Leaving England, as I will do in a few hours, usually makes me think for at least a moment about what it is.
Paul Kingsnorth is contemplating writing a book about England, but is still searching for a way into the subject. One book I recommended to him – without having actually read it myself, but on hearsay! – is Michael Wood’s In Search of England. Paul has a copy and will lend it to me.
I used not to pay attention to Michael Wood but changed my mind when I heard him speak at a memorial service earlier this year for his friend Sayyid Abdul Majid Khoei, the Iraqi Shi’ia cleric who was murdered last year.
Among the essays on England that I have read and found exceptionally useful is Peter Linebaugh’s The Secret History of the Magna Carta (Boston Review, Summer 2003).
Also quite good is a recent essay on the countryside by the novelist John Lanchester Field of Dreams (Guardian 25 Oct) . It includes the following:
I have lived in quite a few places in quite a few different countries, and I have never lived anywhere as essentially unfriendly, broken-up, atomised and fragmented as the English countryside.
That was, in the end, the reason we left. Our house had a few acres of marsh land - unusable but beautiful - attached. One day I took my father out in my canoe and we saw that a stretch of trees, mainly beautiful low-hanging willows, had been cut down. It had obviously happened very recently. We investigated and found out that, with nods and winks, a group of locals had agreed to cut down our trees, in order to allow access for sailing boats down a side-creek. Nobody asked my father, and the feeling that the same people who would smile and nod and make small-talk about the weather would do this behind his back caused him to feel he couldn't live in that place any more. He realised that after 11 years, he was still an outsider; that the locals still did not trust him. He felt a deep, bitter, sense of personal betrayal. It gave him an intense feeling of insecurity. By my next holiday from university, three months later, he had sold the house and moved into Norwich. Three months after that he died of a heart attack. The business with the trees did not cause that, but it certainly did not help.
It’s a pessimistic piece, but funny, and the kicker at the end is especially good. But it’s not the whole picture (see, for example, these letters).
Another good recent piece Guardian piece is Hilary Mackaskill’s Dust to Dust, which is about the end of the coal fields (26 Oct).
Dervla Murphy, the Irish writer and cyclist, also wrote an excellent book on inner city Northern England which I read part of once. But I cannot remember the title.