Being English


England for me is singing as a boy in the church choir in cassock, surplice and ruff. It is the treble descant rising in the nave and the hiss of the organ as the stops are pulled out. It is the clang of bells ringing changes and the rise and fall of colourful sallies in bellringers’ hands. It’s the dread of returning to school after the holidays as announced by the smell of a newly bought uniform. Cap, tie, blazer and pressed trousers, all dull grey contrasted with the stirring bottle green of the girls’ pleated skirts. It is the trembling excitement of first light as the sun rises over the moors on midsummer’s day. It is the surge of joy as waves break on a shingle beach and wind-borne cries of gulls fill the salt-ridden air. It’s a thrush greeting dawn at the turn of a mist-shroud lane. It’s being enveloped in smoke on a bridge across the rails as a train chugs to a halt or the tantalising hint of a coal fire carried by a cutting wind on a cold winter’s night. It’s baked beans on toast and crumpets and chocolate flake. It’s a puddle of melted butter in the middle of steaming porridge or warm scones with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream. It’s the dreaded spotted dick of school dinners and the headmaster’s vengeful cane. It’s my tears of shame and rage as I am forced to stand head-bowed before my fellow pupils. It’s roaming the countryside alone on my bike, dreaming up worlds that forty years later will people my books. It’s the timid uncertainty of being that threatens to flicker out at the slightest breeze and the unstoppable force of creation that bowls me over and lifts me up.

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