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From Sunderland to the Bullingdon Club: Englishness Unravelled

Unsatisfied with George Orwell’s description of patriotism, John Mitchinson digs deep into his own personal history to untangle the complex roots of his Englishness.

John Mitchinson with Ronald Mitchinson in 1989

From Sunderland to the Bullingdon ClubEnglishness Unravelled

Unsatisfied with George Orwell’s description of patriotism, John Mitchinson digs deep into his own personal history to untangle the complex roots of his Englishness

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“The suet puddings and the red pillarboxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you

George Orwell wrote these lines in the middle of the Blitz, at a point where the future of England looked as bleak and threatened as it has ever done. 

The Lion and the Unicorn, the long essay they are taken from, is his not altogether successful attempt to reconcile his left-leaning self with his patriotism, his hopes of “bringing the real England to the surface”. With the hindsight of history, we can see he scores a creditable six out of 10 in predicting how the war and post-war reconstruction would turn out. Democracy did triumph, industries were nationalised, the health service was created, but the idle rich were not turfed out of their mansions, private education and the institutionalised inequality it entailed were not abolished. 

But it isn’t the predictions that draw me to this essay, 80 years later. It’s the suet puddings and the red pillarboxes: Orwell’s attempt to pin down a national culture that was worth fighting for. 

It wasn’t easy then; it isn’t any easier now, in the ominous calm that has followed our departure from the European Union. Given the choice, like many of us who have benefitted from closer ties with Europe without really admiring the political institution of the EU, I would have preferred the status quo. 

Being forced to contemplate your identity is always painful because it requires you to pay attention to the extremes. With ‘Englishness’ this means acknowledging, on one hand, the Faragiste bigotry and reckless hatred of outsiders that nationalism so often brings in its wake; while at the other end of the room listening to the unconvincing mantra that there are as many different Englands as there are people who live here. Both are delusional.  

This is why the term ‘British’ has proved so useful. Despite the obvious irony that it was invented in 1707 as a brand devoted to the imperial and economic exploitation of much of the rest of the planet, it is still easier for people of different ethnicities to call themselves ‘British’ rather than ‘English’. 

But not to face up to Englishness feels like a cop-out. To pretend that we come from nowhere, that we appear as ready-formed citizens of a political construct like ‘Britain’ is dishonest and psychologically hazardous. Self-knowledge comes from examining what has formed us, however painful.

England’s ‘Hippest Village’

To do this we need to drop the idea that ‘English’ implies a specific ethnicity. It doesn’t and never has done; it is a culture that has been fed by many different peoples and languages, in various degrees of willingness. To hide from that fact is to insult all those people who have chosen to make this country their home. Anyone who does and considers themselves English is English as far as I’m concerned. It’s how we each get to that point that interests me: what feeds our individual sense of English identity. And, instead of avoiding that history, we should roll our sleeves up and start digging. 

In her exhilarating and mind-clearing book Insurgent Empire, the historian Priyamvada Gopal provides a bold recalibration of Britain’s imperial past showing that colonisation was resisted in a well-organised and politically articulate way in almost every country where it was imposed. She also reveals how these resistance movements had a galvanic effect on radical movements such as the Chartists back in England. “We need,” she writes, “a more demanding relationship to history than is offered by prevalent island stories”, one that “cautions against levelling and self-serving assumptions about the past in order that we might engage in a more demanding way with the present”.

This more demanding relationship is required every bit as much (maybe even more) in rural England as it is in the more culturally diverse communities that make up our cities. I have lived in an English village – there is no such thing as a ‘British’ village – for the past 23 years. And not just any village: Great Tew is at the extreme edge of picturesque, almost oppressive in its thatched comeliness and about as challenging to received notions of Englishness as a Boden catalogue. 

But dig a little deeper and you find a rich history of entrepreneurialism and exploitation. An important Saxon village with a church by the time of the Domesday Book (itself an unmatched record of theft and appropriation), it was likely built on an older settlement – there’s evidence of occupation going back 7,000 years. By the early 17th Century, it had fallen into the hands of Laurence Tanfield, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, the most powerful and influential lawyer in the land.

