Listening to an LBC phone in on immigration earlier this evening, one caller went too far. It wasn’t that he argued that there was too much immigration or that uncontrolled immigration causes problems, a sentiment which is voiced commonly enough, but that he claimed that whole areas of East Anglia had ceased to be *******. Naturally, the host of the show, Ayesha Hazarika, former advisor to Ed Miliband, reacted angrily. This was deeply insulting to all those, like her own parents, who had come to Britain to find a new home, to work hard, to contribute to society. He was promptly cut off.
Relaxing last night in front of an old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film, The Voice of Terror, I was startled to come across the ‘E’ word used, not once or twice, but repeatedly. Holmes has been fast forwarded by Universal Studios to 1942 and is helping save our country from the Nazis. It is a bit creaky at times, as one would expect of a wartime B movie, but deficiencies in plot and dialogue are more than compensated by the spectacular camera work, the dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, the atmospheric pools of soft and hard light, characteristic of film noir.
The scene in question takes place in a cavernous tavern – more reminiscent of a Bavarian beer hall than an East End pub, but never mind – in Limehouse, East London, where Holmes tells the glamorous fallen Kitty that her boyfriend, underworld informant Gavin, has been stabbed by the Nazis and tries to enlist her support to avenge his death and join the struggle to save her country:
Holmes: I’m not asking this for myself. Our country, England, is at stake. Gavin was killed not by his own enemies, not even mine, but by the enemies of England.
Holmes persuades Kitty; and Kitty, finding her friends reluctant to help the authorities, makes a rousing speech:
Kitty: I’m not asking this for myself, England’s at stake. Your England as much as anyone else’s. We’ve got no time to think whose side we’re on. There’s only one side – England!
Fighting for England? What outrage greets the use of this expletive in our culturally diverse, inclusive and regionally aware times! Yet its indiscriminate use was once the norm, not only among the English themselves but among all those in Britain and its dominions who recognised that it epitomised, politically, culturally and emotionally, a common cause.
Writing in 1965, H. W. Fowler, the doyen of arbiters of modern English usage, explained under the heading ‘England’ why the resentment aroused at the use of ‘England’ for ‘Britain’ among other nationals of the UK should not always be deferred to:
How should an Englishman utter the words Great Britain with the glow of emotion that for him goes with England? … he talks the English language; he has been taught English history as one continuous tale from Alfred to his own day … and he knows that England expects every man to do his duty. ‘Speak for England’ was the challenge flung across the floor of the House of Commons by Leo Amery to the Leader of the Opposition on 2 Sept. 1939. In the word England, not in Britain all these things are implicit.
But who would fight for England now?