Here’s my speech at the British Future event on what makes Britain great. I was arguing for Literature as the greatest influence on British life.
There is feedback on this and the other pitches over at the British Future website. I was pleased that broadcaster Mark Easton and author Natasha Walter voted for my pitch, but it was actually Migration that got the most votes.
This speech is informed by two books I’ve been reading recently. The first is Embassy Town by China Mieville, which is a science fiction novel. The aliens in the book have evolved an innate language, and whenever they want to say something new, they have to physically manufacture metaphors.
And the other is a book that we at English PEN have given an award to, its The Information by James Gleick, a history of information from the first words to e-mail. But something in Gleick’s book was very interesting. He says that when the Oxford English Dictionary compilers compile words for the English language, they go to the literature to find examples of those words. And this reminded me of the China Mieville science fiction novel, this idea that you can’t really think, the modern person can’t really think, unless they have words, and these words, more often than not, come from literature.
And we’ve mentioned Shakespeare several times, he’s the obvious guy to mention, introduced hundreds of new words to the English language, I looked them up on the train: Addiction, amazement, arouse and assassination; and that’s just the a’s.
Also, Shakespeare’s clichés. They weren’t clichés when he wrote them, but they are clichés now, that imbue our thoughts. A fools paradise; a sea-change; as pure as the driven snow; discretion is the better part of valour.
And also Shakespeare’s concepts as well: not just these phrases that pepper our language, but ideas about romantic love, honour, justice, which we have talked a lot about today, and kingship, come direct from Shakespeare, and influence the way we speak. And particularly influence our political journalists who are obsessed with framing everything in modern politics in Shakespearean terms. That can’t fail to have an effect on a nation’s self image, that we are part of some grand narrative.
The archetypes aren’t just from Shakespeare, they are from all over literature. I think these archetypes persist because of literature’s permanence and longevity which other media don’t quite have. Staying with the ‘Premier League’ of novelists from the canon: Dickens of course. ‘Scrooge’ is a word, ‘Dickensian’ itself is a word, describing a particular social problem that was solved, in no small part, by the writings of Charles Dickens!
We can also think of Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, their characters stretching against their social and geographical constraints that have a real impact on feminist thought and the way we consider a woman’s place in modern society.
One more: Orwellism is another pejorative political concept that dominates our discussion.
A quick sneaky move now, and I wonder if the dragons will let me have this? Are political texts and tracts and economic tracts literature? What about Adam Smith, what about John Stuart Mill? And I remember an anecdote, Mrs Thatcher throwing a book on the table saying “this is what we believe” – It was a book, a well written book by Hayek! Are you going to let me have that? I don’t know, we’ll move on.
But to labour this point that literature is the bedrock of culture: All our national treasures, like Judi Dench and Ian McKellan, they have made their careers speaking literature. Our national treasures on the TV, our newsreaders, are also for the most part literary historians: Marr, Paxman, Humprhys, Easton!
The TV channels will simply not stick money into something unless it has a strong literary pedigree (or in the case of Downtown Abbey, it pretends to have a literary pedigree). All TV detectives are literary detectives first. And as for the literary influence on film, I will just say “Harry Potter” and we can work all the way back through the canon from there.
I mention the canon, the literary canon. A bit of rhetorical ju-jitsu for you all now. You’re going to say to me, I know you’re all going to say “Rob, the canon of English literature is polluted!” What about all the Irishmen in there? Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce. What about the American influence? Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson. And Indians keep winning the Booker Prize!
And I say, yes, its all true, its all OK. Its the perfect metaphor for Britain. We’re comfortable with those new voices coming in – appropriating these people into our literary canon. And the fact is – Ian mentioned languages as being important, and I totlally echo that – we are a nation whose language and whose literature has been appropriated by the rest of the world, and this is our exceptionalism, and it cannot fail to have an effect on our psyche.
A final example of this, which I think David touched on at the very start: The King James Bible. It has had a huge influence on British ethics, morality, and language. And we can have an argument about whether we should put it in the fiction or non-fiction section. But as Michael Gove and Richard Dawkins both agree, it is most definitely literature.