John Mitchinson with his pig ‘Buster’ in Great Tew

In Tew, he soon acquired a reputation as a tyrant, enclosing the best fields of the common land for his own sheep, digging up ancient boundary stones, refusing the villagers access to the timber they needed to repair their homes, and imposing savage fines on them for trespass. At the church, he stripped lead from the chancel to make his own pipes and guttering, refused to pay the manorial dues, prevented villagers from using his straw to kneel on and knocked down the churchyard wall so his cattle could graze among the gravestones.

This went on for 10 years until a group of “poor oppressed inhabitants of Great Tew” petitioned Parliament in 1624. The Baron was unrepentant; his wife, Elizabeth, went even further. “The villagers of Great Tew,” she declared “were more worthy to be ground to powder than to have any favour showed them” and she promised to play the “very devil with them”. Both Lord and Lady Tanfield are reputed to haunt the village still.

A happier time ensued when the estate passed to Lucius Cary, their grandson, the Viscount Falkland (the village pub, the Falkland Arms, is named after him). He was Charles I’s secretary of state and ran an open house, gathering a collection of writers and philosophers around him, including Ben Jonson, the poet Abraham Cowley, the historian Lord Clarendon and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. They formed a royalist think-tank known as the Great Tew Circle, and tried, in vain, to persuade Charles to avoid his war with Parliament. 

By the mid-18th Century, Tew had passed into the hands of George Stratton, a member of the East India Company, who bought the estate (and a seat in Parliament) with money he had made in India. In the early 19th Century, Stratton’s son blew what remained of his father’s fortune on a failed model farm in the village and was forced to sell to Matthew Robinson Boulton, son of Mathew Boulton of Soho Foundry, who, with James Watt, was the great architect of the Industrial Revolution.

By the late 20th Century, Great Tew had fallen into serious disrepair and passed out of the Boulton family’s hands. Under the entrepreneurial vision of its current owners, Tew is now restored to its former glory, home to Soho Farmhouse and the Beckhams and frequently written up as ‘England’s hippest village’. 

A Map of the Heart

So much for the quiet seclusion of rural life. Looked at properly, Great Tew teaches salutary truths about the English countryside.

Over the centuries, from the Conquest through the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution to the Instagram-fuelled celebrity economy of today, this tiny backwater has witnessed huge tidal surges of investment sluice through it as one rich man’s vision has replaced another’s. Our village looks pretty because it was designed to look pretty 200 years ago – authenticity is relative. And Tew isn’t unique in this: every view, every landscape in England is more or less the product of human agency and investment, much of it made from exploiting poorer, less powerful people, first of all on their doorstep (like Tanfield) and then in colonies far from home. There is no escape from the cruelty of history in England, no wilderness to hide in. 

Great Tew had fascinated me long before I knew anything of its past. What took me there as a 10 year-old was a map. And not just any map but the 1968 Ordnance Survey, one-inch-to-the-mile map of Banbury, sheet 145, with a bright pink cover. And although the Ordnance Survey, like so many apparently anodyne British institutions dedicated to taxonomy, was set up to map the Highlands in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion in order to track down and arrest its leaders, that particular map transformed my childhood. Footpaths, copses, caves, streams, culverts, tumuli, deserted villages all appeared in the fields near our house on the edge of town.

I’d plot journeys, threading landmarks together, learning their names and spent hours with my brother and friends walking or cycling to find them. That map taught me more about history than any textbook – it made me see the landscape, not as something ‘owned’ and static but as a living palimpsest where the past was still present, where time was not linear but three-dimensional. 

It was the map that led us to Tew. In 1972, Great Tew was listed in Pevsner’s Buildings of England (another taxonomic marvel) as “unforgettable” but the rows of semi-derelict cottages were ‘one of the most depressing sights in the whole county’. It was exactly that sense of buildings sinking back into the earth that my brother and I loved – that and the pub with old agricultural workers sitting outside speaking in Oxfordshire accents so broad you could sharpen a scythe on them. 

