The term Merry England, Deep England or (more jocularly) Merrie England refers to a semi-mythological, idyllic, and pastoral way of life that the lucky inhabitants of England allegedly enjoyed at some poorly-defined point between the Middle Ages and the completion of the Industrial Revolution. It's a utopian vision of a revisited England, "the thatched cottage, the country inn, the cup of tea, and Sunday roast", which is both a product of the imagination and an ideological construct.
The term Deep England is often used by those who dislike this vision, or the use to which it is put. In doing so, they identify themselves as political opponents of the Deep England viewpoint and its supporters. The use of this term has been attributed to both Patrick Wright and Angus Calder, both of whom are opponents of this world-view. In their opinion, this particular world view glosses over the simple historical facts that undermine it: the bucolic vista of perceived loveliness was fundamentally one of widespread rural poverty in which lives were brutal and short.
Those who make use of the vision are frequently regarded by their critics as having a cultural and racial agenda which is exclusive rather than inclusive. On another level, the concept of Deep England is often closely associated with an explicit opposition to modernism, and industrialisation. It serves a particular political purpose in the hands of some political organisations, especially those of a retrospective inclination, espousing a yearning for a mythical forgotten golden age. Examples of this conservative viewpoint include the UK Conservative party under John Major, and the British Daily Mail newspaper.
The concept of a Merry England originated in the Middle Ages, when the term more-or-less described the state of life that most people at the time wished or hoped they led and possibly at times did lead. Recall as Kingsley Amis's hero said in the novel Lucky Jim that this was more often a hope than a reality in an England often experiencing periodic crop-failure, a pandemic outbreak, a dynastic struggle involving war, rape, and pillage and terrible poverty. Merry England normally didn't exist for you either if you were a member of one of the lowest levels of the class of serfs.
The great peasant revolts led by such figures as Wat Tyler and Jack Straw also invoked the idea which even then was linked to an impossibly utopian vision of a more-or-less levelled-out society with most people living as happy contented peasants. The vision extends to allowing a few artisans and other cosmopolitans to live in towns, to a pliant and genuinely humane clergy and to an interested and altruistic aristocracy and royalty who would still be allowed their eccentricities as long as the pub stayed open, and feasts were regularly celebrated.
At various times since the Middle Ages, authors, propagandists, romanticists, poets and others have revived the term to invoke whatever their particular utopian vision of England happened to be. Normally it was associated with a radical conservative view which sought to balance whatever depredations were then currently being practised by the latest group to rise into the elite with the vision of a society where things lived up to the bucolic utopian vision outlined above. G. K. Chesterton and in his own way William Cobbett and when he turned to conservatism William Coleridge all subscribed to some extent to the "Merry England" view. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement and other left-inclined improvers (whom Sir Hugh Casson called "the herbivores") were also partly true believers. Present-day true believers are dominated by the sort of people who subscribe to magazines like This England.
So Merry England did not really "decline" in the way that Storm Jameson said it did in his book The Decline of Merry England. Merry England, even in the Middle Ages, was always more of a state of mind. Merry England as state of mind - if propounded by people like Cobbett or Chesterton - does have some validity. The propounders of the idea of Merry England and those responding to the idea all need to be great-minded enough to know that the idea really is best used as an encouragement to achieve better new ideas and new approaches to working out how the English should live. Merry England is at its worst as an idea associated with unobtainable utopias or with a past that was only ever partly existent.
In Angus Calder's re-examination of the ideological constructs surrounding Little England during World War II in The Myth of the Blitz, he puts forward the view that the myth of Deep England was central to wartime propaganda operations within the United Kingdom, and then, as now, served a clearly defined political and cultural purpose in the hands of various interested agencies.
Calder cites the writer and broadcaster J.B. Priestley whom he considered to be a proponent of the Deep England world-view. Priestley's wartime BBC radio "chats" described the beauty of the English natural environment, this at a time when rationing was at its height, and the population of London was sleeping in subway stations. In reference to one of Priestley's bucolic broadcasts, Calder made the following point:
- Priestley, the socialist, gives this cottage no occupant, nor does he wonder about the size of the occupant's wage, nor ask if the cottage has internal sanitation and running water. His countryside only exists as spectacle, for the delectation of people with motor cars. [..]" (Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, London 1991)
In his essay "Epic Pooh", Michael Moorcock wrote:
- "The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are 'safe', but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are 'dangerous'. Experience of life itself is dangerous. The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism. Humanity was derided and marginalised. Sentimentality became the acceptable subsitute. So few people seem to be able to tell the difference."
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