Harry Mount on how England made the English

John Walsh gives a summary of the talks at the Bath Literary festival
  • @johnhenrywalsh

What makes the English English?  How much are our national characteristics determined by the weather? Harry Mount, author of a new study of Englishness, constructed a glittering bracelet of links between the people, the things they consume, the behavior they indulge in and the buildings they construct.

Take clothing. The English, Mount sadly explained, are very bad at dressing well for hot weather. We used to be better when we developed cool summer clothes to wear in hot climates of the British Empire. Since we stopped being imperial, we’ve become rubbish in the heat – unlike south Europeans, whose dress sense long ago evolved in cooling cottons and linens.

On the positive side, the English climate, never excessively hot or cold, has bred a phlegmatic moderation of temperament. In Doctor No, James Bond in Jamaica longs for home as “the only country where you can take a walk every day of the year.” The climate led us to invent games that could be played in any weather – such a tennis and golf. A desire to be outdoors, said Mount, prompted the English love of picnics; the first description of them in literature is in The Vicar of Wakefield whose author identifies their first quality as being “discomfort.”

Mount’s main thrust was that English architectural history is a history of “taking what other countries are doing and adding our own spin to it.” Among the things we added were windows: because we needed as much light as possible in the dark and rainy countryside, we made churches that were effectively “boxes of light”. If, he said, the long windows of Bath Priory were used in an Italian or Spanish church, the congregation would be burned to a crisp. 

Mount did a terrific job of illuminating Nicholas Pevsner’s contention about “the English genius for domesticating the grand.” We may have diluted the Gothic style and refused to embrace the full wedding-cake glory of the rococo, he said, but dammit, “we gave the world the terraced building.” How many nations can say that?

What's on tomorrow at the Bath Literary Festival:

11.15am John Batchelor on Tennyson.

Professor of English at Newcastle University introduces his new biography of the great Victorian poet, laureate and “national monument.”

1pm Drugs: crack down or give in?

The Tuesday Independent Voices debate asks: it time to legalise Class B and C drugs? Or will the drug subculture in Britain always stay one step ahead of the law?

6.15pm Tracey Thorn

The guitarist and singer from Everything But the Girl discusses her candid life story, Bedsit Disco Queen.

8pm Clive Stafford-Smith. 

The founder of Reprieve turns his howitzer-like fury and steely legal mind on a 26-year travesty of justice in Florida.