A British Start to the Tour de France Forces the English to Wonder: What Does Being English Mean Anymore?

The English are being forced to wonder what being English means anymore as Europe moves closer while the United Kingdom pulls apart.

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty

LONDON — We get the joke, surely. A quintessentially French event, the Tour de France, begins in England. National stereotypes shape the humor among the gathering cavalcade of cyclists and the many thousands of followers. The French make contemptuous assessments of the local cuisine. The English, who have won the race two years in a row, ask why it is 29 years since a Frenchman actually won the Tour – it must be because they eat too much foie gras.

In fact, this weekend, as some 200 riders, a body known collectively as the peloton, begin the 21-day race, they provide a perspective on something very much larger -- an unusually unstable time in the comity that is called Europe, the nature of nationality, the meaning of allegiance to tribe and flag, the quality of butter, and the right glaze for a suckling pig.

We open where the race opens, in England.

These days the English are worrying deeply about what it might actually be like to be English, a condition they have not experienced in its purity since the 1707 Act of Union when the kingdoms of England and Scotland were finally united after centuries of carnage.

In September the Scots are to vote whether to end the Union and become independent. The vote is expected to be close. This coincides with increasing fears that Britain will pull out of the European Union.

Note already the confusions here: “Britain” is the parcel normally including England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, also known as the United Kingdom. Severance from the E.U. would come about because Prime Minister David Cameron thinks he has to appease a large xenophobic rump of his party or otherwise lose many seats to another harbinger of confused national identity, the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, who are ardently anti-European.

I won’t add further perplexity by trying to explain who inhabits what part of this roiling political spectrum. It’s a mess, driven by motives high and low.

What interests me is the meaning of being English in the second decade of the 21st century, and the perspective of Europe, and of being European, or of not being European, that all this entails.

We must now move to Yorkshire, with the Tour de France riders hurtling through narrow lanes lined with stone walls, over wind-blasted hill and through shadowy dale, a singular kind of place that breeds a hard-baked people with attitude. Indeed, it is the very character of Yorkshire that represents the problems of coming to any clear conclusion about the character of England or the English.

Yorkshire is only three and half hours north from London by train, but from the capital it can seem as distant as the far reaches of Scotland, with much of the same self-assertiveness. Yorkshiremen who make a career in London, and they are many, are frequently called “professional Yorkshiremen” meaning that they work hard to sustain a stereotype, and the stereotype is of a blunt, ascetic manner, like Calvinists on speed.

This is, however, an act. It demonstrates one of the basic laws of ambitious self-stereotyping: appear to be the antithesis of those around you and you will stand out, prosper. In the case of London the antithesis of being from Yorkshire is being from the south – anywhere in the south – where flesh is softened by too much good living and a climate that in no way offers the challenges to the soul of Yorkshire’s.

And it is hard to think of any greater challenge to the soul than the cultural terrain of Yorkshire: the excruciating passions of Wuthering Heights, tortured love in which landscape and climate form essential elements of the torture. This is literature born in the frigid air of the parsonage. In a group portrait, the Bronte sisters—Emily who delivered Wuthering Heights, Charlotte who delivered Jane Eyre, and Anne The Tentant of Wildfell Hall— exude a dark, introverted vision of 19th century enslaved womanhood that only the bleakness of the Yorkshire moors could validate.

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The Brontes laid a basic foundation of what has become the Yorkshire brand: A forbidding and yet majestic land in which masochism is an essential part of character building.

A more macabre inspiration surfaced in 1890 when an obscure author called Bram Stoker stayed at the seaside resort of Whitby. Applying the word resort to Whitby can seem a little far-fetched – it sits on Yorkshire’s east-facing coast, exposed to the wuthering blasts of the North Sea. It was there, apparently, that Stoker conceived the idea of Count Dracula, coming ashore from a wrecked schooner and then proceeding to drink deeply wherever his fangs could find a throat. (People regularly turn up in Whitby asking for the site of Dracula’s grave, presumably only during the hours of daylight.)

These grim inventions served Yorkshire well for nearly two centuries.

Then, suddenly, the whole façade was shattered, by a son of Yorkshire – a son who had strayed to distant lands (California, Mexico) blessed with an immanent radiance that expelled all demons and beckoned louche, sinful pleasures, a son with a genius for evoking perspectives and colors that celebrated life instead of suppressing it.

In 2012 David Hockney was given an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. It was called A Bigger Picture – an artful back reference to his reputation-making painting of a Californian swimming pool, A Bigger Splash. And what a bigger picture it was – of Yorkshire. I went, and I was gobsmacked.

