Being English
October 17, 2003 12:31 AM   Subscribe

Forget British. Define English. The perennial ex-pat and honorary Yank Christopher Hitchens may not be the best Englishman to define it - though his embarrassingly reactionary brother Peter is even less suited - but at least he has a go. For everyone else in the world, there are the Scottish, the Welsh, even the Northern Irish - all strong nationalities in their own right, each one older and more culturally solid than the slightly French, slightly German and slightly Dutch English. So why persist, in this post-imperialist day and age, in the myth of the Brit? If it is a myth. Americans, whether from the U.S. or Canada, certainly continue to buy into it. Or is it, for the rest of the world, too dangerous for the English - with devolution raging - to find their own, muddied identity? Think of those football hooligans and their grotesque politics, St.George face-masks and flags. (Via Arts And Letters Daily.)
posted by MiguelCardoso (40 comments total)
For the record, my mother's English; I was educated in England and I dearly love the bastards and all they stand for. Their principal qualities, very rare around the world and supremely important, being fairness; honesty (though easily filtered through formal hypocrisy); essential decency and, above all, their sense of humour.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:36 AM on October 17, 2003

IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

As an englishman I often find this poem rather moving in evoking a quasi-mystical notion of England. But England and being English is often rather hard to define, certainly the weather and the landscape helps to evoke notions of England. Cold winter nights spent in the pub laughing and chatting with friends, watching the football on saturday, travelling on absurdly crowded public transport yet complaining only mildly and perfecting the perfact dagger stare for anyone who should dare to queue jump. Laughing at the French and other europeans and yet being rather insecure in our own national identity, rows of terraced houses all interconnected via ginnels where kids nosily kick their footies. These and many more memories help me to identify myself as English and tie me to England.
posted by johnnyboy at 1:56 AM on October 17, 2003

For a much better stab at defining the English than Hitchens manages I'd thoroughly recommend Jeremy Paxman's The English.
posted by vbfg at 2:53 AM on October 17, 2003

I'm English, but I don't think I've ever described myself as such. I'm British, not English. Maybe its because my family are expat Scots, but I know that most (English) people I know also consider themselves British over and above English too.

Maybe its because the whole business of standing up for England's "unique identity" is thoroughly distasteful. If you ever hear anybody eulogising about being English, your mind is immediately full of images of St George's Crosses, "there ain't no black in the Union Jack", and general small-mindedness and bigotry. I think to a lot of people, thats what "English" actually means. Particularly the Scots, Welsh and Irish.

The tabloids regularly bemoan the lack of English patriotism/nationalism, but I think thats a damn good thing. What need is there for England, when we all live in Britain?
posted by influx at 3:19 AM on October 17, 2003

your mind is immediately full of images of St George's Crosses, "there ain't no black in the Union Jack"

- which is why I fell that the notion of Englishness being wrapped up in racist, insular, xenophobic tendencies needs to be reclaimed by ordinary people my friend. I would certainly think of myself as English first and foremost, Britishness is neither here nor there.
posted by johnnyboy at 3:49 AM on October 17, 2003

But this is what I'm saying - the whole concept of being English is utterly alien to me. Neither I or anyone I grew up would have described ourselves as English rather than British. When you're asked your nationality, do you really say English, and not British?

Personally, I think the relatively recent spate of handwringing over Englishness/Britishness stems from the devolution of Scotland and Wales, and the resulting brief blip of increased nationalism - the English felt like they were missing a trick.

"Reclaiming England", or whatever, is one very small step away from Nationalism, which I see as a very, very bad thing.
posted by influx at 4:03 AM on October 17, 2003

I tell people I'm from the People's Republic of Yorkshire myself.
posted by vbfg at 4:12 AM on October 17, 2003

That's actually a very interesting point - if we abandon Britain, and go with England, Scotland and Wales instead, why stop there?

Yorkshire is a very different place from Cornwall, East Anglia, Tyneside. Why retain 'England' as a nation, rather than reduce ourselves to officially being Northern or Southern. We all think that way anyway, right? Might as well have London as a seperate principality too - "it's all different there", after all.
posted by influx at 4:21 AM on October 17, 2003

Rheged. Mercia. Essex. Balkanization for all! King William, where's that at? Gimme King Offa.
posted by jfuller at 4:34 AM on October 17, 2003

