England and its people have fought and won many battles throughout history, but there is one battle where complete victory has remained elusive. This is the fight over our own soul, where competing forces have almost destroyed us. One force has constrained us into conformity and the other force draws upon our atavistic, instinctive impulse of rebellion.
However unlike continental Europe our rebellious spirit has been suppressed, as the late Jackie Mason once quipped “when an Englishman gets knocked over by a truck, he apologises to the truck”. The tolerance of tyrants, from Roman centurions to Norman barons is a remarkable feature of our history. Our inherent politeness and deference, even when our leaders harm us is inexplicable to outsiders, but as someone who has grown up embedded in the culture of this country I have a great affection for this distinct English character.
The characteristic English person is awkward, melancholic and apprehensive of change, all features that have contributed to the culture that is revered all over the world. The English imagination is unsurpassed as this is a country that is traditional and conservative on the outside but quietly and subtly eccentric on the inside.
The pervasive theme of nostalgia imbues English artistic expression, and this is often entwined in myth. Historical figures are rendered in scenes of cosy familiarity and this is another element which looks confusing for those who are not invested in England or the English. Most critics of events like The Last Night of the Proms are unaware of the theatrical tradition that underpins it. The Proms itself is renowned for its quintessentially English bathos from Benjamin Britten to Gilbert and Sullivan.
The finale of the Last Night concludes with a rendition of “Rule Britannia”, which has to be the most misunderstood hymn in the entire canon and the most misunderstood lyric since its first composition. It derives from a Thomas Arne opera which centres upon the myth of Alfred the Great. The battle between the English King and the invading Vikings provides the inspiration for this rousing hymn which was originally composed in 1740. It is essentially a paean to the rebellious spirit of our nation.
Nonetheless there is an overriding fear of difference that is instilled in the English psyche. It has always been hard to be a rebel in a country dominated by feudal lords and an overarching monarchy. The Enclosure Acts of Parliament were enacted until 1914 and made the countryside effectively the property of the elites rather than the common people.
The sentimentality for the English landscape is connected to these laws which ultimately divested the people of their inheritance. Aside from communities of travelling people and their modern descendants we are still beholden to the private landowners.
There is only one unspoiled feature of our countryside, and that is the existence of our ancient trees. England is the only European country which has preserved its old trees. Yew and Oak trees have been growing in our woods for at least 500 years. The writer and scholar J.R.R Tolkien had a powerfully mystic connection to the trees of his native Birmingham.
Tolkien witnessed how his home town changed in the years of his childhood. These changes were wrought by the Industrial Revolution, when semi-rural Birmingham mutated into a city of factories and foundries. The “Lord of the Rings” novels are allegories and lamentations of a lost world, a contrast between the “Shire” of old and the malevolent industrialised world of “Mordor”.
Tolkien`s novels influenced the “counterculture” of the 1960s, a decade when people had concerns about the environmental consequences of over industrialisation. After the social and political changes of the sixties modern art forms superseded classical music and literature.
English popular culture, especially pop music is inherently rebellious but it is in fact a modern manifestation of a traditional art form, namely musical theatre. Pop stars are essentially actors in their own dramas, but fiercely protective of their artistic legacy and how their songs are utilised.
This is especially pertinent today as John Lydon fights to own his artistic reputation. Lydon`s stage persona “Johnny Rotten” was a mischievous London miscreant which resembled a character from a Lionel Bart musical. His songs of rebellion against English conformity were not open invitations for sedition, they were demotic and crude vignettes of satire. Lydon is now a wise gentleman in his sixties but in his youth his act horrified the elites who were terrified that young “punks” could destroy the moral fabric of the nation.
In the 2020s we are stuck in a quandary. There is no appetite for rebellion and too many of us are hankering for the past of conformity and conservatism. Our country is in a state of moral failure as a consequence and the horrifying fact remains that too many people do not seem to care.
One thought on “The Tyrant`s Hand”
Wonderful piece of writing Deb.