Sunday Review: Visions of England, by Roy Strong

by Anthony Painter

In the aftermath of urban riots in the US in the 1960s, president Johnson set up a commission under Otto Kerner to review root causes and recommend responses. On top of recommending hundreds of billions of dollars of government expenditure and conclusively blaming poverty and inequality for the riots, the report hit the headlines with its conclusion:

“Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal”.

What is more: white institutions were to blame for this state of affairs. Not surprisingly, President Johnson ignored it. Ed Miliband should be careful what he wishes for in asking for a public inquiry into this week’s riots. What England’s riots do warn, however, is that the modern English experience is not the same for all. Roy Strong’s new elegy for England, Visions of England, presents an idealised version of the nation. What we saw across England over a few days was a terrorised England. One is England as a dream; one is England as nightmare. Neither feels real.

Sir Roy Strong’s English idyll is passionately bonkers. He asks us to choose an England of pastoral tranquility. Constructed around the iconography of artists, writers, monarchs, and religious thought, Strong would have us revelling as modern John of Gaunts of Shakepeare’s Richard II. This is a blessed plot and it should be revered.

There aren’t many actual people in Strong’s England. There’s the odd aristocratic land-owner, such as Mr and Mrs Andrews in Thomas Gainsborough’s eponymous painting. There’s the odd monarch, and Strong has a particular, though hardly original, soft spot for Elizabeth I. One of these days, someone will come up with the original idea of praising a Stuart monarch. OK, they won’t. Occasionally a peasant drifts into view as in Constable’s The Hay Wain.

Cities and towns are an embarrassing secret to be hidden in this England. Orwell, Dickens, Canaletto, Lowry, D H Lawrence, Greene, Ballard, are either omitted completely or given a cursory mention. If you can suspend disbelief for a while it’s highly readable and forceful. It seems that the response to English cultural angst is to indulge in fantasies.

And given what we saw on the streets of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and elsewhere, who can blame him? It is very tempting to retreat into the simplicity of the country and forget it all. Cities are scary and disorientating places, and it is sometimes best to take flight. That seems to be Sir Roy Strong’s approach anyway.

Strong’s England is one of pastoral escapism over urban chaos. There are many people asking us to choose between other alternative national visions: the law-abiding majority against the delinquent minority; the burdened poor over the irresponsible wealthy; the moral majority or the morally relativist liberal intelligentsia; selfish consumerism or virtue; and in David Starkey’s mad, mad world, “black” or “white” culture.

Pick your dualism, take aim and fire. And miss. Almost all the so-called analysis has been utter junk since last weekend. Within hours a Guardian columnist was telling us that it was all about inequality and we should all read The Spirit Level. Inevitably, Melanie Phillips saw the riots as the chickens of moral decline and multiculturalism coming home to roost. But it was the Sikh and Muslim communities that poured oil on troubled waters in Birmingham. It was a Malaysian student who had his jaw broken but still felt able to declare that Britiain was “great”. It was the Turkish community that stood up to the violence in Hackney.

Whether one accepts the liberal view or the Daily Mail view, we are all to blame: we’ve tolerated material inequality or we’ve stood by as our collective morality failed. Both have a plausibility and both fall a long way short.

Out of this morass, surely there must be other “visions of England” that must be salvaged? There aren’t two Englands divided on material, cultural, ethnic, social or any other means. There is one England. It’s messy, it’s diverse, it’s confused, and at this moment it’s angry. Its cities are great and lively. There are pockets of hardship and denied opportunity. Most of its people have deep family and community values. Some are selfish. Some are downright nihilistic. Some. The problem with both idealised visions of England and nightmarish visions of England is that they don’t relate to England as is and Englishness as experienced. It is a green and pleasant land and sometimes a brutal, violent, harsh urban world. We might prefer the former to the latter, but neither properly represent the country as it is, not as some dream it or want us to fear it to be.

Great read though Visions of England is, it invites us to flee reality. However, the alternatives of moral panic or the type of social panic and overreaction that the Kerner report represented aren’t solutions either: in fact, they will backfire. The solutions lie in the communities which have suffered. Where they propose real workable solutions then we all have a duty to support them.

We all have to get by in this perplexing, challenging, uplifting nation. Dull and middle of the road though it may be, despite everything, we are basically OK. No need for extremes. How English.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic.

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3 Responses to “Sunday Review: Visions of England, by Roy Strong”

  1. Ralph Baldwin says:


    Interesting read, yet we have to see the outcome of the austerity measures. At the moment we are merely witnessing a “peel-off” whereby those of a certain predisposition feel inclined to do as they please as they no longer respect or fear the Law.

    There were very many people who chose not to riot and I have made sure i have sent my thanks to them, who live in very trying circumstances but have throughout, adhereed to the Rule of Law; that silent yet powerful agreement that most citizens share and abide by that makes civilised society remain civilised.

    Had david Cameron come from a responsible and genuinly professional background as opposed to being an unelite, his first message would have been to thank those people who showed courage and restraint during this difficult time.
    Then he would have condemned those who committed the ruthless and selfish acts they chose to take.

    Bit difficult for thim though as he is not a citizen who is part of this potent agreement that the majority of us good citizens adhere too. David and his cronies along with the worst elements of all three main parties, believes that the Rule of Law only applies to us and not them.

    He is not a decent man, he is as much a part of the problem as they were.

    Despite being from a “distant” background at least our Leader was able to abide by the Rule of Law and was fairly clear in the expense scandal.

    Bankers are not to be included in the realm of civilised individuals as they too have rules created for them that protects them from facing consequences when they abuse the freedoms given to them by less than wise politicians.

    We should be celebrating the british spirit of those in society who are the true leaders during this difficult time who expressed strength, disciplne and in the case of the emergency services, where they could and felt they could; true courage.

    It was amazing how swiftly Cameron turned on the Police, a true coward who has clearly learnt nothing after his financial weakness that exposed him along with his weakness with the bankers.

    Ironically when Cameron introduced this “super cop” as a solution to undermine the police who are not perfect but need the support and latitude to address their own internal problems, said cop stated clearly that we cannot “arrest ourselves out of this”.

    A wise man.

    Just like many of our bobbies.

    The Rule of Law then must be stregthened and ligitimised, it needs a Leader who can lead, who does not point the finger under the slightest pressure and who is not morally weak.

    We need soomeone, and it ‘aint Cameron if we want to live anywhere close to the Britain that exists between the extreme descriptions mentioned in Anthony’s article.

  2. Old Holborn says:

    Oh no you don’t.

    This generation of feral, dangerous unemployables were created by Fabianism.

    Accept the blame

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