The Best of England

In debates about the nature of England and “Englishness” some, with justification, have turned to George Orwell. But there is an earlier 20th century literary figure who is worth listening to, even if only for one quotation. In 1992, for the third and final time, I stepped up to the plate as a reliable parliamentary candidate for hopeless northern seats. This was in the Eccles constituency, part of which was formerly in the Salford South constituency represented by the Liberal MP Hilaire Belloc from 1906 to 1910.

The 1992 Good Beer Guide contains an entry for the Ashley Brook in Salford: “New pub, cleverly blended into adjacent, terraced properties. Licence was first sought in the 1920s, but a local campaign, led by a methodist minister, helped permission to be granted in the 90s! Good wheelchair facilities.” For once local people at the opening ceremony outnumbered bosses from the brewery (Joseph Holt) and their guests. As I pulled the first pint, I quoted the pub-lover, churchman and writer Belloc, “When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.”

I declare an interest. I have been a member of the Campaign for Real Ale for forty-odd years. I applaud its resistance to the appalling practices of the multi-national brewers and domestic large-scale pub companies. The beer and pub world has changed enormously since the early days of the campaign. Beer choice and quality has mushroomed. Simple standards of pub hygiene have improved. Even the world of low and no alcohol drinks has been transformed – from Fentimans to the latest stunning unfiltered 0.5% from Bavaria.

At their best our pubs can host communities of resistance to the style and values of the people running the country. They are inclusive, providing social contact across different generations and lifestyles. They can even be places for political debate where people of very different opinions have the time to listen to one another in the security of a venue that they love. Johnson and his political cousin Farage love posing with a pint but put them in a real pub, old or new, in my city and they would just be seen as very silly (as well as dangerous).

So why the focus on England? I have nothing against Scottish, Welsh or Irish hostelries. But their styles of pub (and occasionally their styles of beer) can be different. Their patrons are sometimes better at discussing matters of controversy and their authentic self-awareness can be more developed.

The English are not always good at appreciating their real strengths while they are bombarded with a shallow cod-patriotism peppered with World War 2 imagery. But we have much to be proud of, particularly in our regional cultures, our poetry, music and cuisine, even our comedians. I have lived and worked in all three northern regions of England, which between them produced Victoria Wood, Ross Noble and Ian MacMillan. Sometimes the sheer quirkiness can encourage you to look at the world differently in a creative way. How many people know that the Lord Mayor of Newcastle has an official piper, playing pipes that are quite different from the Scottish variety?

I say all this not to encourage sentimentality and nostalgia, but to point to reservoirs of hope, which can generate the sort of warmth and humanity that can underpin political opposition to the centralising nationalist forces which have taken over the country and who have little appreciation of the best of England.

Today’s Lib Dems will feel uncomfortable with the thought of a resident of Sussex representing Salford and find much to disagree with in Belloc’s writings. However some can speak to our desperate times, like his story of “Matilda, who told lies and was burned to death”. His “Cautionary Tale” for children offers food for thought to politicians in 2021.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • It should also be pointed out that Hilaire Belloc believed in an England that was part of Europe.

  • And some might remember Belloc’s Jim, who ran away from nurse and was eaten by a lion, as an appropriate cautionary tale when it comes to forming Coalitions with the Tory Party.

  • Helen Dudden 11th Jan '21 - 12:11pm

    I was told as a child that to bend the truth caused a problem. It’s remembering, where you bent the truth.

  • I’d add cricket and perhaps darts though I have little knowledge of the latter outside England. We do generally like obeying rules, not saying what we think and having a sense of fairness. Otherwise I can’t see much similarity between the north-east and south-east. I suppose sport, a common history and a sense of humour might be added though whether this is sufficient to make a nation, I don’t know.

  • Fintan O’Toole’s ‘heroic Failure’ book provides a sharp perspective of englishness and brexit!

  • In my ignorance I only became aware of Hilaire Belloc when living in Hazel Grove, whilst he was MP he laid the foundation stone to the Hazel Grove Liberal Club (sadly long since gone non political). At least he did if you believe the carved stonework.
    I imagine back then the club might of served beer that Geoff/Camra/myself would have approved of.
    But not Robinson’s, then and now a big local Tory brewer!

  • Sorry finger trouble with my name!

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