The English Imagination

The English Imagination

This is by way of a musing on Peter Ackroyd’s book Albion: The Origins of the English imagination.

In which Peter Ackroyd attempts to discover whether there is a national character when it comes to the imagination of the inhabitants of the British Isles, and if so, what it is.

I’m not sure why he calls it ‘the English imagination’ rather than ‘the British imagination’. The second would seem more appropriate, particularly as he claims that the landscape of Britain influences its inhabitants, so that our many waves of immigrants and invaders are gradually assimilated to a similar way of thinking in the same way that they gradually get used to the climate.

One of the many separate strands that Ackroyd thinks he sees in the long history of British thought is a refusal to systematize. We reject, he says, the large structures of logic built on small initial premises, and instead rely on accumulating data, throwing it together in an intellectual jumble sale. Appropriately enough that is exactly what his book is like. It claims to identify some main strands of thought, gives some examples of each, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions.

Though I am English myself, I would have preferred something a little more reasoned out, possibly with an argument and a conclusion. But having said that, a lot of his points are provocative, or at least evocative, and set me thinking.

I don’t think anyone could argue against the idea that our imaginations are full of the weather, for example. Particularly rain, and light, and the movement of clouds across the hills. Nor could anyone seriously argue that we weren’t moved by trees. Look at Tolkien! Look at the design of our cathedrals, or our Christmas carols or tradition of wassailing the orchards.

Other interesting threads in the weave include the typical British embarrassment or reticence, where strong emotions are undercut and the poet/novelist employs a sleight of hand to make himself look less important than he may actually believe he is.

A love of interlace and miniatures, leading to a concentration on surface decoration rather than an interest in depth. I can certainly agree with that in art, but I don’t know how it can coexist with the love of portraiture – the concentration on characterization in literature which he also claims.

What else was there? Oh, interestingly, though I should hardly have thought it was more typical to Britain than to everywhere, there’s a chapter on women’s voices, piety, gossip, and a deep anger at being silenced and dispossessed in every other realm.

The aforementioned lack of system and logic, with an associated attachment to the practical and the useful.

A love of violence, violent effects, grotesquery and bawdy.

A tendency to be fertilized by seeds taken from the continent and then to recast the resulting flowers in our own slightly idiosyncratic mold.

A love of gardens as refuges.

I can’t really argue that any of these things are absent from my conception of Britishness. What I don’t know, of course, is how far any of these things are unique to the Brits. None of them, I would have thought. But perhaps the mixture is characteristic?

However it is, I can recommend the book. I saw many things in it which I recognise as my own interests/method/voice, and many other things I didn’t recognise at all. So the experience was one of mingled self discovery and amused bafflement, both of which were great fun!

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