A great article appeared in the Guardian today by Mark Lawson. He talks about how the English, as a nationality, has disappeared from the media in recent years to be replaced by British. It's well worth a read.
Renaissance for the nationality that dared not speak its name
The plaudits heaped on artists from Harold Pinter to Nick Park show that Englishness is no longer a handicap.
There seems to be little immediate connection between Gromit, the always-silent Plasticine dog, and the intermittently silent playwright Harold Pinter. But their coincidental triumphs abroad - the former topping the American box office with his first full-length movie and the latter becoming a Nobel laureate - are part of a striking redefinition and renaissance of English culture.
For at least a decade the grumpy assumption in the senior common rooms of English-speaking culture has been that, because of progressive politics and historical resentments, no white Briton or American would ever again win the literary Nobel. And film-makers believed that movies from the UK had to genuflect to America in their look (the permanent Dickensian Christmas of Richard Curtis movies) and casting (Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings) to succeed.But, within a few days, both prejudices have been overturned by the international acclaim for The Birthday Party and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, scripts which do not aim for any universality of reference but are both as English, in their way, as kippers for breakfast in a seaside B&B. I don't make this point out of any primitive patriotism but because these successes represent a fascinating shift in cultural politics which, at home and abroad, has made art from Albion fashionable and even radical.
In a week when a novel by the Irish writer John Banville took the Man Booker prize amid critical disdain, the two serious books gaining the real attention and sales are Alan Bennett's memoir Untold Stories, a forensic account of life in northern England, and 85-year-old PD James's The Lighthouse, which must stand as one of the last in the line of classic English detective fiction. And the startlingly warm tributes to Ronnie Barker, cremated on Thursday, memorialise and hope to immortalise a form of comedy rooted deep in English soil.
Yes, not "British" but "English", a nationality which has almost disappeared from the media in recent years. If Muriel Spark had received the call from Stockholm on Thursday, she would rapidly have been identified as a "Scottish" laureate, emails and letters quickly descending if southern journalism had claimed her for the wider kingdom. Similarly, Paul Muldoon would have been "Irish" or "Northern Irish". But Pinter, in broadcast bulletins and most newspaper reports, was persistently "British".
The point was often made, during the years of referendums and assemblies, that, while it became bad form not to stress the separateness of the Welsh and Scots, it was established as extreme bad manners to treat the English as a race apart. But writing style is shaped so strongly by the experience of specific speech and places that, in literature, this division of rule is seriously misleading.
Pinter and his plays are vitally and recognisably English in exactly the same way that Spark and Muldoon derive central elements of sensibility and vocabulary from Scotland and Ireland. Equally branded by exact nationality is the work of Bennett, James, Barker and Nick Park, the genius behind Wallace & Gromit. In fact, though their current prominence in the news and arts is a pure accident of events and release dates, it's striking how much their work has in common.
Strangely ritualised afternoon teas and the seediness of seaside boarding houses feature at various times in the work of Pinter, Bennett, Barker, James and Park. And all of the writers play continually with the slipperiness of English. Their key lines always have a second meaning: darker in Pinter, sexual in Barker, criminal in James, comic in Bennett and Park. On this sample, English writing of such apparently different kinds surprisingly unites around rock buns and puns.
Until very recently, being seen to carry an English ID card so visibly might have been a handicap for these artists. If a work had too much of a whiff of the Thames and tea bags, it risked classification as retrograde, conservative or, in the ultimate insult, "Little English". Being identified too heavily with traditional language or values made a writer seem resistant to multiculturalism or pan-Europeanism and therefore a de facto racist. Read the late-career reviews and obituaries of Anthony Powell, Philip Larkin or Kingsley Amis to experience this perception of Englishness as an illness for which doctors would hopefully soon find a cure.
So what's most startling about the reviews of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (five stars out of five in most newspapers) is that almost all critics, conservative and liberal, have commended Park for his resolute parochialism and refusal to pander to the audiences of any other country on earth.
In cinema, though, the definition of Englishness is even more than usually complicated. While many film-makers here clearly did adopt mid-Atlantic tactics - even Park's film Chicken Run had an American hero - there is also a strain of movies which present an England so ridiculously English that it is recognisable only by Americans. The latest example, out this week, is Kinky Boots, in which Northampton railway station, in reality a buzzing commuter hub, is depicted as a sleepy rural halt where the platform contains a single passenger.
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, while it has the defence of being a Plasticine fantasy, is also guilty of sentimentalising and simplifying England; but unexpectedly this vision no longer feels like the concoction of a "heritage" country for export but as a heroic refusal to bend to American expectation. In a culture enraged by US arrogance and expansionism, parochialism becomes a form of radicalism and resistance.
This new fashionability - indeed even political correctness - of militant Englishness is a consequence of the Iraq war and is what links Gromit with Pinter. Twenty years ago, when the playwright first turned against the British and American governments over their foreign policy, such vociferous opposition to the special relationship was widely considered maverick or treacherous. Now Pinter's vilification of his own prime minister and the US president is broadly mainstream newspaper opinion, with only the Times consistently dissenting.
It doesn't much matter - because Pinter has written at least five indelibly great plays - but paradoxically the politicians he most detests probably helped him win the Nobel. His fierce opposition to Blair and Bush and their Iraq adventures has cleansed him of the stain of colonialism or obsolescence that modern English writers have carried internationally.
In the list of Nobel laureates on the Swedish Academy website, "Harold Pinter" is followed by "(UK)". The Curse of the Were-Rabbit will go down in movie reference books as a US-UK co-production. But that's wrong. Both are utterly and uncompromisingly English and that is what makes their astonishing success so interesting.