Book review: Visions of England by Roy Strong

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Visions of England
Roy Strong (Bodley Head; £17.99, *£15.99)

We should be grateful to Sir Roy Strong for this book. It is an exploration of the themes that shape our sense of England: a meditation, a hymn, a road map. Only he could have written it, the book’s 206 pages being the distillation of a lifetime spent researching English culture, dis-playing it to the public, writing about it, and gardening.

This is a personal essay, in which we learn about his upbringing in a north-London suburb, the devastating effect of the Second World War on family cohesion, the plum tree that grew in the back garden and the cultural foundations laid down by State education in the 1940s. By the age of 12, the author knew about the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, the Norman Conquest, and the medieval and Tudor kings and queens.

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He had been taught about the periods of Gothic architecture, and understood the special character of the Church of England; and he had received a grounding in English literature, if not, because of the limitations of the teaching staff, art and music. At what might now be called a bog-standard school, he had become ‘acquainted with a rich national heritage from which I learned about England’.

Sir Roy contrasts his experience with that of the modern child, who is more likely to be brainwashed about environ-mentalism or gender issues than taught a narrative history of this country. Parents may well welcome this book as a manual of the key ideas, artworks and literary passages that they ought to pass onto the next generation. Rooted in the maps, theatre, religious ritual and imperial impulse of the Elizabethan age, Sir Roy’s vision could seem backward-looking and romantic (which would not be inappropriate, as there is a strong vein of elegy to many perceptions of England).

In fact, it is a blueprint for the national identity that England could promote today, as the Union fragments. Little mention here of red telephone boxes, guardsman’s tunics, policeman’s helmets, the Battle of Waterloo, the Bank of England, the civil service, Lloyd’s of London or the MCC: these are national icons that may have a resonance in some quarters, but cannot be shared by all the different groups now living on this scepter’d isle. By contrast, Visions of England preaches peace, in a ‘democratic and inclusive’ way. It does not only represent the journey of Sir Roy’s life, it sets a course that could, if only the authorities would wake up to it, be followed now.

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