The English really ought to know who on earth they are by now, given the regularity with which books on this topic have been appearing in recent years. They can be divided into two broad categories. The first – into which Harry Mount’s book falls – is the comfortable, nostalgic, hot-water-bottle read, often produced, ideally as a TV tie-in, by eminent newsreaders and journalists at the high watermark of their careers. Mount is something of a whippersnapper in such company, though the dustjacket of his book, a cosily naive, Edward Bawden-inspired design, places it firmly in the retro genre. These tend to be chunky but undemanding volumes in which it is possible to envisage whole chapters devoted to, say, rice pudding, Gainsborough’s landscapes, the Windsor knot, the underestimation of Delius or the precise location of Winnie the Pooh’s wood (all of which can be said to ‘define’ the English in some vague way). They tend to be flimsily garbed with amateur social anthropology (for which read: observations on social class) and especially architectural history, that most socially elevated of side interests. Most of these Hatchards-friendly tomes are comfort-read by constipated middle-class Englishmen (including me) on holiday in hot places.
The second and more recently voguish category, ‘psychogeography’, stands at ideological as well as tonal variance to the fogeyish tradition. It is peopled by angry pseudo-historians of the Left, warmed-over situationists, conspiracy junkies, anorak-clad Northern poets, saddened ecologists, wandering journalist-cum-novelists who might have read a bit of Heidegger, and other