Sentimental, of course, but perhaps none the worse for that. "What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?" Auden's question of 1932 was sentimental, too, and shadowed by another war.
Fascism loomed, and the economy had collapsed. Ramsay MacDonald had just formed a national government and boasted that his reward would be a kiss from every duchess in London.
England in 1999 is different. Politics is abolished; the economy is benign. Duchesses are not what they were. But the age of contentment, of a people-carrier in the garage and a sprinkler on the lawn, breeds its own sicknesses. Old, new or borrowed, they can give you the blues.
From September I'll be in Toronto editing Canada's most important national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, a paper that has been going for a century and a half and still believes enough in keeping people seriously informed to have foreign bureaux all over the world. The north Atlantic will separate me from some of my less than favourite things. Distant rumours may reach Ottawa about English politicians, but I shan't have to encourage the illusion in print that they matter except as players of a minority spectator sport - table tennis, perhaps, or lacrosse.
Nor will I worry over-much about Armani-suited purveyors of "initiatives" "launched" and "task forces" unveiled. Those elusive "high-quality public services" will sink into decent obscurity. Nor will much time be spent poring over pamphlets that fall stillborn from the presses of contentious little think-tanks.
It'll be just dandy, too, to leave behind the English age of "post-politics", where the foamy torrent of argument has given way to a desert of management- speak that withers whatever it touches, from the NHS to the BBC. In this England, as most employees of big newspapers know first-hand, the management consultant is the contemporary colossus - a suitable figure for a time when there is not much to say but more and more ways of packaging it.
Newspapers in England now are generally either successful but risk-averse, or failing and cost-cutting; many of the former are increasingly afraid to do anything except what they already do well, and the latter are increasingly unable to do anything well at all.
A period such as the Nineties, when institutions are in free fall, is also a period of control-freakery. That is why it'll be such a pleasure to stop commissioning articles about a Church of England that seems to have nothing better to do than discuss how bishops can sack churchwardens. When did an English bishop, apart from the desert-loving sage, the Bishop of London, last say anything of interest about life in England today, quite apart from saying anything about the soul of man? The carrion crows of spin and management consultancy feast on the carcasses of dying institutions - including newspapers. They manipulate and they manage, but know nothing about how to lead or create.
When institutions fail and national identity is fragile, sport comes into its own. Of course, it may not be any better in the world's second- largest country, but there must be some relief to be had from getting away from news conferences where sport is surrogate patriotism.
English irony and playfulness were the product of self-confidence. Historically English nationalism has been absent, because English patriotism was strong and rooted in institutions that worked. Reservations about the royals and contempt for parliamentary charades have undone that confidence. The soccer strip and, worse, the soccer millionaire have now replaced the lion and the unicorn.
In our sillier newspapers "the beautiful game" brooks no competition for space or significance. Besotted apologists all but liken the hooligan to the bowmen of Agincourt and the members of the British Expeditionary Force. This new nastiness is the result of a new uncertainty about what it means to be English. Arrogance is concealed defensiveness.
As a debate starts about "English votes for English laws", my new abode, with its great lakes and generous values, will offer another perspective. A civilised agreement to disagree prevails in Canada's federal structure. An old, Whiggish accommodation is arrived at. Life is not a rationalist's dream, and anomalies have to be lived with.
What a relief, too, to leave behind that special English substitute for conversation: endless discussions about property prices. Deprived of the gossip columns that I used to write, I shall no longer be there to read about friends or myself. I shall be ignorant, too, of that British newspaper speciality, the "personality", or the "person without any character", as it has come to mean. Just think of television chefs.
Brokers who brag about city bonuses; speculation on Peter's new job in government; the Dome; entrepreneur balloonists; the contest between Jeffrey Archer's Pinky and Ken Livingstone's Perky - all these should pass The Globe and Mail by.
True, the rest of the world comes to London, but our newspapers revel in their centripetal world view. There has never been a time when they've been less interested in foreign news. Africa is reduced to the gyrations of grass-skirted totalitarians. Moslems are bigots, terrorists or both. Russia equals gangsters. Central America is the story of drugs. China is a cruel enigma.
A country without an oppressive sense of its own past can be more open to the outside world. The Elizabethans who searched for the North-West Passage, the founders of the Hudson's Bay Company, were stylish, vigorous adventurers. They were the products of the only really golden English age, when a small country of 5 million became a world power and created a world literature.
English newspapers today, by contrast, are oppressed by the sense that everything has already been said. Once England showed the world how to reconcile freedom, order and prosperity. But, caught between the craven populist and the heritage illusion, the old place can grate. The answer to Auden's question "What do you think about England... where nobody is well?" is that she isn't better, she's much the same. It is time for a change.Reuse content