In the winter of 1941, whilst doodlebugs sped through the dark overhead, George Orwell explored the strange compendium of strictness and laxity that goes towards making up the English character. His essay 'England Your England' summons a living nation on the brink of its own destruction.
Orwell's England was a place of passionate moralists and inveterate gamblers. The English were a practical people with no world-view: a more or less temperate collection of Blimps and hypocrites, foul speakers and pointless intellectuals, horny-handed sons of toil and blind lovers of legality. He showed a nation of people with no artistic temper and bad teeth; he spoke of an upper class that would easily opt for fascism. He summoned the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, queues outside the Labour Exchanges, battalions of old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings. Yet the English were not seriously religious and they cared more for their back gardens, the price of butter, and 'a nice cup of tea'. It was a world of graded snobberies, each to his own, but where a certain unmistakable gentleness infused the day.
Yet for all the long goodbyes and the nervous hellos that characterise Orwell's famous essay, he never could have foreseen the end of meaningful commonality as we have come to know it. He knew enough about Eton to know that the Battle of Waterloo had been won on its playing fields, and that all subsequent wars had been lost there, but the end of Empire had greater magnifications in store. Orwell saw a nation of sleepwalkers, but sleep is nowadays something to be stolen from a culture of perpetual wakefulness, wherein every Englander is devoted to living larger than before, making the world his very own, and existing in an almost supernatural relation to the task of everyday life. The English have gone from being the most class-ridden people on the face of the planet to being, with the Americans, the most mediated, not so much living in reality as being haunted by it, dreaming of how to escape. England is no longer a nation so much as a notion: people live here to catch the breeze from Europe and America and eventually China, believing in nothing so much as the certainty that there will be weather, increasingly extreme weather, something to drown or bake the English fantasies. For all these years, hidden in the nation's small talk, exchanged by elderly gentlemen at bus stops and spoken by women over garden fences, has been our last gift to the Empire: our obsession with weather, the subject most likely to dominate the global experience of 2041.
Copyright Andrew O'Hagan 2008
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