In Praise Of Middle England

Great Britain

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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.

100012583When 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 lin354072_1guistic 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.

banksy-bomb-middle-england-us

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.

Middle EnglandThe 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.

478015_2But 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!

14 comments on “In Praise Of Middle England”

  1. Jo W says:

    Excuse me Christopher, but the statue in the top photograph is King Alfred the Great. 😉

  2. Susanna C says:

    Hin Christopher,

    The statue is of King Alfred who was very real. They do have a Round Table (as in King Arthur’s) in the great hall of the castle, which is a table from the reign of Edward I, that Henry VIII had painted up as The Round Table, to impress the Holy Roman Emperor on a state visit.

    Mr Bryant could probably tell you more.

  3. Jan says:

    Winchester can’t really be described as quiet Chris. Bloody place is crammed out with tourists most of the time. Henry 8th ‘s copy of the mythical Arthur’s round table attracts multitudes of tourists, as does the cathedral. Very interesting town historically King Alfred court based here.
    You normally can hardly see King Alf’s statue for all the coaches picking up and dropping off visitors which surround him.

    Remember before you class London as this hub of left wing thought that the suburbs and dormitory towns which surround it in terms of sheer weight of numbers massively outweigh the would be radicals in the ‘edgy’ inner London districts.

  4. admin says:

    Sorry, Zone 1 Boy doesn’t know his statues. I’ve amended.

  5. Debra Matheney says:

    I was one of those tourists. Highlights of visit were seeing Jane Austen’s grave (with no mention of her being an author) and seeing the house in which she died. I have a great affinity for cathedral towns so I must be a fan of Middle England. I was sickened (no pun intended) by how the NHS was used by Farage. Politics on both sides of the Atlantic leave a lot to be desired. Here’s to tea and scones and reading good books, both old fashioned pursuits, I suppose.

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    Kidlington is a very fine, very liberal town, a few miles to the north of Oxford. England, middle or other, should feel proud of it.

    That’s liberal with both small and capital L in the middle England sense of nicely left of centre.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    Middle England is a sort of expanded version of Orwell’s ‘Moon Under Water’, the perfect pub that doesn’t really exist.
    Downton Abbey and Agatha Christie are part of Middle England, and so are Inspector Morse and Heartbeat. Its Hyacinth Bucket and The Secret Seven, Celebrity Bake Off and Bargain Hunt. Disney’s version is Mary Poppins and the wonderful artwork of the original 101 Dalmatians.

    The King of Middle England is Alan Titchmarsh, The Queen is The Queen.

    We all know the real Middle England is equidistant between Geordie Shore, the Chatsworth housing estate, Essex, Eastenders and Royston Vasey.

  8. Denise Treadwell says:

    I am a bit confused about the gnome? Does it have some significance? I personally don’t see anything wrong with a few scones and a cup of tea. Making me feel like making some!

  9. Roger says:

    I think it’s Chinese tourists who visit Kidlington. The CCP share the stereotypically Middle English view that people should be free to do what they want, as long as it’s the same thing the Authorities want, and believe English suburbs exemplify this.
    Have you read Julian Barnes’ England, England, about the epitome – epitomisation – of tourist England?

  10. Jan says:

    One way or another this post seems to be more about Muddle England.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Hmph! I was called The Queen of Scones by a staff member and made scones for them to have with tea. I have a recipe for cranberry scones I’m going to try.
    The gnome is vital for any well maintained garden. There is a book entitled “Gnomes” which gives you all the information you could ever want about gnomes; their life style, homes, clothing, etc.
    I’m concerned about the exploding lawn bowls. Lawn bowling is surprisingly popular around here, but many of the players have stopped wearing white outfits just as tennis players have.
    Japanese tourists would find English gardens in front yards interesting and strange. The lack of privacy would be quite surprising.

  12. Karen says:

    Helen! What the fuck!!

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Karen, pardon? It seemed fairly straight forward to me. What’s the problem?

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I’m ambivalent about gnomes – their origin as garden ephemera is patchy, but I have to go with the one that they’re a very sanitized version of the Roman God, Priapus, God of fertility and gardens, always depicted as a small figure with enormous genitals, to the point of being comedic. He sometimes wears a Phrygian cap on his head, the cap often being painted red. 18th century tourists, doing ‘The Grand Tour’, would possibly have seen representations of Priapus at places like Baiae, and the caves around Lake Avernus (the entry to the Underworld, in Virgil’s ‘Aenead’). The sturdier Victorian tourist, for a whispered ‘under the counter’ sort of conversation with the guide, and a handful of coins, could, at the newly unearthed Pompeii, visit a storage building full of all the ‘naughty bits’ (© Kenny Everett) removed from the excavation, including models of Priapus. “Yes, I’d love one in the garden, by the pond, but the sight of his huge pego would send my dear Eunice into a swoon, and cause the servants to walk out. The local guttersnipes would lean over the wall, and throw stones and apple cores at it. If, somehow, Luigi, you could take a chisel to this fellow’s generative member, and whittle it away, then we might replace it with a little wheelbarrow, or something…”

    The Gnome you show is based on the ones from fantasy illustrator Brian Froud’s books ‘Fairies’ and ‘Gnomes’, both utterly wonderful. Froud did design work on Ridley Scott’s exquisite (but ruined by the studio) ‘Legend’. It’s where the ‘Unicorn’ footage in one of the many versions of the original ‘Blade Runner’ comes from, too. Froud’s very personable Gnomes seem to be a cross between the garden gnome, and the ‘Kobold’ Dwarf from German folklore.
    Former Prime Minister John Major’s brother, Terry Major-Ball was a designer of garden Gnomes, I seem to remember. Can’t get much more Middle England than that.

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