I consider myself to be English. I was born here, lived all my life here, in Sussex and in Manchester. But am I really? And what is it to be English?
Given the past millenium or so of history, one could be forgiven for thinking of England as a homogenous state, with a common language, culture and history. But look a little deeper and is that the case. ‘English’ derives from the Angles, a Germanic people who crossed the North Sea as the Roman Empire collapsed and colonised South-Eastern Britain. Their cousins the Saxons arrived alongside them, as well as the Jutes. All of these tribes had previously inhabited Denmark, Northern Germany and Holland (and to an extent the descendants of those they left behind still do). They supplanted and mixed with the pre-Roman Celts, who were displaced to the northern and western parts of Britain, forming their own kingdoms. However, they weren’t the only ones to colonise ‘England’. The Danes, who are more nordic, took control of much of Central Britain (Northern England), later on Vikings not only raided much of the coasts but settled in scattered parts of the islands. Not to mention that after a few hundred years of Roman rule, many immigrants from across the Empire had settled and mixed into the population.
Then came the Normans. Essentially they became our ruling class, and while there weren’t many of themn, their culture became our ‘high culture’. Anglo-Saxon and Danish culture was for the peasants. English as a language wasn’t spoken much by our monarchs until the Wars of the Roses. Many of our Kings ruled from across the Channel – the nation under Henry Plantagenet was the ‘Angevin Empire’, a reference to its seat of power at Angers. The Hundred Years war confined ‘England’ to the island of Britain.
Meanwhile, England absorbed (or conquered, or partnered with, depending on your point of view) Wales, kept Scotland subdued as much as possible and viewed Ireland as a land of hostile pirates.
That was the last time ‘England’ really existed. With the Tudors winning (or stealing) the throne, Wales was less a colony as it had been under Edward I, and more of a partner. A hundred years later, with the acession of James I (VI of Scotland), the moves toward Anglo-Scottish Union began their 100 year long course. Ireland had an English colony in the Pale of Dublin, soon to be joined by the Scottish Presbyterian plantations into Ulster. Slowly, England ceased to be a separate country and became the senior partner in ‘Britain’.
So what is England then? Britain minus the Celtic Fringe? What images are conjured up of ‘England’ on its own? And do we all share the same culture? After all, anyone can tell you that there is more variation in English dialects in the mother country than in the USA, a far bigger country. Cloth caps and whippets don’t mix with pearly kings, or cream teas, or lager louts. Football, the real national game, doe unite us in its divisions, but then in Scotland, Italy or Argentina, the same could be said.
We look to writers like Orwell, or poets like Larkin, to comforting images (warm beer and cricket, bobbies on the beat, red pillar boxes, a dignified monarchy) to represent the core ‘English values’, but how representative are they now. And how representative were they 200 years ago? Do they only belong to a particular time-frame, when – by no coincidence – Britain (and by extension England) ruled the world, led the Industrial Revolution and sat down for a nice cup of tea at 3pm – when we could be more assured of our place in the world (dominance, naturally of a benign and paternal kind, unlike those horrid French or Spanish imperialists), when we spread the word of God through the CofE and the practice of commerce through trade (in everything from wool and cotton, slaves and sugar through to salt and steel), and before Germany, the USA and everyone else started to catch us up.
In fact these images appear to hark back to an age of complacency. We thought we ruled the world, and so ignored it (although not as much as the USA does today). We didn’t so much have our place at the top taken from us, but lose it through resting on our laurels, and overstretching our colonial conquests.
So when people talk about the English, particularly when its those nationalistic fools on the Right, or the demagogues of the Left, what do they mean? And does their meaning bear any relation to the real England.
England is not homogenous, not really united. There are always going to be distinctions, the North-South divide, Town vs Country debates, not to mention the continually changing class issue.
Lets see how English we are. What do we drink – Beer. Now there’s a nice English drink. Except that of course our most popular beers are lagers, which originate in Central Europe. English style Ale is enjoying a renaissence at the moment, after the dire days of the 70s, but still, most of the English (and particularly the young), steer weel clear of the brown, sometimes cloudy, brew in favour of something with bubbles but less taste (which is why you have to drink it cold).
What do we eat – Curry. Not always of course. We might go for a pizza, or a Chinese, or a burger perhaps. Even when eating in, the ‘English’ foods are the ones we eat because we have to, not because we like them. Of course we have a lot of nostalgia for Sunday Roasts, Hot Pot, Spotted Dick or Tapioca pudding, but these stodgy staples are in decline. Mainly because they are a product of the times when the English seem to have been proudest of our lack of adventure and lack of external influence in our cuisine. If we’d seen the food eaten by the late Tudors, with its spices mixed with fruits and meat, we’d have been looking at something closer to Middle Eastern food than our old favourites.
