My good twitter friend Ian Livingstone writes beautifully about growing up in Belfast during the troubles. He suggested I could look at how the feel of England has changed since I was a boy. Ian and I are the same age more or less. I have mentioned to him the peculiarity of growing up in very different circumstances but at the same time.
England is an unusual one. For me it has never had a strong national identity. To be Scottish, Welsh or Irish/Northern Irish gives a clear identity to its citizens. They have specific music,art and languages. The Northern Irish and Scots have been joined into the United Kingdom with Wales almost being annexed. There are those in both countries who would wish self government and independence. These are subjects I am not going to touch on as this is about England.
The England I know and remember was based in Kent. It was a comfortable, semi rural existence where nothing was a struggle. I don’t remember concepts of wealth/poverty/inequality being around. The issues of the playground surrounded which London club you supported, the desire to obtain a transporter belt as used in ‘The Tomorrow People’ and which film clips were shown on Screen Test. I grew up with music playing in the house constantly. My mum would always sing ‘Wouldn’t It Be Lovely’ from My Fair Lady whilst cleaning. My dad would go into the garage to make things. I would frequently hear him shout ‘BUGGER’! as he hit a digit rather than whatever he was making or repairing. My sister played Dylan,Simon and Garfunkel and Steeleye Span. My brother played David Bowie, Yes, Genesis and other prog rock. I remember him bringing home singles we would listen to in the recently made study. The Laughing Gnome/Schools Out/Part of the Union all got an eager listening. I thought my brother was the coolest of the cool.
I was in cubs and scouts and played in a scout and guide band. We did fetes, parades,competitions and took up most of the weekend doing so. Summer holidays were endless,hot and involved virtually no time in the house. My friend Neil and a neighbour Kevin convinced themselves that they were actually aliens. They gave themselves alien names (Niel and Kevac) and spent hours talking about UFO’s and the Bermuda Triangle. Kevin chucked his dog out of an upstairs window to prove it could fly. Actually the aforementioned dog didn’t drop far and plummeted more than soared. I was not convinced of any extra terrestrial lineage but knew my roots were in Yorkshire.I was taught guitar chords by a friend Neil (another non alien Neil) whose mum made him a Womble costume. Looking back, I was surprised he picked Madam Cholet instead of Orinoco or Tomsk.My teenage years were great. School made me great, close friendships. I played in bands, discovered drink and dope. I realised how much I loved music and how much it mattered to me. I discovered the opposite sex although entirely convinced myself that they would never be interested in discovering me. I still have this feeling although I’m probably right to now.
England was a comfortable, uncomplicated place surrounded by farms growing apples, hops and soft fruit. I was interested in the news and even in my junior school years aware of which political party to support. I knew of the unrest in Northern Ireland and watched in horror as it travelled to England. I recall the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings. I did not understand the reasons as to why although I think many involved struggled with those reasons too. I did not think of the danger that my dad and millions of commuters lived with just by working in London. My England was cossetted and protected. It was far away from trouble, violence or menace. Parents did not seem worried about Paeophiles or abduction. I walked to school on my own from the age of six and spent the whole day other than meals with friends. Sundays we would go to Gravesend to see my Auntie Midge and Uncle Jack before they moved to Pevensey. My sister and her boyfriend/fiancee would take me to Brands Hatch where a friend raced motorbikes.
In truth my England never really had a distinct identity. It was what people made of it.
I have got countless folk albums by many artists who have recorded English tradtional songs. They feature workers disadvantged/ inequality/murder/infidelity but not many carve out what it is to be English. The English are a conglomerate nation of countless cultures. We have stolen and integrated so much of other settlers that we don’t really know what we are.
My England seems a harsh selfish country at times. It has been scarred permanently by the Blue Rinse Haggered Robot as Denis Healey once described Mrs Thatcher. I knew the world for me was changing when Punk exploded onto the scene in 1976. I was never into punk as it smacked of rebellion and I had nothing rebel against. I had friends who got their mum to take them to see The Sex Pistols and The Clash at the Lyceum in London. This friends mum was a heavy drinker who very sadly died when he was about 16. She drove whilst heavily under the influence frequently driving straight over roundabouts instead of the usual circuitous route.
My England now is in many ways more superficial, more about image. The programme Twenty Twelve tracks the deliverance team of the Olympic Games handled by the most inept team. It is a great example of shallow, empty speak which sums up much that England has become. However much of the England of my youth is still there. We now worry about appropriate supervision of our littles dears. I have heard older people talk of child abuse as if it was invented in 1980. Media coverage has highlighted a problem that has always tragically been around, along drug misuse and domestic violence.
I’m fairly sure my parents did not go to bed worrying about little John being taken against my will unless it was to the evil barbers or dentist. I now look at England from a 47 year old father’s perspective, who lives in the beautiful, majestic county of West Yorkshire. I see a world very different to my Kentish upbringing and from much older,jaded eyes. I long for simplicity, kindness, community and freedom. I long for people to step away from the materialism that my parents generation bought into. They endured rationing as youngsters and real austerity. They grabbed materialism, embraced it and fed it to my generation with the determination of not having to experience austerity and hardship. I would love to ask my children how they think England feels but I expect they would go and google it to answer this. This is not a bad thing but it does demonstrate the new world we live in. My England feels the same in my head but very different outside it.