Simon Kelner: A little bit of English does you good


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Yesterday I took issue with a recent assertion by John Cleese that London doesn't feel like an English city any more. It provoked a big response on the Twittersphere and caused me to wonder exactly what, these days, constitutes feeling "English" – given that our national dish is chicken tikka masala – or whether this may be an outdated concept. And then I remembered the Wootton Flower Show.

In the heart of David Cameron's Oxfordshire constituency, Wootton is a picture-book village, full of solid Cotswold stone houses and looked over by an impressive church. The Flower Show (I am no expert in these matters, but it seemed to me that flowers played an exceptionally small part in proceedings) attracts competitors and observers from the surrounding area and takes place on a magnificent cricket pitch.

The scene this past weekend would have been rejected by Richard Curtis as too clichéd. The brass band played by the pavilion; marrows were assessed; ladies dispensed sponge cake; and a gentleman on a loud hailer announced that "everything on the bric-a-brac stall is now going for 10 pence". The whole mise-en-scène could have come from Midsomer Murders – apart from the fact that I did spot several black faces. It was, in almost every respect, the quintessence of England. Even the community policeman on duty was called Phil Workman. Can you get a more yeoman-like, English name than that? (He's a devoted i reader, too, so I had better be careful what I say.)

Nevertheless, all was not necessarily as it seemed. For this perfectly indigenous event was taking place in the impressive grounds of a house owned by a Pakistani family. (Perhaps it takes an immigrant sensibility to make something look so English.) And while the band struck up "The Floral Dance" and the children played, there had to be tensions below the surface. And there they were, for all to see, in the limerick competition, which had to begin with the line: "There once was an MP called Dave..." Wootton, like many such villages, is without a Post Office, the resentment of which inspired this offering: "There once was an MP called Dave/Promised Wootton its Post to save/But he'd later admit/I was a bit of a s***/It's the post of PM I crave." That got my vote, but no one asked me and the first prize went to a much more laudatory offering. Unfortunately, I don't have space to recount it. Another time, maybe...