About England by David Matless; The Full English: A Journey in Search of a Country and Its People by Stuart Maconie - review by D J Taylor

D J Taylor

Breakfast, Bhuna & Brexit

About England

By

Reaktion 359pp £20

The Full English: A Journey in Search of a Country and Its People

By

HarperNorth 368pp £20
 

Above what might be called the radical critique of Englishness there usually rises a faint note of exasperation, if not outright annoyance. The writer knows that their arguments are incontrovertible, that what England and the UK generally need is an outsize dose of progressive politics, redistribution, tolerance and the rest of the left-liberal package, and yet, despite their urgent entreaties, millions of ghastly people will go on voting Conservative, complaining about the immigration statistics and worrying about drag queens reading stories to their children in public libraries.

Nearly every report on ‘the English people’, whoever they are, gives off this scent. Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), subtitled ‘Socialism and the English Genius’, to which David Matless and Stuart Maconie naturally refer, was written in the conviction that the country was ripe for revolution, that only a socialist nation could fight effectively and that England had to become one before it could defeat Nazi Germany. But within a year Orwell had changed tack and admitted that he had overestimated the prospects for social change. The English People, written in 1943 but not published until 1947, is a much more cautious piece of work: sober, downbeat, looking for incremental improvements rather than a people’s army marching on Whitehall.

Critiques of Englishness take myriad forms. Matless’s version is a scholarly yet highly accessible attempt to frame various concepts of ‘England’ and ‘the English’ against the backdrop of the past sixty years, which is more or less the author’s own lifetime. Matless teases out paradoxes and inconsistencies and chips away

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