This Other Eden

(Photograph of the New Forest)

This Sunday is St. George’s Day, an annual celebration of English culture. St George was adopted as the patron saint of the English people as he was the embodiment of traditional English qualities revered throughout history. His great courage and fortitude in the face of a seemingly insurmountable foe captured the English imagination.

In King Alfred the Great’s last testament he paid tribute to the inspiring spirit of St George and his example. Alfred was a formidable Anglo-Saxon King who helped to vanquish Viking insurgency and unite a fractious, tribal nation. This, in turn also created a unique English culture and identity by blending the King’s image of stability with the nascent sensibilities of his subjects.

However Alfred’s Kingdom was in a state of truce, it was built on compromise and only a semblance of understanding between the rival tribes. This temporary cohesion was uneasy, there were always divisions and power struggles and England as a political entity seemed doomed. This early promise of harmony could potentially founder.

England has only survived for a thousand years due to this unique balancing act, where the rulers exercise authority but within important limitations. The rulers know that they cannot overrule and curb the personal freedom of the citizens. In Shakespeare’s “Richard I” John of Gaunt wistfully opines for the innocence to be returned to a long suffering people.

His vision of “this other Eden” is an iteration of a deep seated and profound sentiment of an England unadulterated by evil and tyranny. However Shakespeare’s unsparing account of Plantagenet rule was not the first nor the last time that Alfred’s humility was betrayed. The Norman Conquest was notorious in English history, for riding roughshod over the sensitivities of the indigenous people. The affronts were numerous, they imposed their language and customs and turned ancient villages into hunting grounds.

Successive kingdoms were deposed in battles and for a brief period divested altogether during the reign of Cromwell. However modern English democracy is something we now take for granted but was hard won. The problem we now face is that our Parliament has increasingly behaved like the Norman barons by imposing laws that no-one has voted for or even advocated in any popular campaign.

The horrors of the Second World War changed the English people irrevocably. It hastened the modern world in all kinds of myriad ways. It is a tragedy that most English people preferred the older, more traditional England but they did not have the power nor the means to argue for its return.

(Photograph is of Salford, Manchester)

The Governments that emerged after the War were purely utilitarian and rebuilt infrastructure and housing in the most crude and brutal methods imaginable. There were no aesthetic considerations, only practical ones and the results were hideous. Motorways were the worst blight on the landscape.

(Photograph of Jayne Mansfield in September 1959 opening the Chiswick flyover in West London).

However it wasn’t just motorways that ruined the English landscape. The architects tasked with rebuilding the towns and cities devastated by bombs created functional but soulless housing estates, where beautiful and historical landmarks once stood.

(Photograph of the Whittington Estate, Camden, London).

(Photograph of the Southgate Estate, Runcorn, Cheshire).

The feeling that our elected representatives continue to curb our ability to enjoy life in this country is not misplaced. It is something that has always happened, the dream of an English Eden is just that, a fantasy that we will never achieve.