A few years ago a colleague asked me to recommend a novel or a writer that would epitomise England. It was a question I found nigh on impossible to answer at the time. The passage of years hasn’t made it any easier. But in honour of St George’s Day today I thought I would revisit the topic.
I posed the same question in 2013 when I started my world literature project and started with Reading the Prime Meridian (reading one novel for each of the countries through which the meridian runs). The responses I received, which you can view here. I deliberately asked people to avoid recommendations for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or George Eliot. Of course they typify a certain side of England — if you want a view of life in rural and provincial England in the mid nineteenth century then who better than Eliot? Or if you want a picture of how urbanisation was changing the nature of the city, then Dickens is certainly your man. All good choices and ones I suspect would be top of mind for many readers. But they give us only one facet of England. And one that is now a few centuries past.
What about something more recent? Evelyn Waugh was one suggestion. If we’re talking Brideshead Revisited then yes that would give us a view of the English gentry on the eve of World War 1. The stately home, fox hunting side of England if you like.
Other suggestions came from friends: Grahame Greene (Brighton Rock); Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea); Peter Ackroyd (Hawskmoor, The Lambs of London), Ian McEwan . All good suggestions but I don’t see them as typifying England.
The more I thought about this and the more suggestions that came in, the more I realised that there was one aspect of England that wasn’t getting reflected at all. And that is the multicultural dimension. Visit London on any day and the number of accents you’ll here is astonishing – and I don’t mean accents of tourists or day visitors. I mean people who live and work in the city. Polish, Australian, Indian, Chinese, French, Arabic, Canadian … and those are just ones that I recognise. This isn’t a phenomena confined to London, you’ll get the same impression in Birmingham or Leeds.
Of course I can argue that it was ever the same – that England has long been home for people from outside the island. What we think of as Englishness today has much to do with invaders from the Roman Empire, from France and from the Nordic lands. They gave us straight roads (thank you Romans); influenced our language (more than 60% of the words we use in English today have a French origin) and many of our place names (the Viking name for York was Jorvik, any place name that ends in horpe or thwaite derives from the Vikings). In the twentieth century Italians brought us ice-cream parlours and real coffee (well before the likes of Starbucks) and Pakistan settlers introduced us to biryani and masalas.
If we want reading that truly reflects England today shouldn’t we look to writers who reflect that cultural diversity? I’m thinking Zadie Smith, one of Granta‘s list of 20 best young authors, whose novel NW is set in a typical mixed London suburb and brings us the polyphonic nature of contemporary urban life. it’s a novel about which the Telegraph critic said:
In a hundred years time, when readers want to understand what the English novel was capable of, and what English life truly felt like, they will look at NW, and warm to it.
So there you have it, one novel that could be said to represent England as the country stands today.
There are times when I see the blurbs on cover of a book I’ve just finished and wonder if I’d been reading an entirely different book. And so it was with Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales; a book that seemed to have all the elements of a good read but proved to be — if not a dud exactly — a big disappointment.
I chose this novel to represent England in my Reading along the Prime Meridian challenge. It’s set in the heart of London in 1399 which was a tumultuous year in English history. King Richard II, a staunch advocate of the divine right of kings to rule, has his throne threatened by a revolutionary army led by Henry Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke is not the only one who wants to overthrow the King. Dominus, a clandestine group of high-powered officials that seems to be in league with an apocalyptic religious sect is similarly intent on causing mayhem. The atmosphere of fear and anxiety is exacerbated by a nun whose prophesies of Richard’s demise are unleashed on a superstitious public.
Murder, arson, conspiracy. With a plot like that, how can a book fail especially when written by an author with a tremendous skill with period detail? Ackroyd doesn’t disappoint in that respect. His descriptions of daily life, of meals and mystery plays, of footwear and headwear, of tooth sellers and medical potions turn the past into a fascinating though smelly present. Next time I’m feeling ill, I won’t bother my local GP, I’ll just follow one of the cures from the leech featured in Ackroyd’s book.
‘he was much discomforted by her heaviness of stomach and suggested she mix the grease of a boar and the grease of a rat, the grease of a horse and the grease of a badger’s, souse the concoction in vinegar, add sage and then put it upon her belly.
The problem with this book is the way Ackroyd chooses to tell his story. Each of his chapters is named after a character from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Each of these characters has only partial knowledge of the plots and intrigues so what the reader experiences is a gradual revelation of the story. It’s a clever idea, almost akin to the way witnesses in a trial contribute to the jury’s understanding of the whole picture, but since none of the characters enters the story for more than a few pages it’s difficult to get know them in anything more than a superficial way. It’s such a shame because some of them have a lot of promise that is just bursting to be fully realised. But it never does.