Sitting at a kitchen table drinking tea, the lady remarked, ‘we have bank holidays close together’.
‘We have – but not as many as in England. Apparently, they have four public holidays in eleven days’.
‘Good Friday, Easter Monday, May’, she counted aloud, ‘what’s the other one?’
‘There’s the Royal wedding’.
‘Oh yes’, she said, ‘I had forgotten about that one’.
There was a sense of betraying myself as a foreigner. The octogenarian lady who could probably name every government minister in the Dail had taken little notice of events planned in London for next week. Sometimes a sense of identity is hard to find.
There is a music video by the English group ‘Mumford and Sons’ of their song ‘Winter Winds’ where the four musicians step out onto a country road. One is dressed in a three piece light coloured suit with bunting draped around his neck; it is home made bunting of the sort that would have been found at village fetes in the 1950s – there are hand drawn union jacks on the triangular pennants. Elsewhere in the video, they are crossing a meadow filled with wild plants.
The video seems to touch upon quintessentially English things. A rural England of meadows and sunshine; a place of village greens and garden fetes and white marquees and coloured bunting; a place of sandwiches and home made jam and chutney and sandwiches without crusts. One of the group in the video carries a tambourine; it conjures up memories of folk bands, and Morris dancers with bells and handkerchieves.
Maybe the England of jam and Jerusalem, of warm beer and Stilton, of willow on leather and stripy deck chairs and Panama hats, of ladies in frocks and men is sleeveless pullovers, of all those clichéd images; maybe that England was never more than a cliché, a piece of fond imagination by someone long in exile.
Is England anything more than Stoppard’s ‘conspiracy of cartographers’, a geographical occurrence, with characteristics so divergent that it is not possible to say ‘this is England’? Does England really exist at all?
If the Mumford and Sons images are not the England of 2011, then which ones are? Living in a country where the sense of national identity is very deep rooted, it is odd at times to look across the Irish Sea and see something that no longer looks anything like what I once imagined it to be.
What is English identity?