2020 applicants
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'We’re sorry but we quite like it here.' Exploring English identity through poetry and song

  • Date

    Thu 27 Jul 17

In the poems and songs of a new book and CD album, Dr Adrian May takes a wry, left-wing look at the vexed questions of English identity, ranging from the comic to the poignant with “Nobody hates the English as much as they hate themselves”.

Dr May teaches creative writing in our Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies. Discovering England is his fourth volume of poetry and songs and follows Comedy of Masculinity, An Essex Attitude and Ballads of Bohemian Essex.

Discovering England was inspired by questions of national identity arising from the current political climate.

"If you sing, what voice you use is unignorable, so questions of who you are and where you're from come up straight away," says Dr May.

"Like Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys) more recently, my friends would have mocked me singing in a fake accent. It occurred to me that trying to be English was, first, a thing you had to think about and, second, something fruitful, troublesome and interesting that could be the subject of what you do, too.

"... it seems vital to take back English identity from the right wing and make it a progressive and liberating thing..."
Dr Adrian May Department of LIterature, Film, and Theatre Studies

"Discovering England is the culmination of this. Especially now, it seems vital to take back English identity from the right wing and make it a progressive and liberating thing - if you are strong in your identity, you can then recognise others' strength and feel you're making the world smaller and friendlier.

"I was inspired by the Welsh, the Irish and the Scots, who are outward looking but take their identity seriously. If you start thinking about this stuff, your subject is all around you!"

All four of Dr May’s books have taken the form of poetry with accompanying songs and from October he will be teaching a new third year creative writing module on songwriting. So which comes to him first – the poem or the tune?

"An old traditional singer from Essex once said, 'If you can find the words, the good Lord provides the tune'.

"... a poem is just a song that might not yet have its music..."
Dr Adrian May Department of LIterature, Film, and Theatre Studies

"Some songs emerge with both and some things sing in a different way. For me a poem is just a song that might not yet have its music or might have a different kind of musicality already there.

"If you take the jokey 'An English Anthem' (from the album and book), the chorus line ‘We're sorry but we quite like it here’ just came to me as I was listening to a radio discussion of possible English devolution and what we would do about the national anthem. The rest of the song came later and the tune is even based on God Save the Queen in a skiffle style."

We're sorry but we quite like it here
We're sorry but we quite like it here
We like Ireland, Scotland, Wales
But if they win while England fails
We will sing it quietly but clear –
We're sorry but we quite like it here

'An English Anthem'

"With more serious songs, the irony, which is part of Englishness anyway, is still there, as in 'Nobody Hates the English' ..."

But old England's still alive
Underneath it all
There's a witty kindness on the street
Never mentioned as a rule
And a healthy disregard
For authority
A bit of old Blake's Jerusalem
That's not merely irony

But they all hate us don't you know
For loving the National Health
But nobody hates the English
As much as they hate themselves

'Nobody hates the English as much as they hate themselves'

Dr May performs his songs with Dr Murray Griffin from our School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences. The duo – who perform as Face Furniture – have just finished playing a series of gigs to promote Discovering England, including the Essex Book Festival and the Stoke by Nayland Literary Festival.

Dr May is now working on a new book on creative writing. The Magic of Writing will be published by Palgrave in January 2018.