The atomisation of the U.K draws nearer by the day.
posted by johnnyboy at 5:44 AM on October 17, 2003

posted by shoepal at 6:23 AM on October 17, 2003

About eight years ago in Osaka there was a Scotsman who, when presented with his Alien Registration Card a few weeks after arrival, refused to accept it because it listed his nationality as igirisu, England. He insisted on being identified as being from Scotland (sukottorando), or, alternatively, Britain (eikoku), but the Ministry of Justice in Japan lumps you all together as English. He didn't back down, and cut up the card on the spot, which is illegal. I think he was detained for awhile before consular officials smoothed out the matter.
posted by planetkyoto at 6:48 AM on October 17, 2003

I'm all for devolution of the south - then we'll see just how far those northerners get without us ;-)

Actually, I don't think I'd ever define myself as English. I'd almost always say that my nationality is 'British' and the country in which I live is the United Kingdom.
posted by Singular at 6:52 AM on October 17, 2003

I take it then singular that you are a proponent of pluralism.
posted by johnnyboy at 6:56 AM on October 17, 2003

Is this the M.P.L.A
Or is this the U.D.A
Or is this the I.R.A
I thought it was the U.K or just
another country
another council tenancy

- God save
posted by johnnyboy at 6:58 AM on October 17, 2003

This entire "Canadians are Americans too" meme has got to stop. So does the meme meme.
posted by jon_kill at 7:04 AM on October 17, 2003

Dissection of subjective reality may tend to get boring for some. For example, speaking as a culturally stunted Yank who likes Doctor Who and Guinness and James Bond and has a vague understanding of geography, from my perspective the word "English" refers to anyone who actually lives on the island of England itself, or rather, that part of the island designated specifically as England -- where London is and where Shakespeare came from and where Douglas Adams wrote the HitchHiker's radio show. It doesn't include the irish or the scottish. It may or may not include Wales when I use the word "English" I guess that depends on my mood. It's a very subjective thing to me, cuz I've never actually been there (but it's the one place outside America I care to someday go) so it's a sorta fairy tale place to me. It exists cuz people tell me it exists but it's not real to me any more than Texas might be real to someone in England. And no, we don't all wear those stupid hats or ride on horses.

The word "British" covers the whole of the British Islands, whether a particular part of it claims to be British or not. It also includes Tokyo and parts of Australia and Africa even though I don't think there's any British claim over those locations anymore, cuz I like the once-truism that the sun never sets on the British Empire. Whether or not it's accurate. And though people in Ireland and Scotland and England and Wales and Yorkshire and (etc) disagree at times, in my mind ultimately they're one big happy dysfunctional family, and that recurring spat between the protestants and the catholics is really just how some family members show how much they love one another.

I mean back in school many years ago we had to be accurate, but out here in the real world, since I don't generally meet people from the United Kingdom face to face, I can paint that place however I personally want. And in my reality, London England is the third best place to be on the planet, next to (2) Hollywood California and (1) New York City (Toronto Ontario runs a close fourth, and then there's the reality of the Big D). Logically I know that to be a lie, but emotionally it doesn't matter, cuz I'm never going to go to any of those places anyway so I can pretend they're like, perfect and stuff.

"It is of course essential to the myth that Arthur only sleeps, and will one day return to save his people in their hour of danger." - Christopher Hitchens

I've only recently been introduced to the concept of Albion but basically all my life I've sensed the word "Britain" as an all-encompassing "Albion-like" sentiment. Where the majesty of what was, is, and ever shall be is not limited by the consequences of politics, diplomacy or time. Even though like rebellious youths we rebelled against the king, Americans haven't forgotten their roots, and though we're the planetary melting pot, a huge ingredient of America's spirit was forged from the same heart that keeps the likes of Robin Hood and King Arthur alive.

Like the ancient Roman Empire two millenia ago, Great Britain has made its own mark in the course of human events throughout history from the Byzantine, through the Medieval and Renaissance, both World Wars, all the way up to present day, and long after we've all gone the way of a dead parrot. The spirit of Albion lives on in those who care to dream. It's one star to the left and straight on till morning.

Subjective realism can be fun.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:11 AM on October 17, 2003

Yorkshire is a very different place from Cornwall, East Anglia, Tyneside. Why retain 'England' as a nation, rather than reduce ourselves to officially being Northern or Southern.

Well, West Virginia is very different from Massachussets, but if you asked people from either place what they considered themselves, they'd say "American." Maybe that's a US-only phenomenon.
posted by jonmc at 7:17 AM on October 17, 2003

Are you calling my pint a puff?
posted by squealy at 7:26 AM on October 17, 2003

National Anthems
(Great Britain vs Yorkshire)

jonmc: I think it's very hard for modern-day Americans to understand European regionalism. (Not so hard a couple of hundred years ago, when people did identify first with their states rather than with the new USA.)
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on October 17, 2003

jonmc: I think it's very hard for modern-day Americans to understand European regionalism.

