Well, the time has come for the Placing Myself reading challenge to officially begin!
To kick off, I’ll be reading David Almond’s The Fire Eaters, which is said to be set in Keely Bay, Northumberland. I’ll be looking to find out what Almond has to say, if anything, about living in Northumberland and in England in the modern world. Find out why I chose this book and what I thought of it next week; in the meantime, get reading with me!
For today, I thought a review of Harry Mount’s How England Made the English would be a good starting point, and a reminder of all those English stereotypes that this quest is trying to dissect.
All in all, I value it at 3/5 stars. Not perfect but a worthwhile read nonetheless.
I began this book expecting a plethora of wild generalisations and unsatisfactory southern subjectivity on the topic of what it means to be English. I was especially sceptical when I read in Mount’s introduction that, for him, to “spot […] Englishness, wherever you are in the country” (xviii), is incredibly simple. Is it? I thought. I wouldn’t know what I was supposed to be ‘spotting’.
As it turns out, Mount defines Englishness on very tangible (if not wholly fulfilling) foundations: granite kerbstones, traditional red-brick housing materials and hedge-lined gardens are what catch his eye from a plane or train window. His argument is that from mild English environs – made up of a unique combination of geography, geology, history and weather – springs a national character that values domesticity, practicality and a lack of ostentation, which in turn influences how the English treat their environs…
Despite Mount’s title, and his aim, his book is more a scientific study of England than it is about the English in anthropological terms. For a start, his chapter on weather details several factors that distinguish England from the rest of the world in a convincing way: England’s northerliness, for example, makes it colder than much of Continental Europe, but it is the mild Gulf Stream that flows from Mexico across the Atlantic Ocean to touch England’s shores that gives the country a less extreme climate than other areas in the same latitude, such as parts of Russia or Canada. Less reliable is his statement that the drizzly, lacklustre skies lead to a nation of antisocial people who “simply don’t get out as much as southern Europeans” and are plagued by “gloom” and an “inability to work up much excitement over anything” (4). This seems to me to be little more than a token attempt to comment on national character; he selects a stereotype at random, without much attempt to dissect it, and slots it in wherever it is convenient.
Despite my hesitations, I did enjoy reading this book for its sheer factual compendiousness; Mount is clearly a talented and engaging writer if he has the ability to interest me in weather, rocks, soil and flora. Particularly enjoyable and remarkable were his paragraphs that ran all the way from a discussion of England’s specific geography, geology and weather into how these factors allowed specific industries to develop, to how this might influence people’s regional or national behaviour. To answer the question of why, statistically, the Midlands’ favourite foods are curry and naan bread, Mount reminds readers of the Asian population present in that part of the country, drawn there in the 1950s and ‘60s as the burgeoning car-making industry chimed with their migration; an industry that came to life because of historic early industrialisation in that region, itself brought about because of the Midlands’ prime coal-rich location since practically the dawn of time.
Moreover, if you want to track what was considered culturally important and valuable in England over the centuries, Mount points out that you need only observe the country’s architecture. Gothic cathedrals have always been crucial buildings for purposes of religion, status and money, but they are not the only erections built to grand, exacting standards. Ironically, farmyard barns – “the backbone of the English economy before the industrial revolution” – were constructed along the same elaborate lines: they were often tall, supported by arches and columns along a wide central passage and built with extreme care by skilled workmen in order to protect the farm’s “treasury” (133). Later, as industrialisation became England’s pride and glory, the same design went into impressive railway stations such as Liverpool Street and St Pancras. These days, it is most common to find household conservatories sharing the pattern, influenced by the 1851 Crystal Palace. Since the Victorian era, then, it seems domesticity and the cultivation of one’s home has taken over the country’s mind – part of the “English cult of property ownership” (101) that is not seen elsewhere in Europe, where renting is much more common.
I could go on for pages detailing the various facts that Mount got across in his book. I definitely learnt a lot about English history, legislation and industrialisation, but I remain completely clueless about what ‘Englishness’ might be when it refers to a nation of people who may or may not have anything in common.