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Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 12:00 GMT
The making of icons
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Punch and Judy, Henry VIII and the FA Cup
Stonehenge, the FA Cup and the red Routemaster bus are among England's most popular icons, according to a new poll. But what do the choices say about the English? And what about the rest of the UK?

To John Major it's warm beer and cricket. To the Sun newspaper it's Jordan's chest and chicken tikka masala.

England's national identity has long been argued over. Now it's the subject of a new debate partly because - next to its neighbours - it seems a rather vague notion and one which some people have trouble celebrating.

In Scotland, the answer could be Edinburgh Castle, Loch Lomond or whisky, while the Welsh may pick the Millennium Stadium or the Severn Bridge, and the Northern Irish the Giant's Causeway.

Nothing infuriates Celts more than the habit of using the words British and English interchangeably. And it could be argued that England's cultural mix makes any single sense of English meaningless.

Which icon do you think most represents England?
Jerusalem hymn
Routemaster bus
King James Bible
SS Empire Windrush
Punch and Judy
Angel of the North
FA Cup
Cup of tea
Alice in Wonderland
Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII
19630 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
But a search for England's most popular icons aims to reflect this complexity. Icons: A Portrait of England is a two-year, 1m cultural project funded by the government which invites the public to nominate the things they cherish most about England.

It kicks off with a dozen of what it calls "the first marks on the canvas that will be our portrait of England", chosen by leading figures in academia and the arts.

Alice in Wonderland, a cup of tea and the SS Empire Windrush, which brought 500 immigrants from the Caribbean in 1948, are on the list, which excludes real people.

Among the 184 nominations which did not make the final 12 are Zippy from Rainbow, the funeral of Princess Diana and the pub.

People are invited to comment on the nominations and send in pictures or footage to make it into an organic resource which could eventually encompass Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The table will be updated according to the online votes, and the list of official national icons will grow.

"Englishness has always been problematic because we are a ragbag of influences from all over the world," says Mike Greenwood, commissioning executive of Culture Online, which came up with the idea.

"What a site like this needs to do is reflect that and not impose an orthodoxy about what Englishness is.

"It needs to be inclusive, not just mother's apple pie and a Turner landscape, so there is a debate about what Englishness is, and the answer will be different depending on your background."

The cuppa

St George was overlooked because he is a symbol and not a genuine cultural artefact with roots in English culture, he says.

Having the debate will make people think about who they are, what they feel about their nation's culture and how their community fits into society, he says. It's also important because the multi-layered representations of the icons stimulate learning.

"The fun thing is it will juxtapose something from the National Gallery with something like a cup of tea. That sounds banal. A cup of tea? But then you think about where tea came from.

"It was produced in China and came on ships like the Cutty Sark, which you can go and visit, and tea was drank out of porcelain and china tea cups, which were the trend at the time. So the icon is the beginning of a journey."

Broadcaster Floella Benjamin: Notting Hill Carnival
Actor Richard E Grant: Piccadilly Circus Tube sign
Culture Minister David Lammy: red phone box
Writer Bill Bryson: hedgerows
Mike Greenwood, Culture Online: Hadrian's Wall
Author Margaret Drabble: Jigsaw puzzles
Architect Will Alsop: Cats' eyes on roads
Gardener Charlie Dimmock: "Mind The Gap"
Designer Sir Terence Conran: Royal Festival Hall

The project is not intended to end up as an encyclopaedia transcribed online or a poll to find a winner, like the BBC's Great Britons, he says.

"The great thing about interactive media is about growing something and building a community of interests and encouraging people to take ownership of it by nominating and commenting. The site is the start of the debate, building content around which more will be added."

Historian David Starkey has attacked the project as a "quaint and banal list" which attempts to invent something that's not there, because English nationalism is based not on culture but "being best and first".

But there are unique characteristics to the monarchy, cathedrals and parish churches in England which set them apart from the rest of Europe, says the chief executive of English Heritage, Simon Thurley. And the mill, the warehouse, the terraced house and seaside town have roots in English culture and history.

"Scarborough, Blackpool, Bognor Regis, Brighton and others are uniquely English. Nowhere else does a combination of a generally wet and cold climate combine architecturally with a love and a fear of the sea as in England," he says.

But rather than landmark monuments like Big Ben, Durham Cathedral or the Liver building, it is the local manor house, viaduct or pub that most defines our sense of home and our pride in where we live, he believes.

Send us your photographs, videos, drawings or sketches of things which you think best represent England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

From the spectacular to the mundane, it could be a famous landmark, an item you own, a building near your home or an illustration of a national characteristic.

Write a short explanation with your entry. The best will be published later in the week.

Send them to:

Email: yourpics@bbc.co.uk
MMS: 07725 100 100
3G: 07888 100 100

When taking photos or filming, please do not endanger yourself or others, or take unnecessary risks.

Tourists say what they think are some of the icons of England

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