The Diary: Welcome to your new leader, Whatsisname

WHAT A rollercoaster week it has been for those who worry about the future of England. One day we get a report saying that the country has no clear sense of its own identity, the next we're told England is to have a New Leader.

For the benefit of anyone who missed these two seminal announcements, let me recap. According to a "brand agency", whatever that is, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have a much clearer idea of who they are than do the English. The national symbols associated with England, from Big Ben to fish and chips, "do not add up to a national identity that connects with people, inspires them and makes them proud".

The agency contrasts this inability to find Tourist Board pastiche loin- stirring with the example of the Scots, whose blood races at the very mention of the words Donald Dewar, White Heather Club and deep-fried Mars bars.

For a terrible few hours this profound piece of research, based on a whole 40 interviews with members of the public, threatened to plunge the English into their well known melancholy. But, mercifully, relief was soon at hand. Like the Scots and Welsh, the English may be about to have their own First Minister.

Sources say he is a chap called Richard Caborn, the MP for Sheffield Central. I've not had the pleasure of meeting our New Leader, but everyone says he's straight as a die, with a record of left-wing commitment second to none. All the causes he has espoused - support for British miners, Namibian freedom-fighters, El Salvadorean guerrillas, testify to his probity. The man has even, it's said, shared a bed with Arthur Scargill when a hotel was overbooked.

Tony Blair has been too busy attending to important matters, such as the religious beliefs of the former England football coach, to make a formal announcement of Mr Caborn's elevation to this important role. Perhaps that naughty old Alastair Campbell is just testing the water to see what we all think of Mr Caborn representing England in the British-Irish Council, one of the devices cooked up as part of the Good Friday peace deal.

But I worry for the poor chap. For a start, it is indicative of the place that England occupies in the minds of our government that the legislation setting up the British-Irish Council, while specifically including Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, has no place for England, which has a mere 83 per cent of the United Kingdom population. Perhaps the valiant Mr Caborn will put this right, but the real problem is an obvious one. Whoever is nominated to this body from Scotland or Wales will carry the authority of a properly elected local parliament. Whoever is put up to speak for England has the authority only of a British government in which Scotland and Wales are already over-represented.

Far be it from me to suggest that the way to solve problems is to have more elections and more politicians, but you do wonder. It's a lot easier than reinventing fish and chips.

MY FRIEND Tom has just telephoned in despair. "Can no one do anything about the Bill Bryson menace?"

I was shocked: on the one occasion I met Bill Bryson I rather liked him, and his latest collection contains one exceptionally funny story. But as my friend is currently hard at work on a fascinating history of the Englishman's obsession with lawns, I assumed he had succumbed to the urge that seizes many writers who envy Mr Bryson's phenomenal success, and wished to see him disappear from the bestseller lists in a gust of his own whimsy.

But there was another reason for Tom's fury. His teenage son, who is studying for his English A-level, arrived home the other day with Bryson's Notes From a Small Island under his arm. As the boy is something of a stranger to reading for pleasure, my friend was delighted that he seemed to have decided of his own accord to spend a few hours inside a book. He was wrong.

Bill Bryson was one of his set books for his A-level. Of all the works produced in the richest language and richest literary tradition in the world, the education authorities have chosen to make students apply themselves to a book which week after week sits there in the bestseller lists.

There is nothing wrong with Notes From a Small Island. But even Bill Bryson wouldn't claim it was up there with Shakespeare, Dickens or even Trollope. Doubtless, examination boards will have some excuse. Probably something to do with encouraging people to read.

The reasoning might have something to be said for it if books like this were being used to encourage science specialists to broaden their interests. But there is no shortage of applications to study English at university, and no shortage of unemployed English graduates.

I have always found the phrase "dumbing down" a lazy term of abuse used by people who can't face change. In this case, it seems entirely appropriate.

I HAVE had a charming letter from a regular Newsnight viewer. Under a letterhead describing himself as Portrait Painter To The Stars, the writer opened by saying that "if people like you don't give politicians a good grilling, who would? I AM ALL FOR IT. They get away with MURDER".

"People call you `smug'. Well so what? You DESERVE to be smug! Hell's bells, if YOU can't be smug, who can? Good luck to you Jeremy! Incidentally, do you call yourself Jeremy or Paxo or is that merely a press term?"

Then he came to the point of his letter: "I am an artist (Sundays only, ha ha!) who specialises in painting celebrities and people in public life I admire ... I try to make my paintings as flattering as possible, and offer all sitters `blemish enhancement' ... Forgive me for being personal, but you have a fairly `prominent' nose. I would be happy to reduce its size if you wanted to."

Having just visited the display of Oliver Cromwell's death masks (most fake, but all complete with warts) at the London Museum, you can guess my response.

Jeremy Paxman's `The English' is published by Michael Joseph (pounds 20).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

    Investigo: Finance Business Partner

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

    Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

    £8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project