In Praise Of Middle England
The above photograph from Winchester sums it up. It’s leafy and empty, there’s a statue of King Alfred and a branch of Fired Earth, the upmarket glazed tile shop, and somewhere out of sight a round table dedicated to a mythical king. Welcome to Middle England. It’s not a place like the Midlands or even Middle Earth, but a state of mind.
But what is it, exactly? My first stop was at Wikipedia, who say it’s a ‘socio-political term which generally refers to middle class or lower-middle class people in England who hold traditional conservative or right-wing views’. Well, that’s probably the lazy view. To me it has a number of other connotations.
When Margaret Thatcher embarked on her privatisation policy, she was accused of ‘selling off the family silver’. Once the process had started it could not be stopped, and the selling of England and Englishness began to roll out around the world. Or rather, ramp up, because of course it had long been here, albeit in a muted form. Many countries sent their brightest children to England for a formal education, but that was based on prestige and our natural predilection for promoting the classics over sport.
The selling of England was not tangible, but conceptual, the same idea of retro-fitted Englishness that underpinned Brexit thinking (part of which was a well-staffed NHS, the very thing Brexit is destroying). The selling of Middle England, like the myth of King Arthur, bore little resemblance to reality.
Next, I ran a Google search on ‘Middle England’ and some very peculiar images popped up, mostly involving jousting knights and re-enactments of battles. I thought, ‘Ah, they’ve mistaken ‘Middle England’ for ‘Middle Ages’, and so it proved. Google, after all, is just a linguistic algorithm.
Could it be that ‘Middle English’ denoted certain values, traditionalism, democracy, common sense, fair play? A certain tepid stability? The weather in Middle England is not bad, the people are quite nice, the food is okay, the life is quite comfortable. There are too many qualifiers in that last sentence, but it’s how things are.
If you draw a snake running diagonally from top left to bottom right through England, that’s the band in which more than half the UK population live. It’s the middle in every sense, solid, respectable, unimaginative, kindly and, with the exception of London, a bit right-leaning.
It’s also mired in the past, slow to change, lacking fire. Paradoxically, it accepts new concepts quite easily when they are offered.
The most Middle English remark I’ve heard recently was on Twitter, when a man commented on seeing the film ‘God’s Own Country’, about a farmer’s relationship with a Romanian worker. He said, ‘I thought Crikey, hang on a mo, they’re both chaps!’
The selling of Middle England reached the heights of absurdity when coach loads of Japanese tourists were taken to some boring modern English suburbs in a place called Kidlington to photograph front gardens, much to the resigned amusement of the locals.
The fascination with ordinary lifestyles is a new tourist development created largely by the internet; we see images of exotic-seeming places and want to visit. When I lived in California my parents came to stay and were fascinated by everything from mailboxes to supermarkets.
But when it comes to selling, there’s nothing less attractive than being too aggressive. Ms Rowling’s Harry Potter stories have delighted children all over the world, but in its toy empire the Hogwarts School seen below will set you back a little under three hundred pounds, and represents the high end of a lucrative market, the selling of dreams to people who want to live among castles and dragons or at least boarding schools with strict rules.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; Disney got there a long time ago. The selling of Middle England as a kind of desirable quality for others to adopt has always been here, from America’s ‘London Fog’ raincoats to ‘English muffins’, neither of which are traditional in this country. Bowler hats, lords and ladies, tea at four and other nonsensical farragos survive even now, in a world of connectivity that should know better.
But judging by the way in which English writers and artists are drawn to the more violent forms of exoticism, I’d say a great number of us are looking for ways to break out of this straitjacket. In novels from ‘The Honorary Consul’ to ‘Gormenghast’ we look for more extreme emotions. And all it does is make us more English.
And there is the paradox. I find myself writing books which are, to others at least, quintessentially English. Is Middle England merely inhabited by ordinary people with suburban dreams who worked hard to improve their homes and their lives; to get better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth?
As the New Statesman pointed out, ‘if Middle England means anything at all, then its inhabitants are in fact more numerous, more diverse and considerably more liberal than the stereotype. Middle England reads the Daily Mail, but does not agree with it.’
The term ‘Middle England’ has been around since 1882. Middle England is not a place where professionals and the rich insulate themselves against risk – it’s the squeezed centre, nervous about money, determined to maintain inherited values – but more and more, those values are surprisingly broad-minded, liberal ones. If the country’s politicians possessed any subtlety of intellect, it’s a lesson they would do well to understand.
This column has been updated to correct an error. Although I clearly missed the crowds of tourists the only time I went!