh, Irish or Colonial input along the way (e.g. King James Bible, Spitfires) that makes ‘British’ an obviously more accurate description. Perversely, England’s history as the dominant part of Britain means that it cannot claim any icon or innovation as exclusively its own. If we search for icons local to a particular area, we find it difficult to prise ownership of the icons away from the locality (e.g. Routemaster Buses, Angel of the North).
Almost by definition, anything that is specific enough to be English and not British, but general enough to apply to the whole country and not a locality, is going to be an odd beast: The hymn ‘Jerusalem’ might fit the criteria we are looking for, although the flag waving patriotism associated with it alienates as many people as it inspires. It also suggests that we should make our green pleasant land more like an ancient city in the Middle-East, which should, I think, rule it out.
In the delightful Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson gives this observation:
To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.
Here in Edinburgh, I do not perceive any less enthusiam for a drink which is an infusion of leaves from a plant grown in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Kenya… in fact, anywhere but England. Even the trusty old cuppa is more a British than English icon.
The post meridiem counterpart to the cup-of-tea is, of course, the pint-of-beer in a traditional pub. And once again, we find these icons too pervasive throughout the union to be simply ‘English’. In Notes From A Small Island Bryson also points out the physical proximity of France to our shores, something that the British tend to ignore. But visiting a pub in Inverness presents much the same experience as walking into a pub in Dartmouth, both very different to visiting a bar in Cerbourg. Again, ‘The Pub’ is British, not English.
The same logic holds true for fish n’ chip shops. We need not discuss curry.
Once more, the flaw is in the very design of the quest. ‘English’ is not in the same genus as ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. By seeking actual things made and found in England we are looking in the wrong place for an English icon. We forget that since England has been a political force for centuries, the English language has persisted and grown in influence. It is the language, not the borders, that we should celebrate. In this sense, our net for English icons may be cast much wider. My nominations: The Gettysburg Address, Waltzing Matilda, The Simpsons… and The Indian Parliament.