Five Meditations on England
I don’t take a great deal of interest in pop music these days – I am too old, for one – but I was pleased to see PJ Harvey win the Mercury prize for her album, Let England Shake, about which the historian of English radicalism, Ted Vallance, waxes eloquently in the Guardian.
It is what used to be called a concept album and its theme is war, violence and English identity. England, stereotypically seen, by itself and others, as a gentle civilization (a cliché that the recent riots put the kibosh on) has been forged by war, at home and abroad, something it’s often been pretty good at.
Harvey’s work is interesting because it is not a shrill condemnation of England’s history (she declares a ‘never-failing love’ for the country), but a genuine meditation on its past and present, full of anxiety. In that, it stands in a grand tradition of songwriting on England, at once caustic and affectionate.
Here are five meditations on England for your delectation.
The Beatles, A Day in the Life (1967)
Arguably the Fab Four’s finest work, with not a little help from their friend, George Martin, a song that is at once daringly avant garde and reassuringly traditional, combining John Lennon’s caustic observations on mortality with Paul McCartney’s music hall breeziness.
Roy Harper, When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease (1975)
A deeply moving elegy to England’s national game, celebrating beer and the skills of two of cricket’s great mavericks, Yorkshire batsman Geoffrey Boycott and Sussex fast bowler (and poet) John Snow. Wonderfully melancholy accompaniment from the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.
The Kinks, Do you Remember Walter? (1968)
The LP from which this is taken, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, is one continuous revel in nostalgia for a lost England, (which, in truth, probably never existed), of which this ditty on a forgotten acquaintance is typical. ‘Isn’t it a shame the way our little world has changed?’ sings Ray Davies, unofficial English rock laureate, conjuring up a perfect slice of little England conservatism.
Noel Coward, The Stately Homes of England (1937)
The Master’s brilliantly witty satire anticipating the decline of the English ruling class post 1945: ‘We know How Caesar conquered Gaul and how to whack a cricket ball, apart from this our education lacks co-ordination’ makes the same point in one line about the inadequacies of the English educational curriculum as Corelli Barnett’s four-volume history Audit of War.
Show of Hands, Roots (2006)
An urgent and angry condemnation of modern England’s neglect of its history and culture, which is also a rousing anthem of rediscovery, inspired by a Labour MP’s observation that his idea of hell was ‘three folk singers in a pub near Wales’. Show of Hands held up a bleaker (and horrifyingly common) alternative where ‘everyone stares at a great big screen, Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens, Australian soap, American rap, Estuary English, baseball caps’.
Do you agree with these choices, or have other suggestions? Drop them into the comments, and we'll do a follow-up post featuring your recommendations.
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