Duncan Mackay

At the end of his 1941 essay entitled "England Your England", George Orwell concludes that, though the Stock Exchange may be pulled down, and the horse plough may give way to the tractor, and the country houses may be turned into children’s holiday camps, and the Eton and Harrow match forgotten, "England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition, and yet remain the same."

Now that the majority of his suppositions have come to pass, how true is his contention, I wonder? Is there such a thing as essential Englishness?

I only mention it because it is clearly of pressing importance to the people now striving to re-energise England’s sense of national identity in relation to the team which will contest next year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi. "Englishness", and the need to assert it as confidently as, say, "Scottishness", is one of the rallying cries. 

This week an impressive gathering of the faithful, graded like those grains of flour we have heard about for so long, held the first meeting of Commonwealth Games England’s new Board. Among those on board are Lawrence Dallaglio, one of England’s rugby winners in the 2003 World Cup final, and Peter King, the dogged, inspirational force responsible for so much of British cycling’s rise from 17th to first place in the world rankings over the past decade.

King made what was probably the most pertinent point of an interesting press conference when he maintained that the general British – English? – public got just as excited about an English victory on, say, the track, or the court, as they did about a British one.

I agree. Having covered a fair selection of events involving either Britain or England in the past 15 years or so, I am honestly pushed to remember a greater buzz than that created within the City of Manchester Stadium for the Commonwealth Games seven years ago, when home athletes collected gold after gold amid a St George’s flag-waving atmosphere that resembled the last night of the Proms.

Then again, I may be biased. After all, I’m English.

But what does that mean? 

Perhaps I could try to answer that by considering when I feel most closely identified to that old red cross on white.

I feel English, for instance, when I eat toast and marmalade. Maybe that’s something to do with my grandpa. He was very English. 

I feel English when I indicate to a fellow customer that they are due to be served before me.
Or when I watch England’s football team fail to win the World Cup. Or  the European Championship.

How are we doing? Any closer?

In his casting around for essentially English characteristics, Orwell came up with two straight away. They were, firstly, a tendency towards "‘privateness", as evidenced by a prediliction for hobbies and pastimes such as stamp collecting and comforting things like the fireside and the "nice cup of tea".

And secondly, a love of flowers.

For stamp collecting, read surfing the net. For "nice cup of tea" read "nice can of lager". Certainly his analysis is unpromising as far as the Commonwealth re-energisers are concerned.

But you have to take your hat off to them for their ingenuity and enthusiasm. Among the new Board members in evidence at the Commonwealth Club this week was Angus Kinnear. For one of the new English ultras, he sounds, on the face of things, a bit Scottish. But he is right on message.

“I think there’s a fantastic opportunity here to establish England’s multi-sports team as a brand,” he told me. “My expertise is in engaging the public at large with the possibilities of that new brand, and to monetise it.”

Kinnear’s position as head of marketing for Arsenal FC, a post he took up after an impressive stint within Coca Cola, puts him in a slightly peculiar position, as he sportingly acknowledges.

The irony of a man from Arsenal, whose teams are famously scarce of English talent, committing himself to promote England’s sporting cause is not lost on him. "Arsene has always maintained his teams are put together on the basis of ability, not nationality," he said with a grin. "But I accept that, in the circumstances, my role will be a new challenge.”

The quest for essential Englishness will never, I suspect, find an answer. In the meantime, Kinnear and his new colleagues are setting about espousing and - monetising - something in which they firmly believe.
When the first English competitor claims a gold medal in India next year, to what extent will the cheers be for them personally, and to what extent for the country they represent? It's never entirely clear.

But for all the doubts and contradictions about establishing what Englishness is, it still is. Fifteen minutes ago, truly, and entirely by coincidence, I heard my middle daughter announce in the next room: "I love England, I’ll never move away from England. I don't know why, I just love it."

Case rests.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames