This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden – demi-paradise -
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea…
—Richard II, Act II, scene i
London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.
—Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Jack Pitman has a big dream. Tired of seeing England’s once-proud heritage degraded, he’s going to rebuild it in his own way. But not out of altruism—his version of England will be aimed at wealthy tourists who want the best of England: 30- minute journeys between Stonehenge and Buckingham Palace, hearty rustic folk building hayricks by day and dispensing wisdom and understated humor by night, aerial battles between the RAF and the Luftwaffe capped by presentations of medals by the King and Queen. No loungers from the former Empire need apply.
Pitman and his creative team face a few obstacles. The three most important elements of real estate, and of empire building, are location, location, location. Sir Jack wants a conveniently placed, quintessentially English locale without the nuisances of representative government. What better place than the Isle of Wight? Easy enough to sway the locals, puff up the island council to royalty, and declare independence from Old England. And if a little clause makes Sir Jack the owner and final authority over the whole island, well, it’s only honorary, and he’d never actually exercise it.
I know why the sun never sets on the British Empire: God would never trust an Englishman in the dark.
But what aspects of England and English history will the island portray? The female-free (and possibly homosexual) band of Merrie Men in Sherwood Forest? The Magna Carta in period or Modern English? The witty Samuel Johnson or the foot fetishist with atrocious table manners? Nell Gwynn as the underage mistress of the King or the wholesome seller of oranges? And what do you do when the re-enactors begin take their roles a little too seriously?
I like the English. They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.
But the famously devoted family man has a secret and bizarre sexual predilection which proves his undoing. Paul, his Idea Catcher and Martha, his Resident Cynic, discover his secret and use it to take over the England, England project and steer it in a direction they prefer. Along with the King and Queen, Sir Jack is relegated to occasional public appearances tightly controlled so he doesn’t go off message.
Martha is our guide to the entire bizarre project. Her job is to use her cynicism to search out England, England‘s weak spots and force others to answer her objections. And when she takes over the top spot, her jaded view of humanity lets her govern the project as a benevolent but absolute monarch, but her own blind spot is lurking.
There’ll Always Be An England —Vera Lynn
…even if it’s in Hollywood. —Bob Hope
Barnes’ characters are complex—even the buffoonish Sir Jack has more to him than his Falstaffian exterior might suggest. Martha’s cynical exterior hides an idealistic core doomed to constant disappointment, which feeds her skepticism. And, when all the manipulating, backbiting, treachery, violence, and legalisms are over, England, England emerges with the kind of secret history that really forges a cultural identity.
The story does end on a redemptive note, even if it plays into nostalgia for an England that probably never existed. But it is Barnes’ satire of English society and of the world’s perception of the English that really make the book a fun read.