Understanding the English

The national psyche must be about more than a lack of working-class solidarity and the ability to hound out radio DJs or turn a former punk into a national pet

I spent Thursday evening at Birkbeck College listening to the novelist Andrew O'Hagan deliver this year's George Orwell memorial lecture on "The English". It was – to say the least – an intriguing combination of speaker and subject.

O'Hagan is a Scot come south to storm the palisades of literary London. Orwell could be notably rude about some of O'Hagan's countrymen ("It is so rare to find anyone hitting back at the Scotch cult", he wrote to Anthony Powell in June 1936, thanking him for the gift of Powell's verse satire Caledonia. "I am glad to see you make a point of calling them 'Scotchmen', not 'Scotsmen' as they like to be called. I find this is a good easy way of annoying them.") In fact, "The English" turned out to be shorthand for the English working class, to whose decline, oppression, stupefaction and lack of solidarity O'Hagan devoted three-quarters of an hour of merciless exposure. He had a particularly good story about his English relatives coming to visit in the summer of 1977, a gang of "curious individualists", "not like us at all", the parental fraction of which smoked cigarettes and kept retiring for "naps". "Mummy," one of O'Hagan's siblings eventually demanded, "are they Protestants?"

There were slightly fewer laughs when O'Hagan proceeded to England's "leisured poor" – the last prime minister's real legacy to our national life, he argued – their want of "communal volition" and their eagerness to "collude in their exploitation" at the hands of a culture that peddled celebrity tat rather than any authentic sense of community, responsibility or self-worth. Crisply set forth as all this was, it seemed to skate round the glaring fact that English working-class life was never properly homogeneous in the way of some of its continental equivalents.

Reading Richard Bradford's excellent biography of that supposedly archetypal "working-class writer" Alan Sillitoe (The Life of a Long-distance Writer, Peter Owen £25, inset right), I was struck by Sillitoe's complete detachment from all the other Fifties Northern upstarts. While the likes of Stan Barstow and Keith Waterhouse were winning council scholarships, the aspiring author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning spent his early years wheeling the family possessions on a hand-cart from one hovel to the next – genuine Midlands underclass, you see, and as far a cry from the "respectable" working class to which my grandparents belonged as Chatsworth from Bethnal Green.

What undermined the class solidarity that Marxists always looked for so vainly in the English lower orders was not only deferential Toryism but also a residue of old-style Victorian Liberalism. My grandmother, for example, approved of the Tory slogan "a fair day's work for a fair day's wage". My grandfather, while disparaging the Tories ("What have they ever done for the working man?") liked the Labour Party even less ("a lot of riff-raff"). Some of the complexities of inter-war politics, alas, escaped him. At the general election of 1935 he announced that he would be "voting for Mr Geoffrey Shakespeare, the Liberal candidate". It took my teenaged father to point out that, as a National Liberal, Shakespeare would be lining up with the Conservatives.

One thing the English are very good at these days is collateral justice, which might be defined as being so enraged by a particular crime that you exact retribution from people, artefacts or even symbolic events only peripherally attached to it. Victims of collateral justice over the past few days have included a song by the convicted sex offender Gary Glitter found lurking on a GSCE music syllabus, and the Ipswich footballer David Norris, fined and forced to apologise over an on-pitch gesture in support of his former team-mate, Luke McCormick, recently imprisoned for causing the death by dangerous driving of two children.

Naturally, some distinctions need to be made. You can't help feeling that Amanda Peak, the mother of 10-year-old Arron and eight-year-old Ben, was absolutely right to complain about Norris's crassness, particularly as it took place on a football field in front of 20,000 people. The idea of banning one of Glitter's deathless effusions from the GCSE roster because its creator is an underage-sex tourist, on the other hand, is a bit more problematic. One can't really see Glitter benefiting from this (very minor) piece of publicity or imagine that sales of his back catalogue will suddenly be displacing Girls Aloud from the charts.

The aspiring critics among us were always taught the value of trying to separate the work from the author, however difficult that might turn out to be in practice. Following the anti-Glitter line of reasoning, do you put a blanket ban on the study of Ezra Pound's Cantos because their author was a deplorable old Fascist? Or stop students reading Larkin because of those amusing lines "I want to see them starving/The so-called working class/Their wages weekly halving/Their women stewing grass")?

If it comes to that, at O'Hagan's lecture I sat near a distinguished historian known in the past for his not unsympathetic attitude to the Soviet Union. An ally of dictators, obviously, all of whose books should be burnt.

There was an even odder example of collateral justice in the fall-out from the Baby P case, when the London Evening Standard printed a photo of Sharon Shoesmith, director of children's services at Haringey council, at Ascot racecourse a few weeks after the child's death. The implication was abundantly clear: here, vengeful reader, is a woman who gadded about at Ascot while abused children died in squalor. Granted Ms Shoesmith, at least on the strength of her public utterances, seems a particularly dreary example of the new breed of public sector technocrat, but why shouldn't she go to the races once in a while? As Orwell pointed out about David Copperfield, why shouldn't Uriah Heep have a love life? One of the features of collateral justice, alas, is that any ammunition will do.

Along with collateral justice, it has been a good week for the culture of complaint. Never, it seems, have quite so many ornaments of the media been in such sharp retreat from so much public hostility, been fined, suspended, criticised or sacked for over-stepping the mark. Jeremy Clarkson has been vilified for some aperçus about the tendency of lorry drivers to murder prostitutes and the ugliness of Greek women. Jon Gaunt was temporarily relieved of his radio show for calling a Redbridge councillor a "Nazi". A radio presenter at BBC Bristol lost her job for asking a taxi firm not to send an Asian driver to pick up her child (an exceptionally offensive remark, no doubt, but not made on-air and arguably nothing to do with the BBC at all). In a roundabout way, this groundswell of annoyance supports the O'Hagan theory about the demoralisation of the working class. The liberty we possess, or think we possess, is, he argued, an example of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin's "negative freedom". The big decisions are taken far above most people's heads. Government policy is beyond our capacity to influence or amend. Complaining about errant broadcasters, consequently, is about the only kind of power we have left to exercise.

And then there is that other time-honoured manifestation of "Englishness'" – the ease with which the national Establishment expands to include all kinds of mavericks whom orthodoxy would presume to be permanently kept waiting on its door-mat. Cultural commentators nearly always talk about our institutions being snootily inflexible, whereas the truth is that English life is extraordinarily fluid and inclusive. I was reminded of this the other day when Dairy Crest confirmed their commitment to John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten, late of the Sex Pistols) as the public profile of English butter, even in the face of economic downturn. A source of countless "Must we fling this filth at our kids?" 30 years ago, Lydon has effortlessly transformed himself into a kind of national pet, a naughty uncle figure who comes around as regularly in our national life as the muffin man in Victorian Kensington.

Ominously enough, the seeds of this transformation were being sown at the time. (I can remember a late Seventies New Statesman competition asking for newspaper stories from the early 2000s. One of the entries had "Sir John Rotten's horse, Dandruff" winning the Derby.) By chance, one of Andrew O'Hagan's other memories from the summer of 1977, when his oddball Sassenach relatives came to stay, was of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and the scent of anarchy – a welcome antidote to English softness and conformity, he imagined, a sign that deep down in the national psyche some kind of radicalism still survived. Nobody wants to trample on youthful dreams, of course, but I have a feeling that Rotten sold his young admirer down the river.

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