And that is what Peter Parker is looking at it in this book really, how there’s a consciousness within our hearts as to what England is - and that it is pastoral and lyrical, and it is the lost past, and something we long for – and that an awful lot of this stuff and nonsense is the fault of Housman – though Parker doesn’t quite put it like that, being more of a fan than me.
And indeed the book makes plain just how popular A Shropshire Lad was. The most sold book of poetry on both sides of the Atlantic during the Great War, known by heart by pretty much every public schoolboy from Rupert Brooke to George Orwell, the touchstone for every poet from Auden to Larkin.
There’s hundreds of pages devoted to devotion itself – an entire chapter gifted to the hundreds of renditions of the poems into songs by every classical English composer you can name, and a bunch of folkies you can’t. From 1900 to 1935ish he was the man, modernism be damned. And I’d say his brand of England is very much still with us, laid down like a seam of rock. I’d say a large proportion of those who voted for Brexit (those who weren’t just bigots and/or thick and/or giving the ruling elite a good kicking) were essentially voting for a Shropshire where it’s always 1954 and raining, or for Orwell’s ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.’
After the Second World War, once modernism and existentialism really takes hold, and pop music takes lyrics into a different direction, and being gay isn’t something to be repressed, and everything urban began to find its voice, Housman lost his grip on our consciousness. But he’s still there. He’s all over the Inspector Morse novels and TV series, for example. He still represents a longing within many an English breast, something pastoral and nostalgic - the blue-remembered hills, the land of lost content. Escape to the Country wouldn’t exist without him.
And rather charmingly, according to Peter Parker at least, he has a direct descendant. Morrissey. Sexually confused, unremittingly gloomy, he speaks direct to the heart of the shoe-staring adolescent male in exactly the same way as Housman did a century ago.
Here’s the best bit in the book: “It is evident that Morrissey has done a good deal for Housman’s popularity, since eager fans seek out any literary work their idol recommends. Some of these fans might have avoided poetry altogether until led to Housman. ‘I thought his poems would be drivel about babies and flowers’ one fan wrote, ‘but it’s really good stuff about suicide.’”