Friday, April 28, 2006

British Icons

There's been a further 21 additions to the pointless waste of time that is the Department of Culture's "English Icons" series. If the things chosen are quite so symbolic, they don't need official recognition, or a separate project identifying them. Nor should they have to go through an extensive nomination and selection process.

Of course, just about all the items added to the list today - including the flag of St George, the Lindisfarne Gospels, cricket, and the British pub - are in some way, shape or form, quintessentially English. Those that aren't, by which I mean the Notting Hill Carnival and Brick Lane, certainly merit some inclusion. (For those who wonder why I say they aren't quintessentially English, it is because I instantly think of other cultures - Commonwealth cultures - when I think of them. But they are certainly part of England's heritage, and in time will, I hope, become English heritage).

What I wonder, though, is what purpose this project produces other than to spill lots of ink and to waste lots of pixels commenting on what should and shouldn't be included in such a project. Isn't one of the wonders of England that trying to identify a stereotypical culture for it is darn near impossible? That cricket on the village green, overseen by regulars at the Red Lion flying the flag of St George is as much English as those quaffing port in subfusc in an Oxford quad, or having a cup of tea at a bridge drive? That the working mens club sits side by side along Buckingham Palace as representative of England and its heritage? To that end, trying to quanitfy 100 icons is counterproductive.

In Alan Bennett's play, The Old Country, he deals with themes of exile, but most pertinently with the themes of change in the old country, England. The two traitors living in the Soviet Union are both recognisably English, but are from very different Englands, and the play explores their feelings about exile - most comically when Hilary, the former civil servant, expresses the desire to appear on Desert Island Discs.

Towards the end of the play, the comment is made that "England isn't a noun, it's a tense". This struck me as a far better way of summing up the nature of Englishness than any number of icons. Englishness is a state of mind, it's about restraint and decency. It's about laughing at little jokes that aren't funny, the maintenance of friendships because being rude just isn't the done thing. It's the people that make England what it is; the pub, the cricket team and the artwork is just an expression of what we are and who we are. If, as a people, we are just a collection of icons, then we've lost our soul. And that's not very English at all, is it?