I know what you mean. My mother is European-born (northern Italy) and emigrated to a largely Italian-American Vermont quarry town as a young girl. To this day, when she sees someone acting stereotypically "Eye-Talian" her and my grandmother will curl their lips with disdain and say "the Napolitan..." and shake their heads sadly. Whereas I'll feel a kinship with a guy whose parents come from Naples, simply cause we're both Italians.
posted by jonmc at 7:35 AM on October 17, 2003

i used to define myself as british 'til i lived in scotland. stupid me actually chose a job there, thinking they were more friendly and open-minded than in england. it was quite an eye-opener - nothing terrible, just a steady current of anti-english sentiment, snide comments, sullen agression, etc etc. it made me wonder if nationality has to be defined in terms of being anti something. maybe the scots would be as vaguely defined as the english if they didn't have us to accuse.

one small example of how naive i was - when i was a kid and watched football on tv, we'd cheer whatever british team was playing (english, scottish, whatever). in edinburgh (i was there during a world cup year) you could here the cheers in the street when someone scored against the english.

another example of the animosity - after expressing comments like this on (just one of) my web pages i've had abusive email and people subscribing to scottish chat-boards in my name and posting anti-scottish abuse (presumably to incite some kind of reaction against me) (i found out via my web server logs, since they posted links back to my site).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:41 AM on October 17, 2003

Talking of scotland I learnt this lovely ditty whilst sitting in a pub watching a Rangers game surrounded by hardcore Rangers fans;

Hello hello we are the billy boys,
Hello hello you'll know us by our noise,
We're up to our knees in fenian blood,
Surrender or you'll die.

repeat ad nauseum.
posted by johnnyboy at 8:23 AM on October 17, 2003

For a much better stab at defining the English than Hitchens manages I'd thoroughly recommend Jeremy Paxman's The English.

vbfg: Let me add my own hearty recommendation. I suppose, like many others, I presumptiously didn't expect the brave, intellectually sophisticated and original book that it is, just because Paxman is a (brilliant, loveable) television presenter. Well, stupid me. I've lost my copy through excessive lending.

It's amazingly wide-ranging; truly honest (he's hard and unsentimental on what he sees as English defects); funny and, in a charming way, thoroughly English. A lot of people who I lent it too had the same comment to make: it also taught them quite a bit of English history.

A fantastic book indeed. Thanks for bringing it to the table, vbfg.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:34 AM on October 17, 2003

I'm English living in Scotland at the moment, and if you think this is bad - try living in Wales!
posted by cell at 8:38 AM on October 17, 2003

What *is* the essential quality that allows a pack of pasty white people living on a rainy island to produce so much good music?
posted by scarabic at 9:10 AM on October 17, 2003

an interesting article on what it means to be British
posted by Pressed Rat at 9:44 AM on October 17, 2003

I think emf and Johnnyboy are on the right track. The intro from George MacDonald Fraser's The Pyrates:

"It began in the old and golden days of England, in a time when all the hedgerows were green and the roads dusty, when hawthorn and wild roses bloomed, when big-bellied landlords brewed rich October ale at a penny a pint for rakish high-booted cavaliers with jingling spurs and long rapiers, when squires ate roast beef and belched and damned the Dutch over their claret while their faithful hounds slumbered on the rushes by the hearth, when summers were long and warm and drowsy, with honeysuckle and hollyhocks by cottage walls, when winter nights were clear and sharp with frost-rimmed moons shining on the silent snow, and Claud Duval and Swift Nick Nevison lurked in the bosky thickets, teeth gleaming beneath their masks as they heard the rumble of coaches bearing paunchy well-lined nabobs and bright-eyed ladies with powdered hair who would gladly tread a measure by the wayside with the gallant tobyman, and bestow a kiss to save their husbands' guineas; an England where good King Charles lounged amiably on his throne, and scandalised Mr Pepys (or was it Mr Evelyn?) by climbing walls to ogle Pretty Nell; where gallants roistered and diced away their fathers' fortunes; where beaming yokels in spotless smocks made hay in the sunshine and ate bread and cheese and quaffed foaming tankards fit to do GK Chesterton's heart good; where threadbare pedlars with sharp eyes and long noses shared their morning bacon with weary travellers in dew-pearled woods and discoursed endlessly of 'Hudibras' and the glories of nature; where burly ear-ringed smugglers brought their stealthy sloops into midnight coves and stowed their hard-run cargoes of Hollands and Brussels and fragrant Virginia in clammy caverns; where the poachers of Lincolnshire lifted hares and pheasants by the bushel and buffeted gamekeepers and jumped o'er everywhere..."

