Defining English identity seems to have become the new national hobby. Hundreds of books and articles have something to say on the matter of Englishness. But there is little consensus. Englishness is elusive and contradictory, at best patched together from disparate elements that all seem to have come from elsewhere. The English cannot decide who - or what - they are.
Richard Lewis tackles this ticklish question by rediscovering the country's traditional customs. He joins revellers at the Straw Bear festival, drinks with mummers, gurns at Egremont Crab Fair, and disguises himself as a hobby horse. Most of this jiggery-folkery he rather enjoys, but are these his authentic English roots?
In the main, these annual traditions have, Lewis learns, been variously "re-established": in other words, cobbled together by folk revivalists. But this soon ceases to matter. What is important is not their antiquity, but that they happen.
Those who fear the chink-chink of the morris dance will probably find this odyssey through the remnants of Merrie England nightmarish. Why do many men feel embarrassed by the morris (which is basically a few blokes dancing with hankies, bells, and ribbons), while becoming insanely passionate at the sight of 22 prima donnas prancing and pouting their way over a football pitch?
Lewis's account is engaging, affectionate and humorous. It is a sort of reluctant love story. He is aware of his own shortcomings as a folkie but also alive to his niggling desire to experience old English popular culture, and to assess its relevance today.He makes a sobering juxtaposition between celebrations to bring in the May in the West Country and simultaneous May Day anti-capitalism protests in London.
For some, the English identity described by Lewis will be alien. That is all the more reason to read The Magic Spring and understand why others will find that they have discovered a book that sings to them, that sings their own songs - even when they might not have realised they had any.
Nick Groom's 'The Union Jack: a Biography' will be published in June
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