O, TO be in England
Now that April 's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
I do not much like Browning. Whoever said he sounds like coal being delivered to the house next door got it right in my book. And I agree with Sydney Smith that the countryside is a kind of healthy grave. I also know that life is far better for everyone in England now than it was when Browning wrote Home Thoughts. And there are still chaffinches and whitethroats, though the elm trees were all killed by Dutch elm disease, years ago. But, when he wrote that, the countryside - an astonishing hard and cruel place by our standards, but also astonishingly beautiful - was England, except for London and the industrial towns in the North, that Browning probably never visited. Now England is 1930s ribbon development, bungalows, tower blocks, the FA Cup, game shows, Celebrity Big Brother, the Daily Mirror, equality legislation, secret trials, out of town fitness centres and the whole caboodle. Including wonderful advances in medicine and dentistry.
Romania, where I am fortunate to live, though industrialised under the Communists, is still in many respects more like the England of the 1840s than England is.
Everything flows. One must be very grateful for the good things about the present, which is, in very many ways, a golden epoch. It seems that, despite the wisdom of the ancients and the teachings of Christianity, when it comes to countries, money can buy you happiness. However, I am afraid that I agree with this gloomy assessment by Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Margaret Thatchers official biographer, that, whatever England was, it will be over in the foreseeable future. I would love to be convinced that he and I are wrong, though.
If you feel like more High Tory gloom, these excepts from one of the last pieces written by the late Michael Wharton (who wrote the Peter Simple column in the Daily Telegraph for almost forty years) are the kind of thing you feel like:
We have lost our countryside, disfigured or buried under mean housing estates and factories and enormous road systems, transformed by factory farming. By the end of the Fifties, hedges and wild flowers had already gone from most of lowland England; wild birds were dying out, equally the victims of poison and machines. With them went old quietness and seemliness. And, as people began to notice that loss, the `environment' was invented and, as though by an inexorable 20th-century law, itself became an industry and an instrument of state control.
In the last 50 years we have not only lost our country, we have lost our people, at least in large centres of population; and most of all in London, transformed by mass immigration and the alien manners and customs it has brought, most significantly in the ever-growing barbarism of popular music and entertainment. In 50 years what was a largely homogeneous European Anglo-Celtic nation has been turned into what is officially called a `multiracial society', a thing neither wanted nor asked for.
As for the general loss of our minds, and even our hearts and souls, the biggest influence of the last century has been the growth of television, which was just starting up in the Fifties. Since then, when it was no more than an interesting novelty, this most evil and unnecessary of all the evil and unnecessary inventions of the 20th century has swollen into a blood-chilling monster, employing hundreds of thousands of people, some of them quite capable of useful work, in devising and broadcasting an unstoppable deluge of what is at best trivial and silly, and at worst degenerate and wicked.
Michael Wharton, who for psychological reasons was a born reactionary (the most reactionary man in England along with Lord Sudeley), overstates his case. The English countryside is still the most beautiful in Europe (after Romania, to be accurate) and there are still plenty of hedgerows left. I made two journeys from Bucharest to England by train and none of the countryside was interesting, except for the Alps, from crossing the Romanian border until we crossed the Channel. But, over the Channel, Kent, built up though it is, was bewitching, because of the hedgerows. However, a very great many beautiful things have been lost and those that were not lost are often commercialised.
Architecture finally improved and there have been some very fine modern buildings, at least in central London, in the last thirty years (I love the Lloyd's Building and the Gherkin), but on the whole rather few beautiful things have been added. For some reason, France and Italy can be up to the minute and still beautiful and still distinctively French and Italian, but other countries do not seem to pull it off.
As for television, I am told it has been replaced by shopping as the main leisure activity of my countrymen. The internet will makes things better than the television era. It might even re-introduce a degree of freedom and democracy. But it saturates the world in porn. Celebrity culture and consumerism, the lasting bequests of the 1960s, are here to stay. Rock music, which, as Pope Benedict XVI said, can be satanic - but here I risk losing my readers...
When I go back to England, I notice how affluent everything seems, how polite people have become and how the country has much more style than in 1990. All the same, England does not seem very changed to me, either in the centre of London or the Home Counties, but it is in the process of being transformed into somewhere else. Immigration, especially four million immigrants who came to the UK after Labour came to power in 1997 (half of them from outside Europe), is the reason.
There will always be an England, of course, and an English culture will survive, and I expect flourish, in a new form, but the new England will be almost as different from the old one as Protestant England, after the Reformation, was from Catholic England. A rupture, not an evolution. To quote Charles Moore:
But whatever it is, and however well it turns out, it cannot be England. Perhaps when I am very old, my grandchildren will ask me what England was. It will be a hard question to answer, but I think I shall tell them that it seemed like a good idea while it lasted, and that it lasted for about 1,000 years.
I know Charles Moore sounds very twee here, but his point, unfortunately, sounds about right.
If all this makes me sound gloomy, I am not in the least and I am an incurable optimist, though pessimists are by no means necessarily gloomy. I resemble that old school friend of Dr Johnson's. Mr Edwards, whom he met by chance in Fleet St and who said to him over a drink:
You sir are a philosopher. I too, in my time, have tried to be a philosopher but, I don't know why, cheerfulness was always breaking through.I wonder what Johnson would have said about modern England.