IntroductionSince the 1997 general election, and the rejection of the Conservative party after eighteen years in power, theres been a decidedly upbeat air about England. The election of the “New Labour” government has brought about some genuine changes of atmosphere. Theres a lot of talk about the importance of “society”, a concept much abused during the laissez-faire years of Thatcherism, and England is now being presented as a component part of Europe, whereas previously the attitude to the continent suggested that the Channel Tunnel was a bridgehead into enemy territory. But in several respects the new world isnt really that new. Many of the less appealing aspects of Conservatism – the under-investment in public services, the assumption that big business knows best – are still with us. And, conversely, many of the features that give England its buzz have not sprung into existence overnight – the celebration of “Cool Britannia” began some time before the arrival of Tony Blair. Indeed, the country has maintained its creative momentum consistently from the “Swinging Sixties” to the present day: the music scene is as vibrant as any in the world; the current crop of young artists has as high a profile as David Hockney ever had; all over Europe there are hi-tech and offbeat postmodern buildings that were born on the drawing boards of London; and when Jean-Paul Gaultier runs short of new ideas he comes to Londons markets, outlets for Europes riskiest street fashion.However, you only have to scratch the surface and youll find that Englands notorious taste for nostalgia still persists. Its not altogether surprising that the English tend to dwell on former glories – as recently as 1950 London was the capital of the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet, but just three decades later it had slipped from the top twenty. History is constantly repackaged and recycled in England, whether in the form of TV costume dramas or industrial theme parks in which people enact the tasks that once supported their communities. The royal family, though dogged by bad press, continues to occupy a prominent place in the English self-image, a fact demonstrated by the extraordinary manner in which the death of Princess Diana was reported and mourned. The mythical tales of King Arthur and Camelot, the island race that spawned Shakespeare, Drake and Churchill, a golden rural past – these are the notions that lie at the heart of “Englishness”, and monuments of the countrys past are a major part of its attraction. Theres a panoply of medieval and monumental towns; and the countryside yields all manner of delights, from walkers trails around the hills and lakes, through prehistoric stone circles, to traditional rural villages and their pubs. Virtually every town bears a mark of former wealth and power, whether it be a magnificent Gothic cathedral financed from a monarchs treasury, a parish church funded by the tycoons of the medieval wool trade, or a triumphalist Victorian civic building, raised on the income of the British Empire. In the south of England youll find old dockyards from which the navy patrolled the oceans, while up north there are mills that employed whole town populations. Englands museums and galleries – several of them ranking among the worlds finest – are full of treasures trawled from Europe and farther afield. And in their grandiose stuccoed terraces and wide esplanades the old resorts bear testimony to the heyday of the English holiday towns, when Brighton, Bath and diverseother towns were as fashionable and elegant as any European spa.Contemporary England is at the same time a deeply conservative place and a richly multi-ethnic culture through which runs a strain of individualism that often verges on the anarchic. In essence, Englands fascination lies in the tension between its inertia and its adventurousness. Which is the truer image of England at the end of the twentieth century: the record-breaking Sensation art show at the Royal Academy, with its dissected livestock and sexual mutants, or the ranks of Diana memorabilia in souvenir shops across the land?