Finally, after honouring Ireland on St Patrick’s Day, Wales on St David’s Day, and Scotland on, er, Burns Night (sorry to leave you out, St Andrew), as it’s still St George’s Day, I get the chance to focus on England.
(He wasn’t English, but that doesn’t matter.)
Happy St George’s Day, if it means anything to you.
I’ll get three of the more obvious English heroes out of the way first. Do let me know who I’ve forgotten.
- William Shakespeare, whose birthday is believed to be today. Even if he was a tax-evading food hoarder, he introduced some brilliant words to the English language, such as ‘puking’ and ‘zany’.
- Charles Darwin, whose theories of evolution and natural selection shook the world. It’s still shaking, in fact, 130-odd years after his death.
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer and railway pioneer who revolutionised the way we travel, usually pictured wearing a big hat in front of huge chains.
Yet when I first thought who I should like to mention here, ahead of all these giants, the first name that came to mind? The broadcaster, naturalist and natural treasure, David Attenborough.
England invented so many things that today we would find it so incredibly difficult to live without them. William Addis came up with the idea of the toothbrush while he was in prison in the 1770s; Owen Maclaren gave us the collapsable, foldable baby’s buggy; Edwin Beard Budding, the lawnmower.
England, it was you who gave us the first chocolate bar – in 1847. What a gift that was.
Robert Baden-Powell gave the world the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movements.
There are those who have changed the world completely: the inventors of the modern, chain-drive bicycle (John Kemp Starley), for example; of the seed drill (Jethro Tull); the spinning frame (Richard Arkwright); the steam locomotive (Richard Trevithick); the military tank (Ernest Swinton); the jet engine (Frank Whittle); the reflecting telescope (Isaac Newton); the tin can (Peter Durand).
Just look at us all, staring at our screens for so much of each day. Alan Turing’s ‘Universal Machine’ was the theoretical basis for all modern computers. The first programmable computer, the ‘Difference Engine’, was invented by Charles Babbage way back in the 1820s. Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web in 1991 – for free. Just think of the silly money he could have made if he hadn’t been so nice.
Joseph Swan invented the first practical lightbulb before Thomas Edison; Thomas Wedgewood captured photographs – of insect wings – long before Louis Daguerre.
British surgeon John Charnley not only designed the first hip joint, in 1962 he performed the first successful hip-replacement operation.
We can thank Rowland Hill for pre-paid postage; Alan Blumenlein for stereophonic sound; Frederick Gowland Hopkins for the discovery of vitamins.
And although you have long since sold them to the highest bidder, England, you did give the world both Branston pickle and Cadbury’s chocolate. For this, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Also for the clotted cream, the greasy fry-ups, the Yorkshire puddings, the faggots (no sniggering at the back, please) the Victoria sponge, the Bakewell tart, the Battenburg cake, the toasted crumpets, the cider and the sheer brilliance that is the idea of squashing a multitude of imaginative fillings between two pieces of buttered bread. My, that was just pure genius.
(But you can keep your nasty, icky Marmite.)
There have been so, so many other brilliant writers beside Shakespeare: Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, George Orwell, Ian Fleming…
I include the radical Gerald Massey, who wrote one of the most stirring poems in ‘Hope On, Hope Ever’.
I’m leaving out the giants of music because I’d be here all night otherwise, but I do want to mention legendary Queen guitarist, Brian May, for fighting on behalf of badgers. For this, he is now one of my favourite people ever irrespective of his obvious talents as a musician.
To sport, being Welsh, I’m obviously very grateful indeed for the rugby, but England also gave the world cricket (well, obviously), football/soccer, darts, bowls, snooker, rounders, hockey, and, therefore, you could add American football and baseball to the list. I’m not allowed to like any English rugby players, for obvious reasons, but cannot neglect to mention Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne, perhaps England’s most naturally gifted footballer, whose tears at Italia ’90, moved us all – yes, even in Wales – and whose Wembley goal against Scotland during Euro ’96 (forgive me, Scotland) remains a thing of tremendous skill and beauty. I never tire of seeing it.
I have to tip my hat to the great Labour leaders, Clement Atlee, Britain’s greatest Prime Minister (who helped create the welfare state and the National Health Service; decolonised much of the British Empire; nationalised the railways, coal, gas and electricity utilities; and increased both living standards and the economy year on year) and Harold Wilson (who won four general elections, if there are any smug Thatcherites reading; narrowed the gap between rich and poor; liberalised laws on homosexuality, abortion and divorce; abolished capital punishment; and, mercifully, kept Britain out of Vietnam).
A hero of mine is the maverick socialist, Tony Benn. One of many reasons I admire him is for going on BBC News and, against the BBC’s wishes (the BBC had controversially decided not to broadcast an aid appeal to raise urgent funds for Gaza in 2009) stating his case for donations in typical fashion, which included reading out the address to which they could be sent several times, much to the newsreader’s discomfort.
Today, English is the second most widely spoken language in the world (behind Mandarin), the official language of more countries than any other, as well as the planet’s most common second language.
Oh, of course today should be a bank holiday.
Although not all of them are English, a 2002 BBC poll to determine the Greatest Britons produced some intriguing results that I think worth recalling here.
One final thing. I thought it interesting that a YouGov poll revealed that, when English people were asked whether ‘British’ or ‘English’ best described them, 39 per cent felt they were ‘equally English and British’, 35 per cent said either ‘more English than British’ or ‘English not British’, and just 17 per cent said they feel ‘more British than English’ or ‘British not English’. However, 44 per cent of black and minority ethnic English groups regard themselves as either ‘more British than English’ or ‘British not English’, while 25 per cent believe themselves to be ‘equally British and English’. I’m not sure what that means for the future of English identity as such but would love to hear your thoughts.
So, there you go. I could go on for a lot longer, I’ve left out a great many truly magnificent figures, but I’ve spent much of the evening reading mostly about cake so I now gratefully hand over to you. Your favourite English people, places, inventions, food stuffs, words – or whatever else you can think of – if you would be so kind as to share.