Author: David Starkey
It was blessedly cool inside the Romanesque nave, its massive arches resisting the heat as they had done everything else that history had thrown at them in the past thousand years. Through the great west doors, which had been left open for ventilation, I could glimpse the ruins of the adjacent Norman castle, bleached white by the intense sunshine. In front of me were the serried ranks of prep school pupils at their speech day and I was presenting the prizes. The boys were in blazers; the girls in boaters and the staff were gowned. The head opined sensibly and the dean prayed. The organ thundered; the choir sang exquisitely and the soloist soared with that fragile, plangent beauty of the boy treble. It was quintessential England. And yet at least a third of the pupils were immigrant: black, yellow and every shade of brown.
As usual, I was speaking extempore and I would have liked to have referred to the composition of the school body in my short address. But it is an awkward topic and the right form of words did not come. But I think I have now found them. The presence of so many different races, in such numbers in such an English institution, is a sign of something I hoped for but never expected to see: namely a redefinition of English nationhood in cultural terms. In other words, English traditions and the English way of life, as exemplified in the kind of school and place where I stood, are proving to be sufficiently powerful, with their idiosyncrasy, their quiet, seductive beauty and their sense of order and history, to produce a sublime version of the melting-pot effect. It is entirely voluntary and operates by attraction, not compulsion or indoctrination. It deals in the realities of human behaviour, and not the fool’s gold of poor Gordon Brown’s unrequited quest for ‘British Values’. It accords a proper priority to native English culture and tradition but treats them as inclusive and welcoming rather than exclusive and hostile. It corresponds to, and probably indeed ultimately derives from, the peculiar English attitude to gentility, which saw it essentially as a matter of behaviour and aspiration rather than mere ancestry. Above all, since it unites rather than divides, it’s the polar opposite of multiculturalism, with its quasi-apartheid and corrosive sense of victimhood. There is hope for us yet.
There is England’s urban beauty and its impact on the immigrant as well. I was in an Uber a few days ago as we came up to Blackfriars Bridge. It was quite early on Saturday morning; the streets were empty and clean and the sunlight was a lovely liquid yellow. Suddenly, and quite unprovoked, the driver, whom I’d guess to be Ethiopian, exclaimed: ‘London is so beautiful!’ Surprised, I murmured agreement. He warmed to his theme: ‘Every time I drive across Waterloo Bridge it strikes me. There is that amazing view: the Houses of Parliament to one side and St Paul’s and the City to the other. Beautiful, so beautiful!’ It was Wordsworth in a nutshell in an Uber. And it spoke of affection, even love, as well as aesthetic appreciation.
Of course the Beautiful Game has also played its part in this renascent English nationalism. It was brought home to me rather charmingly on another recent Uber journey. The driver, to judge from his name, came from Indochina. His English was poor but on the back shelf was a St George’s flag, all ready to be deployed for the night’s big match. Like everything else in the cab and about the driver’s person, it was scrupulously neat — rolled like a furled umbrella in my culture or a perfectly prepared spring roll in his.
My Wordsworthian Uber was taking me to catch a train to Dorset, to speak at the memorial service for my agent who became a friend. This church was quintessentially English too. So tucked away in the enveloping countryside that finding it defied both local knowledge and sat nav. And here the most English of congregations had gathered to celebrate the most English of men: he was quirky, musical, an inveterate practical joker and muddler-through, yet shrewd and driven and the best of friends in others’ sufferings and the most stoical in his own. But, after the first appreciation by the man’s son, that the most unEnglish sound — to my ears at least — broke out: applause in church. Then I remembered Diana’s funeral and the moment the taboo was broken with the applause, first tentative and then thunderous, after Charles Spencer’s incendiary address. And as on that occasion, it dawned on me that the Dorset congregation was appreciating and rating each address as a performance. After the service was over, the lady who’d co-led the final prayers came up to me and said, ‘Such a relief to get through that; you were a hard act to follow you know!’