It wasn’t like any other village we’d visited and I quickly became obsessed with it. Who knows precisely why? In a eulogy on the garden city of Letchworth, the writer and filmmaker Jonathan Meades – a notable stormtrooper in the war against the sentimental and the picturesque – confessed similar puzzlement: “We do not select the places which move us and to which we long to return… places choose us: we have no more control than we do in matters of love.” 

So it has proved and, in the decades that followed, I returned as often as I could. And now it is my home; birthplace of three of my children; the prism through which I try to make sense of who I am.

Roker Pier

It is not, however, where I’m from. When people ask that, I always say, somewhat uncomfortably, the north-east. Uncomfortably, because I don’t sound like I’m from there – we moved to Banbury in Oxfordshire when I was eight – but also because it is the area of England that has become most closely associated with a regressive, bigoted, anti-European strain of Englishness. The first result in the 2016 EU Referendum was the 61% in favour of Leave in Sunderland – a totemic moment in which even the most ardent Remainers knew their cause was lost.

My grandparents’ two-bedroom council house was in Sunderland and that house was the only constant in my life until my grandmother died in 2001. It was they who connected me to the rich web of stories and places which would form my map of belonging, my origin myth. 

I don’t know how they would have voted had they lived to see the referendum – but I do know they would have resented the way the north-east is now talked about as a region of fools, of turkeys voting for Christmas. They were proud of their region and their town to an almost ridiculous level. I still have my grandfather’s Sunderland memorial tankard. As well as local landmarks – Roker Pier, Penshaw Monument, Fulwell Mill – it has an engraving of a tram with the line underneath it: “Remember the Trams”. No question mark: just a statement, maybe even an imperative. ‘Do not forget this now outmoded form of transport!’ It is touching that someone at some point signed this off as a key sentiment, one worthy of preserving in pewter. 

Civic pride shading into sentimentality about the past is very typical of the north-east. But there is a dark obverse to this absurdity. This is the region that produced the coal and ships that built an Empire. It made England and many individuals rich, but it never made itself wealthy. And now those industries have gone – a disappearance that has happened entirely within my lifetime.

As I get older, I find myself drawn back northwards. Not necessarily as a place to live but as a place that fires my imagination. As a small child I would stand on the edge of Roker Pier and dream of the fjords just over the horizon (in fact, it’s a flat Danish sandbank) and the terror my forebears must have felt when Viking ships appeared on the horizon. It is a landscape as rugged and empty and unforgiving as rural Oxfordshire is lush and fecund. And I miss the sharp wit and energy of the people. 

I spent most of my childhood holidays with my grandparents and my grandfather, in particular, was the grown-up who had the most time for me. He listened to my stories and taught me basic life skills I have never forgotten: how to fold my clothes and polish my shoes, how to get the timing right for jokes and combination punches (he was Sunderland amateur welterweight boxing champion in the early 1930s), how to do sums in my head and proper press-ups.

His humour was bone dry, he disliked authority, he worked hard as a motor mechanic on the railways in one place for most of his working life. He suffered ill health from his early fifties onwards: stomach ulcers, debilitating arthritis, heart disease; he never complained. He was a deeply committed Christian, ill-served by the church he was devoted to. He was a trade unionist and staunch Labour Party supporter. He had little time for most priests and politicians. He was kind to the point of sainthood, hobbling around the estate to visit those older and less fortunate than himself until weeks before he died.

He didn’t live to see New Labour elected but he would not have liked Tony Blair; he didn’t much like Harold Wilson and loathed Churchill. Admiring Nye Bevan was as close as he got to expressing support for a political leader. 

He remains the person I miss most; the one I still most want to impress. He embodied a kind of Englishness that I try to measure my own by: a combination of kindness, restraint, scepticism and wit.

