England, a country of the mind

The tendency to press reality into a heritage mould traps England in political aspic, says David Hayes.
David Hayes
19 September 2011

A mix of orchestration and spontaneity gives much of English middle-class sociability its characteristic texture. Each season offers respite from the pressing obligations of everyday life in the form of a national event-cycle marinated in familiarity yet flexible enough to accommodate new arrivals and rituals which (again in very English fashion) gradually acquire the patina of timeless “heritage".

In the June–August summer months, and with many regional and local variations, this means school holidays, exam results and (now) gap years or adventure trips; the Wimbledon tennis championships, test cricket and (now) the start of premier-league soccer; the Royal Ascot and other horse-race meetings, and (now) pop-rock concerts in the gaps; the Proms classical concerts in London and (now) the Glastonbury music and Hay-on-Wye literary festivals. Once in a generation, there may even be a royal wedding - or an Olympic games.

Around such markers of comforting tradition, amid the captivating uncertainties of the weather, aided by the copious quantities of alcohol that are obligatory at every English social gathering, and against a backdrop of enjoyable “silly-season” trivia in the media, the rituals of spectatorship and participation (and, now, ubiquitous sponsorship) cluster: an enduring parade of the generations in what amounts to an extended reprieve from familiar routine.

But at regular intervals, at the outer edge, comes a commotion and… CRASH! A brick shatters the facade of this serene world and forces those inside to take cover. From their cowering position they glimpse the masked outsider responsible for the outrage, and shiver. Shaken, angry, a little chastened, they take stock of the damage and compete to condemn the intruder’s violent act. Then, as order is restored and confidence returns, the survivors start to peer cautiously into the gloom and to ask with a slightly embarrassed intensity: why did that happen, what is its message, and what must we do to avoid it recurring?

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