Paxman’s View of the English Identity
February 28, 2000
Jeremy Paxman would subscribe to the assertion that the foundation of the English identity is contained in a nostalgic view of rural life. In his book, The English: a Portrait of a People, Paxman devotes an entire chapter to the subject; Chapter 8, “There always was an England.” Paxman believes that the English ideal of life in the country is an imaginative ideal, since the reality is that most people in England live in the cities or suburbs, and not much countryside is left. Paxman examines the fascination English people have with this ideal, by defining it, looking at the evidence that their identity is really bound up in a rural nostalgia, and discussing his view that such nostalgia is actually a negative self-concept for England to have.
First, Paxman defines the English identification with rural life by noting politicians’ commentary on the subject. In 1923 Conservative party leader Stanley Baldwin said, “England is the country, and the country is England…the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smith…the sound of the scythe against the whetstone, and the sight of a plough team coming over the brow of a hill, the sight that has been England since England was a land” (pg. 143). Paxman immediately points out the nostalgia in Baldwin’s speech, since by the 1920’s the scythe had been replaced by the harvesting machine, and the blacksmith was no longer needed due to the invention of the internal combustion engine. Baldwin’s appeal to rural sentimentality was not unique. Many authors through the centuries had sought to define this country ideal, including Edward Thomas, who gave a precise description of the South Country, an England of rolling hills and village greens which was located below the Thames and the Severn and east of Exmoor; he even specified which counties were included (pg. 161).
Having defined the idea that “the soul of England lay in the countryside,” (pg. 147), Paxman cites evidence to show that most English people believe it. For example, in WWI, soldiers’ families sent them postcards of fields, gardens, and villages as an image of England, the land they were fighting for (pg. 145). Moreover, although these soldiers were mostly from the urban proletariat, they were “portrayed as a force of ploughmen, shepherds, and market gardeners” (pg. 146). In the 1930’s fascination with the countryside became a national fetish that has continued to the present. The Shell Oil Co. produced a series of guides to the counties of England, societies like the Council for the Preservation of Rural England were established, and travel was popularized in books like “In Search of England,” by H.V. Morton, who romanticized the charm of “villages, church bells, thatched cottages, and woodsmoke rising in the clean air” (pg. 148).
Paxman explains this longing for the countryside as resulting from the urbaniztion caused by the Industrial Revolution. A country fantasy stemmed from dissatisfaction with the cities and an unwillingness to embrace the urban lifestyle. The repulsiveness of early English cities can be summed up in Dickens’ Hard times, whose Coketown had “a black canal in it, endless chimneys trailing interminable serpents of smoke, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye” (pg. 159). The National Trust was founded in 1895 to preserve the “Old England,” the countryside, as a place to escape the foul air of Victorian-era cities (pg. 152). Paxman discusses the fact that English people have never really become urban, and never employed the principle of town planning to redevelop and make their cities beautiful, as the French and Dutch did.
Whether English dissatisfaction with cities stems from their appearance, Paxman believes that the country ideal has a negative impact on the English identity. He declares that the fantasy is counterproductive, because the idea that everyone should have a cottage with a back garden has caused massive suburban sprawl, occupying what countryside is left. Also, rural nostalgia does not improve the city life that is reality for the majority of the population. Finally, the idealization of a time long past when the agrarian lifestyle was the norm makes people today feel that the true England is one of the shires, and happened years ago (pg. 172).
Thus, by defining the English identity as a sentimental rural ideal, and by providing numerous examples to support this fascination with the countryside, Paxman agrees with the assertion that “the foundation of English identity is contained in a nostalgic view of rural life.” However, he disapproves of this identity as a negative, counter-productive self-concept, since it is contrary to the urban reality of England. In other words, “in the collective unconscious…there exists another England. It is not the country in which the English actually live, but the place they imagine they are living in” (pg. 144).