Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 2001

England: the Making of the Myth from Stonehenge to Albert Square, by Maureen Duffy

reviewed by Jim Herrick

Maureen Duffy, president of GALHA, offers a pleasant stroll through English history, with an emphasis on the myths we hold about ourselves – how they have arisen and how untrue they can be. This is history with an avowed perspective, which is perhaps better than history with a disguised perspective.

In particular she stresses that we have always been a nation of immigrants: the Romans preceded the Angles and the Vikings and Normans succeeded them. There is no special “Englishness” and, despite occasional defence of island isolationism, we have always been linked with Europe. The umbilical tunnel that now goes under the channel is a practical recognition of long-term links.

Through early, medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Duffy summarises the events and highlights the myths. Two myths in particular were the Shakespearean myth of Richard III as the wickedest king in history, and the myth, perhaps stemming from the Puritans, of reason and common sense as English qualities.

The tendency to look back on a golden age is almost universal and we are not free of it. (It is healthy to see Jesus put in a list of mystery cults with Isis and Mithras.) Other myths are there: the nation of shopkeepers, the love of fair play – but we didn’t give our work force a very fair deal on the whole.

The best chapters are those on specific themes, such as the myth of the pastoral, the love of gardens and the countryside, the class-ridden language differences, the public schools, the experience of war in the twentieth century. She makes reference to the increasing visibility of homosexuality in the novels of the twentieth century.

The addiction to nationalism found in, say, the last night of the Proms is also the product of a myth about our identity. The strongest view, which accumulates in her book, is that we consider it our duty to provide for the whole of society from Church and state, monastery or Poor Laws. She concludes her history with a very contemporary antiglobalisation view: she hopes that we will retain our individuality, even eccentricity, against “the homogenizing impetus of Macsumerism.”

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Created : Sunday, 2001-07-29 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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