Square eyes: what do you mean, you can’t see how I see myself? Photo Express/Getty Images
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Tracey Thorn: When I got the TV request, I thought: don’t you know who I think I am?

No thanks – I really don’t want to take part in the “Identity Parade” on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I minded giving my email address to someone from a TV production company. No, I didn’t mind at all; in fact I was curious to find out what the request might be. I don’t really like being on telly – which is the only reason I’m not on your screen every weekday night (side-look to camera) – but on the other hand, I’m only human, and so I don’t dislike being asked. I suspect that however far down the VIP list, none of us is immune to wondering occasionally whether we’re eligible for a Bake Off or a Strictly or a fortnight in the jungle. I scanned my spam filter and kept an eye out for the email, anticipating some kind of flattering approach.

Then it came, and what a low blow it was, the very request most dreaded by anyone who’s had a musical career. For it was from the makers of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, asking me – not for the first time – if I would take part in the Identity Parade. If you’ve ever seen the show you’ll know the bit I mean. Out come four perfectly harmless yet anonymous-looking men who’ve had the temerity to become middle-aged and perhaps lose some hair. Then we are shown a clip of Mud on Top of the Pops from some time before the war and have to guess which of these men was the drummer. Jokes are cracked – is it this one? “Muddy Waters”? Or “Mud in your eye”? But there is really only one joke, and it is at the expense of the secret guest, who might as well be wearing a dunce’s hat with “Has-Been” written on it. This is what I was being asked to do.

In high dudgeon, I began to compose a reply, detailing my recent work and achievements – a top-ten bestselling book, appearances on Later . . . with Jools, a soundtrack for a forthcoming film, even this very column! – all of which essentially added up to me thundering: “Don’t you know who I think I am?

Then I started laughing at myself. Because of course that is the whole point; they don’t know who I think I am, or what I think I mean, and neither, they assume, do their viewers. And in this they may well be right. If I am simply that thin bird who sang that Rod Stewart number and/or that even thinner bird who sang that disco number about the deserts and the rain, what can I possibly say to persuade them that I am anything more? No amount of bluster can alter the fact that I used to be in the top 40 but now inhabit this sad wasteland of hitlessness, while also being so haggard and crone-like as to be barely recognisable.

When I wrote that memoir of mine, Bedsit Disco Queen, this was just the kind of story I relished – the anecdote that illustrates how ultimately humiliating it is to be a bit famous. Not famous enough to be known by everyone – a kind of Total Fame, where your power is unquestioned – but a more partial level of celebrity, which comes and goes, sometimes bringing benefits, but just as often opening you up to ridicule.

Agreeing to take part in these spectacles means colluding in your own ridicule, but in this instance I was reminded that nowadays we are all supposed to welcome any opportunity, no matter how undignified, to increase our exposure, and that there is no instance of humiliation or disgrace that can’t be repackaged as promotion. I’m not the first to reject this idea.

When Jim Bob, of the band Carter USM, was asked to appear in the same identity parade, his manager famously turned it down with great good humour but also an unassailable sense of the wrong that had been done to his artist. There was a defiant pride in his response, easier for a manager to express on your behalf. As victim, you just have to suck it up or laugh it off. Any other response risks making you look like a giant idiotic ego.

I originally wanted to call my memoir The Pitfalls, until I was persuaded against using such a “negative” title. But I stand by my belief that it’s avoiding these pitfalls that is the key to survival and sanity. There will always be plenty of people ready and willing to make you look like a fool; you don’t have to join in and help them do it. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon