Last night I went back to see Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem for the second time. As before, Mark Rylance’s bravura performance as the atavistic Englishman Johnny “Rooster” Byron took my breath away but something else – much deeper – had drawn me back. The whole substance and tenor of the play challenged me to acknowledge my Englishness and to recognise my own complicity in too-readily surrendering the precious roots of that unique identity.
I found myself agreeing with Paul Kingsnorth (whose book Real England: The Battle Against the Bland influenced both Mark Rylance and Jez Butterworth) who wrote in his programme note: “The English, notoriously, have a blind spot when it comes to their myths, the legends of their past and their people, their folk tales and their origins.” It seems to me that for many of us in England, our memory and imagination have become detached from both our history and our land, thereby losing any real sense of where we have come from and where we belong.
I have no desire to be a Little Englander. Indeed, I pride myself on being a widely-travelled, well-informed person capable of embracing global issues and planetary concerns. But on reflection I wonder whether it is possible truly to be a citizen of the world unless one is first and foremost secure in a more local identity. It is hard to care for the planet in anything other than an abstract way if you are not rooted somewhere on the earth.
In the dim and distant past, some of my ancestors came to these islands as Viking invaders (I know this from a genetic quirk that affects the tendons in my hands). My surname Mead probably derives from the pre-7th century native word moed meaning meadow. There is no obvious trace of either Celtic or Norman hereditary in my family history. It seems pretty certain that I came out of that Anglo-Saxon-Norse melting pot that we now call the English and I have to admit that I am sorely out of touch with my own oral tradition.
I greatly admire the work of storyteller Hugh Lupton (and others like Nick Hennessy) who are reclaiming and bringing new life to old English stories such as Wayland the Smith and Robin Hood, but I am still searching for the native stories that are particularly mine to tell. I ask myself what is distinctive about being an English storyteller and then it occurs to me that I should rather be addressing that question to the old pagan gods and goddesses of this once thickly-forested, magic-infused, and richly-storied landscape: those same gods and goddesses to whom Johnny “Rooster” Byron turns for succour in the closing scenes of Jerusalem.