Here’s where even my polemic starts to show up how hopeless it is to define what is solely ‘English’ (or even British) culture. The most popular beers are indeed lagers. And yet they are anglicised to a certain extent. There is a difference between continental beers (particularly those brewed under purity laws) and our own – even the ones with foreign names. Stella and Heineken in Britain are not the same as they are in Belgium or Holland.
And curry is the same. Yes, it is called ‘Indian’ food, and yes, it is rooted in the cuisine of the sub-continent (after all, a majority of ‘Indian’ restaurants are owned by people of Bangladeshi origin). But the food is not the same as one would find in India or Bangladesh. Two of the most popular forms of curry were invented in England. The Chicken Tikka Masala and the Balti are both developments designed to cater for the English palate, as indeed are many of the ‘traditional’ curry-house meals.
So perhaps this becomes rather circular – English culture borrows heavily from external influences. And those influences are in turn ‘anglicised’. Maybe this is the core of out culture?
Maybe diversity – so disparaged by the neo-liberal literati – is something that every ‘culture’ needs. After all, British political satire has developed out of the political friction which we have been experiencing since the 17th Century. The clash between the values of ‘freedom’ and ‘stability’ has been at the very centre of political discourse. And to an extent both values lose out when they clash. Certainly stability is dependent not only on such staples as church, family, class, but also on economic wellbeing, the influences from outside a society and the extent to which people within it feel free to make their own way. Freedom can, if overly emphasised, cause major differences of opinion. Freedom of speech cannot be absolute if you also have freedom from slander or bigotry.
To a large extent, we look back at English history and (when not simply thinking of it as a list of monarchs, battles and other such dry statistics learnt by rote) see that the culture of England in the 18th Century was very different to that of today. For example, the monarchy was not held in such great regard. I know that there is a growing trend towards republicanism today, and the monarchy as an institution was probably more popular then than now, but the monarchs themselves were often figures of hate or at least fun. Partly this stems from the turmoil of the mid to late 17th Century when Charles I was beheaded, James II was subject to two rebellions of which the second was successful and when the religion of the monarch was to some extent more important than his rule. The other major factor of course was the end of the Stuart dynasty and the accession of the Hanovers, who at first couldn’t speak English, and at the end of the 18th Century appeared to descend into decadency.
England was a much more agrarian society, we were barely moving into the Industrial Revolution, and that factor probably has done as much as anything to change our society and culture.
When I read or hear about English culture, particularly when the source is patriotic or right wing, I always get the same message ‘We must preserve our culture against outside influences’. Firstly this begs the question ‘who is “we”?’ Secondly it begs the question ‘Why preserve a culture which is a snapshot in time, when culture always changes regardless of its influences?’ These two questions are sometimes addressed. The final question that always springs to my mind but is never answered is ‘What IS our culture?’
It seems that Tories, the BNP and various commentators take it for granted that we all know exactly what they mean by ‘English’ or ‘British’. Well I’m sorry, but as a reader will see from what I have written so far, I don’t know what they mean.
So what are the staple influences used?
In literature it would have to be Shakespeare, probably more than Chaucer. But while Shakespeare was writing for an English audience, and many of his plays are English ‘Histories’, many of his plays are set abroad. Here is an Englishman, from the heart of the country, writing about depressed Danes, tragic Italian lovers and comedy Greeks. His themes are essentially human, his plays deal with ambition, revenge, love, betrayal, hope (and its loss), the battle of the sexes, war, and so on. That is why Shakespeare is so valuable, because just like Goethe, he’s not simply addressing his own culture, he’s showing us all of human life.
In art we look at Turner. And yet his influences must have been the Italian masters just as much as the English landscape.
I must say that I love my country. And thats whether you call it England, Britain or the UK. I am proud to be from here, I feel privileged to live here and be able to live as comfortably as I do. But an essential part of that is that I love the people and the place, not the institution. I couldn’t care less if my town were an independant mini-state, or if I was a citizen of a world-state, I don’t see a difference. Would it be so tragic if England or Britain were to cease to exist? What matters really is brass tacks, not esoteric notions of nationality. I identify with my friends, my family, my workmates, people who support the same football team, people who like the same music as I do. Does it matter what the colour of their flag is?