Watching Frank Turner perform all of his (exceptional) album England Keep My Bones the other week – with a packed, young crowd bellowing along to every word – got me thinking. Who else is actually writing songs about being proud to be English (or in some cases, British?)? Was there anyone else?
A quick brainstorm between Karen and me came up with a handful of older songs, but little else. So, last week I offered it out to my friends and readers on Facebook, and got an absolute deluge of responses (well beyond eighty in total), most of which potentially fitted the bill.
There were caveats, though. I wasn’t looking for songs that were racist or jingoistic, or indeed about war (I’ve covered war a long time ago already), I wanted songs that genuinely were celebrating being English, or what it is like to be English. It turns out there are some interesting takes on this idea, and this week I’ve taken ten of those songs to listen to and assess.
Why am I looking at this now? There are actually a few reasons. Needless to say the upcoming EU Referendum is part of the reason, particularly with the untruths, assumptions and frankly outright lies that have been the core of much of the campaign, which have put the English and British in such a poor light internationally (and to the despair of many of us at home) – and then there is the football. Yes, I’m a football fan, and I’m already an avid watcher of Euro 2016. But once again, it has been a minority of the English “fans” who have tarnished the image of the English again, as they have been involved in clashes with police in the few days running up to the first game (although, it does appear that a group of the Russian fans weren’t much better, and indeed far worse at the game itself).
Personally, though, I don’t put too much into national pride. I was born here, I happen to be English/British – and much like my wife, I come from a background of immigration and other nationalities too – but there are many things about the country I live in that leave a nasty taste, that makes it difficult for me to be proud of it.
But happily for the Tuesday Ten this week, there are many who have thought differently for one reason or another, and here we go with ten of them.
England Keep My Bones
The emotional heft of this album was already quite something, but once seen live, with a crowd singing along to every word, it reaches another level entirely. As Karen put it, this is an album about shared experience, about community, about a country, and it rings with love for it. Turner also made a point of noting at the show that this album was *not* about English supremacy, or right-wing themes, instead a celebration of the country of his birth, and the folk history of it. The track I’ve chosen here, though, concentrates on the rivers that trace like veins across England, and by extension England’s maritime history, and the evocative images of an English riverside in memory. Indeed, these kind of ideals, and imagery invoked, are something of a theme this week. Identifying Englishness is rather more difficult than you might think.
England, Half English
England, Half English
The Bard of Barking was always going to be featured here, I guess. Something of a predecessor to the likes of Frank Turner (and many more besides), he’s long since explored folk history and who we are as people. This track is from this century, and examines the multi-cultural heritage of “Englishness”, a reminder that it is an awfully long time since Englishness was a “pure” ideal. Frankly, I’m not sure it ever has – we have a heritage that takes in countless other countries and waves of immigration (both my wife and I are English/British according to our passports, but we both have heritage that comes from immigration) and that goes back centuries, and some of the crowing I see about immigration nowadays strikes me as trying to hold back the tide. I’d love to see us as a more open-minded country, and that goes both ways, but it seems that time may fall further into the distance. Also worth watching: Bragg discussing “What does it mean to be English?“.
In some respects, Dreadzone are one of those bands that show off the diversity and eclecticism so well. A multi-racial group with wide-ranging influences (rock, folk, dub, reggae, techno and others besides), who since they first appeared have refused to be restrained by usual cultural barriers, instead providing a fascinating melting pot of sound. They peaked in popularity in the mid-90s with this single and accompanying album, and were a regular and popular festival band at the time, and are still active today. This song combines a pounding techno beat with rousing string samples (another sampling Carl Orff’s Camina Burana), choral voices and that quote from If…: “Britain today is a powerhouse of ideas, experiments, imagination“.