Add a Vaughan Williams / Elgar / Delius / Grainger soundtrack, and you have the mythologized resonances that for me are at the heart of Englishness.
posted by raygirvan at 9:50 AM on October 17, 2003

Indeed, to echo Mr. Jon_kill, referring to Canadians as Americans is mildly offensive to most of us, even if we like the Americans a great deal. This is something Europeans and some Americans do on our behalf which we rather they would not. Thank you.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:01 AM on October 17, 2003

I admit to wincing when labelled as "American" as much as any other Canuck (which hearkens to the nationalism defined as anti-something mentioned above, definitely true in the case of Not Americans Canadians), but we're Americans in the same sense that Brazilians and Mexicans are Americans and that French and Spanish are Europeans, we're from continents named America.

That being said, "American" in common usage on our continents does typically refer to a citizen of the United States of America. If you'd like to refer to our peoples on a continent-wide basis, you'll get less hackle-rasing with "North Americans" or "South Americans" or "North and South Americans", depending on the context you're looking for.
posted by cCranium at 12:04 PM on October 17, 2003

Unlike a lot of the brits here, I do define myself as "English", at least in part. Sure, if someone asks me my nationality, that is undoubtedly British, even if something involving the UK would be more technically correct. But I am English in the same way that my friends (also British nationals) who were born in India or born of Indian parents still think of themselves as Indian. I am English _ethnically_, even if (as for nationality) this isn't 100% technically correct (the mongrel race that we are.)

In addition, one day my nationality might be Canadian (as I have been living in Canada for three years, this is very, very possible.) But I will still be English.

To complicate things further, I think of myself as a Londoner, having been born there and having lived there for over 30 years, but I tend to think of that as being about culture, not ethnicity or nationality. Some of my British-Indian frends are also Londoners, for example. In truth the England/London/Culture/Ethnicity thing is probably a bit more intertwinged than that, but I can live with that definition.
posted by pascal at 1:00 PM on October 17, 2003

For everyone else in the world, there are the Scottish, the Welsh, even the Northern Irish - all strong nationalities in their own right, each one older and more culturally solid than the slightly French, slightly German and slightly Dutch English.

Miguel, you forgot the Romans, who were in England when Claudius (who succeeded Caligula in 41AD, I believe) annexed them, and stayed there for some three-hundred-and-fifty years. Of course, you could also then point out that the West Germanic tribes who moved into England after the Romans left were also moderately influenced by the Latin language even before settling in England.

Also, it would be entirely possible to point out that the Scots and Welsh no longer have much of a national language, which some might see as weakening cultural strength, something Joyce wrote beautifully about when speaking of Ireland and its lack of a widely-read or spoken language.
posted by The God Complex at 2:26 PM on October 17, 2003

I do not identify as American first. It is near the end actually. Just before Earthling. I am a Chicagoan first, and and Illinoisian second.
posted by thirteen at 2:59 PM on October 17, 2003

To be pedantic, those two little islands off the east coast of the European mainland may be called the British Isles but that does not mean that anyone who lives on either of them is British.

As anyone with a UK passport can see, we live in the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". This implies that Britain and Ireland are separate.

Therefore as a resident of Northern Ireland, I consider my nationality to be Irish, but my citizenship to be British. To the extent that the region I live in is under the political control of the British Government.

I also believe, that this is the same for anyone who lives in Northern Ireland. It is my opinion that anyone who was not born in or is not planning on living in Britain(Scotland, England, Wales) for a substantial amount of time, can not call themselves British by nationality.

If I'm abroad, that includes when I'm in England/Scotland/Wales, I say I'm Irish. I've only had one or two incidences of abuse because of this.

If someone tells me they're English, I won't automatically think of St. George's cross waving hooligans or ignorant National Front members. I'll think of a genuinely friendly people who get more abuse than they, as a whole deserve.
posted by knapah at 4:47 AM on October 18, 2003

Bah English. Bah British. Personally, I just want people to think of me as a European. From Yorkshire.
posted by seanyboy at 8:17 AM on October 18, 2003

Wheear 'as ta bin sin ah saw thee,
On Ilkla Moor baht 'at?
posted by languagehat at 3:49 PM on October 18, 2003

"ast tha bin". (if you please). And where is "Ilkla"
posted by seanyboy at 4:16 PM on October 18, 2003

Ilkla Moor.
posted by languagehat at 6:45 PM on October 18, 2003

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