One British Woman’s View of Britain

Here we go, as promised: the entry in the Danish newspaper Politiken’s series of cultural profiles on EU member countries on the United Kingdom, with the supposedly characteristic British poem, place, person, event, etc. chosen by fiction-author (and Booker Prize winner) A.S. Byatt. Be forewarned: She has taken off with her author’s license to make any choice she wants, to make some that truly have more to do with A.S. Byatt than the British.

  • Painting: Joseph Mallor William Turner’s “Norham Castle, Sunrise” – an idiosyncratic choice , I rather think. (Then again, I can’t right now come up with another painting that would be more “English,” so maybe I should just shut up.)
  • Photograph: “My grandchild’s class”. Yes – the school-class of Byatt’s grandson, when he was ten years old. OK, I guess the picture does show, as Byatt writes, “people of all races, skin-colors, and languages, who speak and work together,” but we’re still in very idiosyncratic territory here.
  • Person: William Shakespeare. That’s more like it.
  • Object: Windsor pitcher (as in “receptable for a drinkable liquid”). Idiosyncratic again: it seems part of Byatt’s family on her mother’s side comes from the pottery-making region in Staffordshire. She also owns one of the pictured pitchers.
  • Text: Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and specifically his passage on the cliff-face teeming with life, both plant and animal and insect: a tableau both poetic and infused with the struggle for existence.
  • Song: What do you know – “Eleanor Rigby,” by the Beatles, with the lyrics, in English, provided below.
    That’s fine with me, and it also illustrates the extent to which British culture also translates to world (or at least “Western”) culture.
  • Poem: “Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright,” by William Blake, with the poem itself reproduced below – but this time in Danish translation! Doesn’t it inevitably lose something that way? Compare: English “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,/In the forest of the night”, Danish (translated back by me) “Tiger, tiger, like a fire,/You flame in the wild night.” (But it does also rhyme in the Danish translation.)
  • Food-dish: Kedgeree. Awww, whatever happened to fish-and-chips? Or jellied eel? Or the Wimpyburger? Never heard of kedgeree? Me neither (but try here). Byatt’s justification for her choice is that the dish is “typically English,” with mainly British ingredients (including cod, egg, and butter) but with a name originating from Hindi, and with a base of rice.
  • Place: Goathland. Just a piece of typical English countryside. Apparently chosen to give a few Danish references (the very name is derived from Danish) to please the Danish readership.
  • Event: Battle of Britain. Quite right. Plus, Byatt notes that the fact that this “prevented the British from being invaded changed Briton’s experience and history and relation to the rest of Europe. It made us to a great degree island-dwellers, for good and for bad.”

Next up – and at least an event that I have all been waiting for – Cees Noteboom’s cultural portrait of the Netherlands!

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