What it means to be English

WHAT have Stonehenge, Alice in Wonderland, the FA Cup and a cup of tea all got in common?According to a new team commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, they are all icons of Englishness.

WHAT have Stonehenge, Alice in Wonderland, the FA Cup and a cup of tea all got in common?

According to a new team commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, they are all icons of Englishness.

In fact, they are all among the first 12 'official icons' chosen to celebrate Englishness.

Quite what the point of this is, and why it's worth £1million to put together a website of “icons”, I'm not sure.

Perhaps it's to compensate the English for the fact that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have assemblies, while we are governed by a British parliament that seems largely to comprise people from Scotland and Wales.

Nevertheless, there is something undeniably fascinating about peering into our collective navel and trying to work out which bits of fluff define us as English.

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People are barred from the list, so thankfully we're spared the grim prospect of being represented by David or Victoria Beckham, or any other minor royals.

On the other hand, one of the suggestions put forward for the next list (there's a fresh one threatened every three months) is the funeral of Diana.

I assume they don't mean Diana Cooper, Diana Dors or Diana Smith from number 35, and it can't be the ancient moon goddess because she's immortal. So they must mean the mass outpouring of hysterical pseudo-grief at the death in 1997 of the eccentric ex-wife of the heir to the throne.

And if that's something to be proud of, why don't we also celebrate the poll-tax riots, the miners' strike and the English football hooligan?

The Asbo? Big Brother? The Sinclair C5?

I fail to understand the presence of Punch and Judy in the official list, since it's originally Italian.

The Angel of the North is surely not a national icon, but a regional one - and a rather dodgy one, at that.

And, dare I say it, there's a faint whiff of political correctness about the choice of the SS Empire Windrush in the first list.

I wouldn't quibble too much with the rest - but where's Winston Churchill?

I don't mean the man. Not only is he barred, being a person, but he was also a fairly obnoxious one, rude, arrogant and ruthless.

I mean Churchill the symbol: the cigar, the salute and the bulldog chin that represented the famously indomitable wartime spirit. Churchill the radio soundbite, perhaps, or Churchill the poster.

I can only assume the absence of his wartime speeches from the list is because he is associated with “Britishness” rather than “Englishness”.

The same, presumably, accounts for the omission of that internationally venerated institution the BBC.

But what about Shakespeare? Not the man, of course, but his plays. I can't think of anything more worth taking English pride in.

Except perhaps the very language they are written in.

As a small island race, can we possibly have given any greater gift to the world than its richest, most widely-used language?


The official list:


SS Empire Windrush

A cup of tea

Jerusalem (Blake's song, not the city)

Punch & Judy

Alice in Wonderland

Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII (never mind that the artist was German)

The Angel of the North

The Spitfire

The King James Bible

The FA Cup

The Routemaster bus

The Semmens alternative list:

The English language

Shakespeare's plays

The Origin of Species


Monty Python

The London Underground

The Rolling Stones

Durham Cathedral

HMS Victory

The Sutton Hoo mask

Real ale

The bull terrier

WEBLINK: www.icons.org.uk

What do you think are the essential English icons? Send your suggestions to Evening Star Letters…


THE Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the wildest reaches of the New Mexico desert, is chiefly famous for being the place where the atom bomb was developed. It remains to this day a key centre for nuclear research.

Other scientific probings are made there too, other world-shattering discoveries revealed.

Like this one: English football (“soccer” to the Americans) is more exciting than baseball, ice hockey, basketball or American football.

Well, I could have told them that and saved them a lot of expense.

The basis for their findings was extremely dodgy, though. The whole project was based on the premise that what makes something exciting is unpredictability.

They concluded that soccer was more thrilling than traditional American games (in the order I listed them) because the outcome was more in doubt - lesser-ranked teams more often beat those ranked above them.

Using this principle, a game of pure chance would appear to be the most exciting contest of all. In reality, Ludo or coin-tossing might just top American football for entertainment, but you surely couldn't put it any higher than that.

Uncertainty of outcome is indeed part of real football's appeal, which is why the paid-for dominance of Chelsea is such bad news for the Premiership. But there is another crucial way in which it scores over all the American sports.

A goal in football is rare enough to be worth celebrating. Baskets in basketball, or points in American football, are simply too commonplace to get excited about.

A lifetime of watching team games has led me to the view that a final score of 3-2 or 4-3 is the optimum for excitement - 42-12 or 96-84 simply doesn't cut it.

There is also, of course, the joy of football's simplicity, the ability of a crowd to see and mostly understand what's going on; the fact that you don't have to be a particular shape or size to play it; the fact that no helmets or expensive equipment are required.

I could go on. It's not for nothing that football is the world's most popular game.

And I don't need the whizzkids of Los Alamos to tell me that.

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