Volume 17 Number 1
The English Enigma
01 February 2004

Hugh Williams delights in a book that traces 'Englishness' back to the days before England existed.

I commend Peter Ackroyd's book, Albion-the origins of the English imagination, to all those who love the English. I commend this book to all those who hate the English. But above all I commend it to those who are frustrated that they can neither love nor hate the English but find them both admirable and annoying in equal measure.

You will note that I use the term 'English' and not the more inclusive 'British'. But this book is about the English, not the Scots or the Welsh or the Irish, although the Celts have influenced the English a great deal (as have many other nations and races, as Peter Ackroyd is quick to acknowledge). And I write with a modicum of detachment as a Welshman, albeit a thoroughly Anglicized one.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. In fact I relished it so much that I did not want to come to the end of it, so I limited myself to one chapter a day. It is so dense, so detailed, so broad in its scholarship and reference, that one chapter a day is about all I could properly take in anyway!

Who are the English? On the most basic level they are the people that inhabit that part of the British Isles called England. This definition recognizes that they are a mongrel race with admixtures of Roman, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon (originally north German), Danish, Norwegian, Norman French-and more recently (although Peter Ackroyd's survey does not extend this far) Jewish, Asian and Afro-Caribbean races, among many others. And Peter Ackroyd acknowledges that just as many races have been absorbed into the fabric of the English, so have many cultures. The genius of the mongrel race is that it not only absorbs influences from other lands and cultures, but also turns them into something specifically and recognizably English. Ackroyd cites the stories Chaucer wove into The Canterbury Tales and which Shakespeare transformed with his amazing language into his histories and tragedies.

It all began, says Ackroyd, with the Anglo Saxons who invaded England after the Roman departure around 400 AD. Characteristics of Anglo-Saxon language (love of alliteration), thought (empirical and practical rather than abstract), art (fondness for miniatures, for intricate tracery and the decorative), history (the antiquarian fascination), superstitions (ghosts, spirits and horror stories), psychology (the melancholic streak combined with embarrassment, self-mockery and understatement), weather (chilly, damp mists and fogs) and above all attachment to the landscape of England itself-all have resurfaced at different moments in English history and persist, maintains Ackroyd, to the present day.

From these roots there also grew a tradition of rugged individualism and homely simplicity. 'The deflation of magnificence has always been part of the English imagination,' writes Ackroyd. And from these qualities grew an emphasis on character which in literature gave precedence to biography and fiction (hardy distinguishable at first) and the particular English form of theatre. 'It is better to see learning in noble men's lives than to read it in philosophers' writings,' wrote the 16th century Thomas North in the foreword to his translation of Plutarch's Lives, which Shakespeare drew on heavily. And Fielding, the 18th century novelist, wrote, 'Examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts.' This emphasis on character influenced English painting also-England is the only nation to boast a National Portrait Gallery.

When it comes to philosophy and learning, as with literature and painting, it is hard not to make comparisons with England's nearest neighbours and greatest rivals-the French. Even in the Catholic late Middle Ages the French were complaining that English spirituality was 'pragmatic and particularist and generated little by way of complex abstract reflection'. And a later French commentator wrote, 'Abstract and general principles have no attraction for Englishmen.' Ackroyd warms to this theme. 'In the English imagination scholarship is applied and learning utilized,' he claims.

This note of the practical and the pragmatic affected early English music, where much was borrowed from Italy. This of the 16th century composers: 'Their approach was pragmatic; what was congenial they used, adapting it to native conditions.'

But perhaps the most marked effect was on English laws and the English constitution. 'The desired goal (of English philosophy) is not that which is ideally or speculatively the best (a comparison with the French again!) but that which is most practical. That, in a nutshell, is also the history of the English constitution and of English common law.' (And, one might add,of the Church of England!) And to hammer home the point Ackroyd adds, 'The strength of the English constitution lay in its having no theory, in its being the gradual and patient accumulation of practice and precedent, in its being, above all, unwritten.'

No study of the English mind would be complete without reference to English gardens. Ackroyd demonstrates that the history of the small walled garden, from medieval through Tudor records to their burgeoning in the 18th and 19th centuries 'becomes the very image of defensive privacy, which is so congenial to the English mind'. And he calls gardening 'a national pursuit with truly native characteristics'. Even when abroad, 'the English establish gardens and always gardens of the type they left in the old country'. The English garden, then, is a nationalist icon 'with its disinclination for magnificence and its almost homely presence'-a veiled comparison with the grand and formal gardens of the French chateaux. For 'the garden displays the fruit of the English imagination, including the passion for intricacy and the love of the miniature'-another hark back to the influence of the Anglo Saxons. The 'serpentine line' favoured by the Anglo Saxons also found expression in 18th century gardens as it did in the paintings of Hogarth and Blake.

There are some omissions, as there are bound to be in so wide a survey, even spread over 450 pages. Ackroyd says little about the industrial revolution in which for a time England was pre-eminent. Surely an example of the practical and pragmatic English mind in its application of scientific knowledge? And he gives no clue as to the reasons for the enormous outpouring of energy overseas which led to colonization of vast tracts of the earth's surface and to the establishment of that 'Empire on which the sun never set'. Or maybe that was largely down to the Scots?

Yet for all that this book is a magnificent achievement. 'The history of the English imagination', concludes Ackroyd, 'is the history of adaptation and assimilation.... This condition reflects both a mixed language comprised of many different elements and a mixed culture comprised of many different races.' In the end Ackroyd sees Englishness not as a matter of race but of place. It is an encouraging conclusion because it opens up an English future to all those who have made England their home in recent years. 'In England the reverence for the past and the affinity with the natural landscape join together in a mutual embrace. So we owe much to the ground on which we dwell. It is the landscape and the dreamscape. It encourages a sense of longing
and belonging. It is Albion.'

'Albion-the origins of the English imagination'
by Peter Ackroyd, Nan A Talese, ISBN: 0385497725

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