From the Boys' Brigade to postcolonial Sudan, my early years brought me into contact with many kinds of Englishness. But what was never in doubt was that each was part of a whole. It is hard to say the same of our national identity todayby Robert Colls / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
My first English journey was in 1962, to Humshaugh, in Northumberland, on a Boys’ Brigade camp. We went in the back of a lorry up to Gateshead, over the Tyne bridge, through Newcastle, and out west. Passing the folks along the road, we waved and shouted. There were no seats, though someone had neatly folded coal sacks for our benefit.
This was not my first trip into the country. The brigade had camped at Alston the year before; a stormy week that saw us flooded out of our tents and driven to the shelter of a barn. Humshaugh, by contrast, was warm and sweet: my first English summer. I spent a lot of time lying in deep grass staring up at a clear blue sky. After a week I came home thinking how bricked-in South Shields felt. I was 13 years old and never gave any of it a second thought.
My second journey came the year after, a ten-minute walk from our front door to a Methodist chapel. For you had to go to evening worship if you wanted to go to Young People’s Fellowship. Under the leadership of the minister, we met in the schoolroom to debate the issues of the day—Cuban missiles, death of God, teenage sex, that sort of thing. We did other things as well. We put on plays in winter, went rambling in summer, and sang carols and rattled tins at Christmas. Nearly everything we did was deflected into good causes. Some of us got engaged. Not me, but friends who had left school at 15 to live in the real world of work and wages. Apprentice fitters and town hall secretaries grew up faster than me, and their journeying stopped early with a diamond ring, some savings and a vision of family life on a new estate.
Along with scores of other associations for the doing of what made people happy and fulfilled—from trade unionism to ballroom dancing—Methodists ran their own affairs. It was as near as most of us got to practical democracy. The brass communion rail shone like gold and there was always the smell of polish in the pews, but I had my first political thoughts here (Stanley Evans’s The Social Hope of the Christian Gospel) and learned to feel responsible for something people called “society.”
My third English…