Englishness: Twentieth-Century Popular Culture and the Forming of English Identity

Simon Featherstone
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    An innovative and accessible study of English identities in the twentieth century. The book examines the conflicts, dilemmas and contradictions that marked Englishness as the nation changed from an imperial power to a postcolonial state.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-3254-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Introduction: Being English
    (pp. 1-8)

    In the weeks before 23 April it is now possible to buy a range of gifts – cards, mugs, sweatbands – displaying the red cross of St George. This commercial celebration of the English national saint is a relatively recent phenomenon, traceable to the resurgence of the George Flag as a sporting emblem during the 1996 European Football Championships, but also indicative of a new popular performance of nationhood. The nature of this discourse can be judged by the verse of one of the cards available in 2007:

    On St George’s Day

    Petal by petal

    A bud becomes a rose

    Year by...

  5. Chapter 1 Thinking about England
    (pp. 9-27)

    ‘There is no available formula for a post-British England’, writes Tom Nairn, looking ahead to the day when the English, shorn of the high political disguises of Great Britain and the United Kingdom, will have to deal with themselves as a nation rather than as an undeclared senior partner in a quasi-feudal multinational arrangement (Nairn 2000: 28). However, one of the enduring strengths of the English state has always been its avoidance of classic modes of nationalist description, representation and symbolism. Its resistance to definition and particularly its willingness to subsume national identity within the geopolitical organisations that it silently...

  6. Chapter 2 Reviving England
    (pp. 28-46)

    The Boy Scouts, the English Folk-Dance Society and the Espérance Morris movement were all founded in the Edwardian period, a golden age of Englishness that was also a golden age for worrying about England’s identity and future. Robert Baden-Powell, Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal, their respective founders, confronted what they saw as a crisis in the social fabric of England by instigating voluntary movements for the recovery of healthy national bodies, the establishment of healthy national minds and the revival of healthy national traditions. The Scouts and the two folk-dance movements provide instructive case studies of the contradictions inherent in...

  7. Chapter 3 Festivals
    (pp. 47-65)

    Every so often, the British state, impelled by coincidence of calendar or an anniversary that cannot easily be ignored, organises a public performance of national identity. The Festival of Britain in 1951 and the Millennium Experience of 2000 were the two main attempts in the second half of the twentieth century to re-articulate Englishness or Britishness. Unlike the Edwardian revivalist movements described in the previous chapter, these projections of identity were static, monumental and official, allowing for little of the personal idiosyncrasy and improvisation that characterised the movements of Baden-Powell, Sharp and Neal. Nevertheless, the need to present the nation...

  8. Chapter 4 Journeys
    (pp. 66-83)

    In the early 1920s, S. P. B. Mais was travelling near Plumpton. ‘We swept round a corner of the Downs’, he writes, ‘at our feet lay the green and golden carpet of the Sussex weald. Suddenly out of a hidden lane right across our bows came the South Downs hounds, homing after cubbing’. ‘ “My God!”’ says his companion, ‘ “England!” . . . We were silent: we had all seen a holy thing: we had seen England. None of us will ever be able to communicate what we saw: none of us will ever forget it’ (Mais 1922: 311...

  9. Chapter 5 The North
    (pp. 84-102)

    The journeys in search of England described in the previous chapter were performances of both national identification and national exclusion. Travelling provided a means of establishing a cultural and political sense of the territory of Englishness but this was achieved through the consolidation of only a particular part of that territory as possessing essential national values. The consensus that real England lay somewhere on the Downs near Plumpton or in any number of other such places on the southern and westward trajectory from London merely reinforced the power of an already-existing economic and cultural hegemony. In this sense the often-repeated...

  10. Chapter 6 Race
    (pp. 103-120)

    The death of the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey in West Kensington in May 1940 marked the end of a formative period of black politics in England and its empire. Garvey, leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, editor and publisher of Negro World and Black Man and erstwhile Provisional President of Africa, had been a declining political force for some years before his death. His greatest influence had been exerted in the years after the First World War, particularly in the United States, where his populist activism and organisational skills had been influential in an African-America radicalised by the formation...

  11. Chapter 7 Sport
    (pp. 121-139)

    The fights between Randolph Turpin and Sugar Ray Robinson, as well as suggesting the transatlantic cultural politics of postwar England, illustrated an English problem with sporting style. Robinson, the self-proclaimed ‘artiste’, confronted what he later termed the ‘ruffian style’ of the Englishman, a remorseless unrefined battling that led A. J. Liebling, reporting the re-match for the New Yorker, to describe it as a throwback to the static pugilistic method of Regency prize-fighters (Robinson 1992: 201; Liebling 1956: 50). It was just this anti-style that was represented by contemporary English journalists as proof of Turpin’s essential Englishness – the traditional straight left...

  12. Chapter 8 Voices
    (pp. 140-158)

    In Edgar Bateman’s song ‘I’m Using Sunday Language All the Week’ (1910) an East End Londoner explains to the audience his problems coping with his wife who has found a job in the West End and now insists upon proper speech at home. ‘I’ll just give you an instance how I have to pick and choose / The words that your poor humble has to speak’, he sings, ‘When I’m “stoney broke” I say that I’m “financially embarrass’d” / ’Cos I’m using Sunday language all the week’ (Scott and Bateman 1910). Bateman’s song dramatises a contemporary struggle between an emergent...

  13. Chapter 9 Romance
    (pp. 159-177)

    The exploitation of reticence, parody and pastiche that characterised Noël Coward’s songwriting in the 1930s and 1940s is also evident in his script for the classic film of English romance, Brief Encounter (1945). The film presents what became a much-parodied vision of provincial middle-class England in which the two married lovers sacrifice their passion for family and social propriety. As often in English popular culture, though, Brief Encounter engages obliquely with wider questions of national identity and the social and cultural conflicts that frustrate and complicate its expression. Here it concerns the role of gender in the making of nationhood...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 178-182)

    That a book about English popular culture ends by the tomb of a princess on an artificial island in the grounds of a South Midlands stately home might seem to confirm that, at the end of the twentieth century, Englishness still occupied traditional ground defined by archaic hierarchies of social station and myths of rural settlement. The case of England ten years later is no less contradictory, with plenty of evidence for a persistent popular interest in the question of nationhood, but a banal range of resources to satisfy that interest. Studying Englishness can still be quite embarrassing. This is,...

  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-196)
  16. Index
    (pp. 197-202)