Staying in Britain for the summer has been, in many ways, entirely glorious. We have zigzagged from Shropshire through Derbyshire to the Northumberland coast, from Fife and Perthshire to Herefordshire and Devon. On the way, beautiful little towns and sweeping coastlines, not empty but not crammed either; excellent local food and plenty to keep us interested, from echoing cathedrals to buzzing bookshops. But it has also allowed me to see first hand just how desolate so many high streets are: not only the shops closed because of plague, but those shuttered, clearly from a long time back. Boarded up doors, bleached posters… If it wasn’t so wet, the tumbleweed would be blowing. Meanwhile, too many places of worship, museums and galleries seem to have taken Covid-19 as a catch-all excuse to stay shut, increasing the sense of weird emptiness. I am a mask-wearer and a social-distancer, but I’m getting increasingly irate at the prissy, prim, self-congratulatory way so many organisations are priding themselves on doing sod all for the paying (or simply ambling past) public. Provincial Britain seems to me a country fighting for its life.
We were up in Scotland following the loss of my father, a lifelong and keen reader of these pages. There, the difference in atmosphere over Covid is almost tangible compared with London. People are much more likely to be masked and much more cautious. They listen attentively to the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and pride themselves on Scotland’s lower death rates. The opinion polls confirm what general conversation suggests: that Scotland is likely to leave the United Kingdom before the end of this parliament. The SNP may be having feuds but they are self-confident, vigorous and optimistic. Unionism seems muffled and tired by comparison. But if independence happens, the end of GB is going to be a more traumatic moment for England than today’s ministers seem able to grasp. It’s going to feel much more significant than Brexit. The future of basic aspects of identity, like the Union Flag, the name of the country, its defence system, and the scope of its territory will be in question. Perhaps the PM grasps this. But his premiership may be defined by this and Unionists will need a far cleverer and more passionate politics than anything we have seen so far from Boris Johnson — or indeed, Keir Starmer. Nothing in politics, as in life, is inevitable. But at the moment, the Scotland my father knew is slipping away.
Every summer I try to organise my holiday reading around some project. This year it has been the complete novels of Thomas Hardy. Although I read him as a child, I am freshly astounded by how good the major Wessex novels are — the richness of his understanding of fast-changing rural life, the romping plots, the humour and radicalism. But what is genuinely confusing is how bad many of his other novels are — The Hand of Ethelberta; A Laodicean; Desperate Remedies and so on — with their awful prose, hilarious plot contrivances, impossible conversations. Yet even in these books, there is much to enjoy. Nobody I know gives you more of the gritty detail of 19th-century life. It’s almost as if this great novelist, and even greater poet, had a dim doppelgänger hidden in the attic, churning out tripe.
Meanwhile, I’ve been regretting the absence of the physical book festival round, not least because my own new book, Elizabethans, which gives a history of changing attitudes during this Queen’s reign, through individual stories as various as those of Nancy Mitford and Jimmy Reid, comes out in October. I have worked ferociously hard on it and want to talk about it relentlessly. But the virtual conversations don’t have anything like the tension and excitement of a real tent, hot with controversy, the rain streaming down outside. Zoom lacks oomph. I’ve also been reading for Start the Week, and have been thrilled by English Pastoral, an account of farming by James Rebanks. A real working farmer, whose own reading runs from Virgil to Schumpeter, he lays out in great detail just what has gone wrong, and what can be done to put it right. The crucial thing is the appalling condition of our topsoil, on which all human civilisation depends — even though it’s not much more than the depth of the average human leg. For a long time I thought bringing topsoil back to life was the single most important issue we face. Generally, journalists grossly overrate their influence; but if I could push this at Michael Gove, and get him to read it, that would be my bit for Britain for a while.
‘Rule, Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are both vainglorious, out of date and, to be honest, somewhat embarrassing. But to ban them suggests you think some people take them literally — which is more embarrassing still.
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