Boorish Bullingdon

In early 1976, we emigrated to New Zealand. The experience of living in another country served to sharpen my sense of Englishness in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

Everything from the texture of the grass to the smell of the earth after rain was different. I was bullied mercilessly at school for my accent and pale skin but, in spite of this, grew to love my new home – not least because it taught me a whole new way to look at the connection between culture, language and landscape. 

The revival of the Māori language and the restoration of tribal lands teaches many lessons for those of us concerned with the grotesque systems of land use and ownership in this country. As the years passed, my memories of England – my grandparents, the wild moors, the green Tew meadows – passed into a kind of internal mythological space. They were eventually to re-surface in my decision to apply to study English at Oxford. 

I arrived at Oxford, without a past or a context. Because I’d done a year at Auckland University, I was regarded as an Antipodean with an English accent. Also, I lived in a flat outside college with my New Zealand girlfriend (later wife), who worked as a waitress in what was then Oxford’s busiest restaurant, Brown’s. Armed with this floating identity, my northern past and comprehensive schooling were not obvious. I was a little older than my fellow students and, with friends in the town, was known for organising good (i.e. wild) parties. All these elements contributed to the defining moment of my time there. 

The Bullingdon Club in 1986. Boris Johnson seated left, John Mitchison standing on the right.

Somehow, I found myself elected to the infamous Bullingdon Club – surely the only state school-educated candidate ever to have been so embarrassed. I should have rejected it with contempt but I was curious, maybe even flattered.

I attended two dinners and a breakfast, witnessed some low-level vandalism, but mostly recall it being as dull as drunken, boorish behaviour is anywhere.

Our current Prime Minister was a fellow member, and rather a tame one – he egged on his more unhinged friends, but was careful not to be caught out himself (no surprises there). For all the tedious public school boasting about being ‘wild’ and ‘above the law’, I’d seen worse after rugby matches in New Zealand or in Sunderland pubs, the only difference being that the drinking was brisker, the banter much crisper and the trouble sorted out by the police rather than large wads of cash left on the table.

I might have written my Bullingdon experience off as mere youthful misjudgement, had it not been for an incident that took place after the end of term. My girlfriend and I were having supper in a subterranean branch of Davy’s Wine Bar in central Oxford, a place noted for serving port in copper jugs. We were joined by a Bullingdon member who I barely knew. He had the usual languid, superior air and ordered a jug of port. When it arrived he disappeared, came back with the full jug and told our waitress that the port was ‘off’. She returned to our table pale-faced and said we were the most disgusting people she’d ever met. He had replaced the port in the jug with his own piss.

I can still feel the intensity of the shame. In that moment, I realised what I’d aligned myself with. This was not my tribe; these were not my people. That grotesque combination of arrogance and stupidity, that lack of concern for the consequences of one’s actions upon others, now looks like a dumb show for the Eton-dominated political landscape we are presently condemned to live through. I left that restaurant and never looked back but the shame still burns. The healing stubbornly refuses to begin.

Wonder and Mystery

“In England,” writes Orwell, “patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them. Only the Europeanised intelligentsia are really immune to it.” 

There’s probably too much of the Europeanised intellectual in me to commend an updated version of Orwell’s English patriotism as the solution to our current divisions. If we are honest, we know defining a culture is impossible but describing it is not – as long as you recognise that this will always be work-in-progress. Culture isn’t a ‘thing’, it’s a process and English culture is changing whether we like it or not. 

The suet pudding has morphed into Vegan sausage roll; the red pillarbox, a smartphone. And the past isn’t over, any more than the future is certain. The more we study the past – like a map – the less linear it seems. For all the texts, tweets, Facebook posts, selfies, likes and dislikes we bank up, we remain the products of culture, of the twin forces of language and memory. That is where we start and where we will end.

In the months before my grandfather died, I took to sitting with him for long stretches of silence. After a while, he would sigh and turn to me, his eyes bright with surprise. “You never think this is how you’ll end up, son,” he would say. Not regretful or sad, but full of wonder and mystery.

I doubt a week has passed since, when I don’t remember him saying that and the look on his face as he did.

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