England Belongs To Me
Apparently a song that has been co-opted by far right groups over the years, this Oi! anthem strikes me (and those who suggested it) as simply an attempt to wrest English pride back from such far-right idiots. This isn’t a complex song – thinly recorded punk provides a basic backing for the up-front, gang-vocals that are celebrating, simply, the idea of actually being English and being proud of it.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Road
A number of people suggested HMFB:
“Half Man Half Biscuit are pretty good at dissecting what it means to be English”
“Half Man Half Biscuit are the most ‘English’ band I have ever heard.“
A band I have to confess I have little more than a passing knowledge of, but just a cursory look at their lyrics is enough to realise very, very quickly, that they are band that are very good indeed at looking at English life and writing songs about those observations. As a result, it was not hard to find many, many songs in their back catalogue that would fit the bill, but this one rather leapt out at me. Looking at a particular type of Englishness, the Real Ale enthusiast. A type of person that, in some respects at least, is doing their best in one small way to keep an English tradition alive – that is the English way(s) of making beer.
Can’t Be Sure
Reading Writing and Arithmetic
Certainly a band I wasn’t expecting to include in the list this week – early 90s alternative band The Sundays, but their pretty, chiming debut single does indeed celebrate their homeland, not that a lot else goes on during the song, besides Harriet Wheeler’s delicate vocals and the chiming guitars (the latter so date the song). But the chorus is what really makes sure of inclusion here: “England my country, the home of the free / Such miserable weather / But England’s as happy as England can be / Why cry?”
David’s Last Summer
His ‘n’ Hers
Another artist so, so good at examining the minutae of English life is Jarvis Cocker – but many of his songs are perhaps sneering or cynical about said life. So instead I’m turning to this old album cut, where Jarvis is harking back to a more innocent time, experiencing a youthful (and short!) English summer, featuring young love, drunken parties, midnight park visits, but more importantly, the impermanence of the English summer, a time to celebrate and enjoy while it lasts, as you never quite know how long you have. Yeah, maybe that’s a universal ideal, but all of the details of this song are so, so English. Particularly autumn closing in before you can blink – and, of course, talking about the weather in general.
The Duckworth Lewis Method
How much more English could you get? A song about a moment in a cricket match – where an unknown Australian bowler (Shane Warne) makes a fool out of an English “legend” (Mike Gatting) of the time, and of course, years later, it is that unknown Australian bowler who is now the legend, and this was just the announcement to the world of his talent. Cricket, of course, is something very English. Pretty much only played by the British and the countries that used to make up the British Empire, it seems to result in much puzzlement from pretty much anyone else in the world – “why does the game take five days?” is a familiar question to answer. Anyway, this song is hilarious and perfectly sums up the bewilderment on Gatting’s face in the endless replays of this moment.
The English Motorway System
The Facts of Life
Hardly a band to celebrate anything directly – theirs is/was a bitter, and cynical take on life in Britain, that was for sure – this is a subtle, and intriguing song. Yes, it really is offering up a celebration of England’s traffic spines, the motorway system. The same system that drives most of us to distraction, delays us, makes us hate long distance driving. But then, the British have a particular affection for driving (whether we like it or not, it is still a very car-centric culture), and so a song celebrating the country’s major roads seems, well, rather apt. As Sarah Nixey says, though: “All you’ve got to do to stay alive is drive”
The Chemical Wedding
Yes, I know I’m not using the original setting to music by Sir Hubert Parry, but it is still based upon William Blake’s And did those feet in ancient time. But also, Jerusalem is important in its adoption by the WI as their anthem – and are there many more English traditions than the WI (something that my wife is part of)? The song itself, of course, has a bizarre (to my ears) suggestion, that Jesus came to England and briefly creates Heaven here – with the implication that the “green and pleasant land” of the rolling countryside is rather more palatable than the “dark satanic mills” that were beginning to take hold. So looked at it another way, this was a poem against progress in a time where the industrial revolution was still a scary future to behold.
Still…Bruce Dickinson, of course, has fronted English Heavy Metal band Iron Maiden for most of the past thirty-five years or so, a band who have very much associated themselves at points with English history (The Trooper being one song in particular), putting their name to a fairly well-regarded English Ale, being one of the most successful English bands around the world, and generally being Nice Blokes. The kind of English blokes you’d probably happily have a pint with down the pub.
Finally, thanks again to everyone who took the time to contribute and/or argue the case for particular songs.