Hockney released the landscape from eternal gloom and flooded it with light. This was no cynical, cosmetic exercise. He embraced the flinty rawness and the wind-stripped trees of winter but moved on to harvest time in the great rolling meadows of east Yorkshire where the pastoral colors were as rich as in southern France – comparisons were made with Van Gogh’s last burst of genius from his bucolic haven near St-Remy. Van Gogh’s capture of the Mediterranean light was echoed by Hockney’s capture of the cleansing North Sea light of the Yorkshire littoral.

Hockney was born in Yorkshire in 1937. A precocious talent, he was nurtured by enlightened teachers in London and then discovered California. He settled in Los Angeles in 1964. In the late 1990s he returned to Yorkshire and created a small studio in the attic of his sister’s house in Bridlington, a quiet, isolated place on the Yorkshire coast. Since then he has built a body of work paying homage to Yorkshire and, in doing so, permanently shredded the dour legend of his birthplace.

That transformation of the brand seems now to have its apotheosis in the arrival of the Tour de France. The Tour is not just the world’s greatest cycling race, it’s a unique amalgam of sport and cuisine. In France large stretches of the course pass through places of deep-rooted gastronomic virtuosity, where, against all trends, eating well remains a natural a part of the daily life of even the smallest towns. I don’t mean conscious displays of foodie behavior, but the inconspicuous dedication to standards in regional cuisines that leave them unmarked by fashion.

Twenty years ago it would have been laughable to believe that English provincial cuisine could match French provincial cuisine. There is no such tradition in England. And yet recently the English have learned to love food in the way that they learned to win cycle races or stage spectacular Olympic Games. Now it is evident that, as in every region of France, England always possessed the local resources to produce high artistry in the kitchen.

For example, these are some of the dishes available from restaurants and inns in Yorkshire as the peloton draws huge crowds: squab pigeon with seared foie gras; roasted saddle of hare wrapped in prosciutto and oregano leeks; roast breast of wild mallard with spiced red cabbage; pan roast haunch of roe deer with venison cottage pie; grilled black pudding (blood sausage) with pan-fried foie gras; mead glazed suckling pig.

There’s a robust gluttony here which is the equal of parts of southwest France that the Tour will later traverse, where the regional classic, cassoulet, comes in various combinations of white beans, pork sausage, and duck confit.

In the past Yorkshire cuisine had two inimitable bookends, Yorkshire Pudding which is not actually a pudding, as in dessert, but a light batter of eggs, flour and milk served with roast meat, so bland that it needs gravy to give it any purpose in life, and Pontefract Cakes, which are not actually cakes but small discs of black liquorice that seem more medicinal than palatable.

What brought about this revolution in the English kitchen? Europe.

These days no food culture in Europe exists in isolation for any other. The blood sausage of Yorkshire is just a long-neglected local riff on the boudin noir of France, an essence of pig that knows no nationality. The effect of the Channel Tunnel, just 20 years old, cannot be underestimated: Brits flow with ease back and forth on the Eurostar trains, and Europeans reciprocate. As a result, tastes enjoy intercourse and standards steadily rise at the demand of an increasingly sophisticated public.

I would hope that communion at the table can eventually educate and displace the kind of Europhobia promoted by UKIP, a party composed mostly of white geriatrics led by a man, Nigel Farage, whose body language and voice are those of the pub bore, pint of bitter ale in hand and coming at your face with a conviviality based on an assumption of shared enemies: Europeans, especially immigrants from eastern Europe, anyone with garlic on their breath, and more subtly, anyone not draped in the Union Jack. In UKIP you have to subscribe to the English Pageant view of history, that national glory depends on a purity of bloodstock that is constantly being undermined by immigrants of every hue.

If Scotland does vote for independence it will be a sad victory for national self-stereotyping that is totally false. Today’s Scots are no more a people apart than are the English. To insist that they are is to try to reinstate a past that really won’t come back, it’s a delusion of identity.

Until the Act of Union the Scots were able to boast that they were “Eighteen hundred years unconquered” – whereas the English had been soundly conquered twice, first by the Romans, who did not adapt well to the climate and left, and then by the Normans, who adapted and remained. The English got over it and the Roman and Norman genes were assimilated.

But in truth the Scots were more cunning. They did not ever feel really conquered and, moreover, they steadily infiltrated all the English centers of power, commercial, cultural and political, providing prime ministers of variable quality including Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown. This ill-matched pair, who had a vitriolic antipathy to each other, demonstrate the uselessness of the term “Scottish” as a one-stop stereotype.

As for the supposedly “English” aces of the Tour de France, the winner in 2012 was Bradley Wiggins, known affectionately as “Wiggo”, who was born in Belgium. The winner in 2013 was Chris Froome, born in Kenya. They both rode for something called the United Kingdom.