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,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
It's all a bit Euro '96. Which, to be fair, was all a bit Italia '90. There is something about this collective hope, expectation, jubilation, abandonment of normal behavioural standards (singing together in the street! Imagine!) that is thoroughly enchanting. It's a thing to be experienced. I wonder if going into battle was somehow similar. There is a sense of togetherness - of tribe - that is on show at football matches generally but is really acute during tournaments when England do well. Even though no lives are at stake and the cause is (merely) a football trophy, it is the closest a lot us get to what must have been the absolutely enlivening and thrilling, just as much as it must have been terrifying, experience of battle. It is, like the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck tingle of a beautiful song or poem, the ave atque vale of Catullus' lament for his brother or pius Aeneas, a thing for which you can't plan, prepare, or make much sense of why it happens. It's impossible to convincingly explain why some songs, poems, films, paintings or whatever make us joyous or devastated, just as it is impossible to really explain why we fall in love with one person and not another. It's difficult to write about these sensations, because all you can do is point to what it feels like and do your best to make it feel real. Interestingly, when I watch back the moment when England won the Edgbason test in 2005, it still makes me feel that way. It is a part of the fabric of life, almost to the point that those sensations (and they do not have to be positive to be significant) are themselves the reason, the goal, rather than the long-range projects which are supposed to mark us out as human.
Edward Strelley's behaviour in book IV is supposed to reflect this (not the test match - the falling in love). He is desperate, frustrated and close to broken by his forlorn love, but he has moments when he rediscovers his swagger. This isn't perhaps a word I would previously have associated with him, but there are a few scenes when he surprises even me by the coolness of his reactions. At the other end of that, there are times when he starts talking, and without knowing how or why, he begins to break down, and the crushed, hopeless version of him rises to the fore. I'll be interested to see whether, when I come to do a wide-ranging read-through and edit, I find him convincing. I never set out to write about these sorts of romantic relationships - and indeed I myself did not know that Strelley and Elizabeth were falling in love with each other until someone else pointed it out to me that it was clearly there by the end of book II - because I was keen to avoid the Mills & Boon end of historical fiction. But it has become his central character theme as he attempts to make it through the Prayer Book Rebellion unscathed.
It might also be interesting for readers to know that I feel a deep sort of sympathy for him, whilst also finding writing him a bit of a difficult task at times. He can be quite unpleasant - both in the way he behaves, and in the way he makes me feel as he flows out of me - but there's the thing, I suppose. He does flow out of me, just as Elizabeth does, just as Longshawe, de Winter and Pike do. In a sense, the hardest thing is to plan because I genuinely don't know how they will react to real historical events until I get them there. I don't think I understood fully Virgil's meaning until I got to grips with Strelley turning his back on Elizabeth. But in his case, it is not some other duty that calls him, it is his duty to Elizabeth herself.
So, let us pay due tribute: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
But I still see that tackle by Moore and when Lineker scored
Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing
Three lions on a shirt
Jules Rimet still gleaming
Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming...
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought