Tuesday 5 October 2010

England, my England

I’ve been thinking quite closely about issues of national identity, issues that arose from my recent blog (This England). I recall a documentary some years ago made by one Darcus Howe, a black writer and broadcaster (his colour is relevant, as you will see), in which he explored this very question. It was called The White Tribe, a kind of cultural safari in search of England, of what it meant to be English. A great many of the people he asked, people mostly from white working class communities, could not answer his basic questions. One respondent, struggling to come up with something, eventually alighted on line dancing!

In the course of his journey he also managed to have a brief exchange with Lord Tebbit, who admitted that concepts of English identity were indeed problematic. He went on to say that his ancestors were migrants from the Low Countries, and he was glad that they had moved, otherwise he would have been born a Belgian! Then their discussion moved on to Englishness and Britishness. Howe was told that he was not ‘ethnically English’. “Do you mean because of the colour of my skin?”, he asked. “No”, Tebbit replied, seemingly forgetting that he had already defined himself as not ‘ethnically English, “you are not English, but we are both British.”

So, the question clearly has to be, what happens to Darcus and all of his kindred if Britain disappears, as it may very well do anytime within the next fifty years? I’m going to hold off on giving an answer here for a bit, though you might already have arrived at your own.

To a large extent Howe was in pursuit of a chimera, something that even he did not fully understand, something he had not really attempted to define. For example, he thought that a ploughman’s lunch- which he could not track down amidst the curries and burgers- was an example of ‘traditional English fare’, whereas in truth it’s a pure marketing invention, traceable back only to the 1950s. But what about his assertion that England was full of people who don’t want to be English anymore, that we have turned into the cappuccino race, rootless and impossibly cosmopolitan? The short answer is that it’s rubbish.

The thing is the English, the English race, if you prefer, though that’s that seems to me to be an expression devoid of all meaning, has been made up of successive waves of migrants, ancient and modern. My own ancestors are Norman French, though I’m English through and through, ancestry being no more than a distant echo. Yes, there is a vagueness about our national identity, certainly in contrast with more recent migrants, who still carry an attachment to foreign places. But I’m going to go so far as to say that to be vague is to be quintessentially English, to be vague and to be slightly eccentric, beyond the comprehension of outsiders.

I have no idea at all what it means to be British; I know exactly what it is to be English, to belong to my England. Here is a passage from an essay I wrote dedicated to the question what England means to me;

Britishness? Ah, yes, now there is a problem. I grew up believing simply that Britishness and Englishness were more or less the same thing though I was very well aware that the Celtic nations had a separate and somewhat prickly identity. It’s been their assertiveness, their determination to be ‘themselves’, to govern themselves, that resulted in our present botched constitutional settlement, one that has really forced me to focus more specifically on simple Englishness. I no longer use British to identify myself other than to say that I have a British passport.

Yes, I’m not British; I’m English. I cycle from my rooms to college most days. I go riding just about every Sunday along old bridal paths. I like gymkhanas and country pursuits in general. I go hunting in season. I have a passion for the history of my country, particularly for the England of the seventeenth century, which has done so much to confirm my belief in the importance of monarchy in our constitution. I enjoy such food as roast beef - though I have a preference for venison -, fresh salmon, scones with high tea and stodgy puddings. I like to be taken punting on the Cam on warm spring days. I like May balls and daffodils. I like strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. I love the plays of William Shakespeare, the poetry of John Donne and the novels of Charles Dickens. I like Tudor and Stuart dance music and the orchestral work of Frederick Delius, particularly Brigg Fair and In a Summer Garden. I like old churches and ruined castles. I have a tremendous affection for the Church of England and an even greater affection for old English folkways. I like Christmas carols, the more traditional the better. I distrust alien ideologies, like socialism, communism and scientology, any form of fanaticism, really, in politics or religion. I distrust political enthusiasm and hero worship. Or if I do like heroes it's historic fatties like Sir John Falstaff or Horace Rumpole! I dislike American spellings of English English words. I like to go to Henley for the regatta and I far prefer tea, English Breakfast, to be precise, to cappuccino!

So, this is my England, this is my nation. It may not be yours but we all have our own vision and our own sense of place, where even things like line dancing will be welcome! For that’s the best thing of all about being English – our power to adapt, to turn foreign influences to our own ends.

There will always be an England, even if Britain goes, an England where the descendents of Darcus Howe will be welcome, because Norman Tebbit is wrong: it’s not about ethnicity, or colour, or race, or class, or state – it’s an attitude of mind.

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.


  1. I agree with much of this, especially when you state that Englishness is a deeply more diverse amalgamation of things than Lord Tebbit would categorise it as. Indeed, like you, I think both Lord Tebbit and Howe are both English--though I find neither particularly interesting(Howe's programme was rather enjoyable though). So yes, we mustn’t have a narrow overly-anthological view of Englishness. The vagueness is its greatness. These values, this social phenomenon was part of English history long before there was a Great Britain let alone a United Kingdom. The Huguenots became English before there was a Britain. Yet the Acts of Union and indeed the Union with Wales in the 1530s, exported these English values. The sentence, “Yes, there is a vagueness about our national identity, certainly in contrast with more recent migrants, who still carry an attachment to foreign places. But I’m going to go so far as to say that to be vague is to be quintessentially English, to be vague and to be slightly eccentric, beyond the comprehension of outsiders”, could easily be applied to British and indeed Imperial British values, so long as the phrase national identity is substituted for Imperial identity.
    So for a child of a very British, very Imperial 19th century, I have to say that I have a perspective that looks at these English values as existing beyond the scope of 17th century England, the epoch of which you’re a child of.

    So what does that leave England as a point of
    uniqueness if her values have simply been extrapolated to places as near as Wales and as distant as India and Australia? The answer is culture. Shakespeare is English culture as sure as Burns is Scottish culture. Dickens is England, Elgar is England, Houseman and Blake and Wordsworth are England. The ales which I drink and you don’t are England. The roast beef and venison we both eat—this is England.
    For this 19th and early 20th century man. English values have become British values, and British values have become Commonwealth values. But English culture will always be English culture, a culture which is vastly more threatened by the horrors of café culture than by the glories of the British empire.

    England should though have a national anthem--and it must be Jerusalem, a song whose beauty is unparalleled.

  2. But we mustn't forget that the kids whose idea of a fun day isn't a day of hunting or riding--the people whose idea of a fun night is being knifed and vomiting atop their friend--these people are England too, but their England has been taken away from them by people like Ted Heath and Tony Blair--not by ordinary Scotsmen or ordinary Indians or ordinary Ulstermen.

  3. Thanks, Adam, for such a lovely contribution.

  4. Interesting, but your description of your life and likes seems tied to social class as much as to nationality, though you say it's not about class.

    Is the 'attitude of mind' really shared with the English plebs?

  5. Oh, this is a beautiful eulogy!

    I will drink (albeit not at 9 in the morning), a pint of London Pride to "being slightly eccentric, beyond the comprehension of outsiders".

    (Actually the relationship of London to England is another thing entirely I find..)

    And I raise my glass to that suspicion of enthuisasm, or of over-regimented ideology thing (all of which leads me to ask....just why are we in the EU?), and of the suspicion of hero-worship (that almost always becomes servility all too quickly) too.

    But, still. I think that, however relucantly, but none the less, probably, inevitably (being English) we have to talk about "class" when we are talking about Englishness. Certainly not in even a quasi-Marxist way. Nor indeed in an essentially divisive way, either.

    But rather as a means to ensure the handing on of traditions and age-old wisdom, ensuring certain values are maintained as all manner of things evolve; and an enemy of vulgar materialism; and also - the importance of specific institutions (yes, the Church of England, yes, Oxbridge colleges, and yes, the public schools; not forgetting the very positive interaction that all three of these institutions have had with those most unlikely to attend the latter two - in creating much of what is specific about Englishness.

    In any case here is to ill-defined suspicion of enthuisasm and ideology. Must admit that I prefer a cappucino in the morning to English Breakfast tea though.

  6. By the way, I'd hope you could watch this
    --there are five parts, but it's only about 20 minutes.

    It's more about London than anything else, but it touches on broader English and British issues. And besides the lad is jolly good fun. He's the working class Dr. Johnson.

  7. Brendano,
    Please don't use such language to refer to the disenfranchised of England.

  8. Adam, there is a dark underside, every nation has that. I came across Nazis in Moscow, in a nation that suffered more than any other at the hands of the Germans.

  9. This is true Ana, the neo-Nazi movement in Russia is as sickening as mystifying. I actually feel sorry for these wretches knifing each other in northern towns on Friday nights. The cosmopolitan classes took from them a country built by the traditional hereditary classes.

  10. When the House of Lords was destroyed by Labour in 1999, it was the start of a long road away from our true history. We must reverse this tide.

  11. Brendano, that's just my point, I suppose, that the nation is made up of so many perspectives, some obviously not mine. Another defintion of England would indeed be a 'pleb' one, including, perhaps, colliary bands, working men's clubs and whippet racing on a Sunday. :-)

  12. I'll not be happy till every last Starbucks, Costa and Nero is closed and turned into either
    1. A pub
    2. Book or music shop
    3. Pet shop

  13. Dominic, adapted, no doubt, to your own national ends. :-) George Orwell is super on the subject of Englishness and patriotism in general. I would be the first to agree that my perspective is a class perspective, but that's another thing we simply can't get away from, nor should we.

  14. Thanks, Adam. I'll have a look later today.

  15. It's a jolly good laugh. He takes the mickey out of his class, middle classes, upper classes--but it's all very English, all very tragic. I quite like when he admits to agreeing with Prince Charles on architecture.
    Oh Ana, that's right--would you not mind adding something in your blog about traditional architecture? I'd very much like your take on this as for me modern architecture is anti-English.

  16. Dominic, the difference between London and England is that in London the more people hide the more people reveal.

  17. I always find people insistance that "since you cant define english culture, it doesnt exist, annoying".
    Its best to ask them to define Indian Culture.

    Usualy they either call you a racist or start wittering on about chicken korma.

  18. Being both English and non-English I am very confused about what my own national ends are :)

    And my class perspective is if anything even more muddled up. I have to blame my (I hope, long since thrown-off) communist upbringing for feeling far more comfortable with the Marxist terminology of "creative intelligentsia" than "middle class", even if the former is decidedly un-English.

    My key point wasn't that your perspective was a class perspective; but that the notion of class (if rather vaguely defined), and the institutions that help shape and define "class" are fundamental to Englishness, and what makes it distinct from other national identities.

    Well, I think it, broadly, is true, that the English working-class have tended towards broadly practical, rather than overly ideologically-inspired, forms of organization. Obviously there are exceptions, but the fact that, almost uniquely among the major Western European countries, we didn't have an enduring mass-membership communist (or indeed, fascist) party during the last century would be one point of note.

    I am almost inclined to quote loads of Chesterton now, who I rate at least as highly as Orwell as an essayist/journalist, not least on the topics you mention. "The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road" and all that.... But I have to give some instructions to someone working for me somewhere on the other side of the world in one of the key former territories of empire. And yes, I think that very particular international outlook that the empire shaped is fundamental to both Englishness and the reason why Englishness is quite understated or ill-defined, as opposed to romanticised and fictionised in a way that the national identity of certain of its neighbours seems to be much more

  19. Adam,
    Surely Englishness is not so insecure that you do not begrudge a man the ability to get a decent cup of coffee, a task all but unknown in much of this land not that long ago?!

    Granted, living in a seaside town, we have expat Italians and Portuguese who will provide; and while chain stores are certainly a blight upon our high streets, I can't think of Caffe Nero anything other than positively.

  20. And Adam, while I deplore what New Labour did to the Lords (amongst many other things), I would posit that the rot set in with the Dissolution of the Monasteries...

    (if/when time permits I'll elucidate further on topics like the role of old Etonians in the East End of London; the influence of public schools upon the educationists of the LCC 1920s "cottage estates" like Becontree or St Helier and so on, if anyone is remotely interested...)

  21. The bolsheviks should have been destroyed ,look at the shite we are all in now. When your super Dave floods Europe with turks that will be the end of life as you knew it. Greet Wilders for Fuhrer of the EU.

  22. Good evening, Ana.

    A fine statement of your beliefs.

    That picture of an English monarch? Charles II, unless I miss my guess. Born in England undoubtedly, but father born in Jockland and mother in France. Grandparents 2 Jocks, 1 Bearnais and 1 Florentine.

    Frederick Delius? Born in England undoubtedly, but parents both German. Spent most of his life abroad and when he married, he married a German. But, I agree, his music is 'English' as far as I am concerned.

    That was, of course, the unique genius of the English in the past. You assimilated and absorbed emigres whose descendants would be more English than the English themselves in one generation. I am not so sure that the children of today's immigrants will have the same opportunities in the future, particulary if they happen not to be white.

    Moving on, you and I have very different perceptions of what being 'British' is all about. To quote you, 'I grew up believing simply that Britishness and Englishness were more or less the same thing...'

    I grew up knowing that Britishness and Scottishness were very different things but that I was equally proud of being both. There are many things in your list of Englishness that apply just as much to the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as they do to your part, leaving aside any cheap shots about the origin of scones or of the bicycle which you enjoy using, or of its tyres or of the road surface you ride it on.

    We have managed to hang together in some form of union for the larger part of these islands for quite a long time now and I still do not believe that is all about to end. Up here, we have always had our own Church, legal system and educational system through all those years. We now also have a Parliament which legislates in many fields but which is still subordinate to the Westminster Parliament for all international matters. Our troops are British as is our Crown. I find it very easy to understand what it is to be British in terms of both history and culture and I am sorry that you do not.

  23. Dominic, on the question of Englishness and class you might be interested in a passage from an essay I wrote last year on Karl Marx;

    He became ever more pessimistic, towards the end of his life, seeing the English working class as no more than the 'tail' of the Liberal Party. Worse still, he came to agree with Engels that the English proletariat "was becoming more and more bourgeois, so that the most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie."

    He forgot to add bourgeois revolutionaries. :-)

  24. Anthony, the Bolsheviks were Russia's greatest misfortune.

  25. Good evening, John, though it’s rather later now. :-)

    Charles is indeed a fine example of the ability of the English to absorb all sorts of foreign elements! Yes, he was King of England, just as he was King of Scotland and Ireland, there being no British crown at the time. You probably know this as well as I do that the only time he spent in Scotland was from the summer of 1650 to the summer of 1651, not a particularly happy period in his life, one in which he even tried to run away from his Presbyterian tormentors! You see I have spent so much time in this man’s company, I can even imagine myself as one of his formidable mistresses, more Barbara Palmer, less Nell Gwyn.

    John, I’m more than happy to admit Scottish influences to my list, and indeed some of these things could very well apply to a uniquely Scottish perspective, but I was aiming at a cumulative picture of Englishness, a perspective on identity, my perspective. You grew up with a clear notion of what it meant to be Scottish. The picture was different here, with Englishness often sublimated in past times in the broader label of Britishness. In a sense we are only just beginning to discover ourselves, discover what is unique about being English.

    I would not like to give you the impression that I have a negative perception of Scotland, that I define Englishness as ‘not Scottish’ in the same way that so many Scottish people define themselves as ‘not English’, indeed taking pride in being ‘not English’ to the point of becoming anti-English. I love Scotland. We have a place in Easter Ross that I visited just about every year when I was growing up, the source of some of the earliest and most important influences in my life.

    In a broader sense I do understand what it means to be British. The problem is, you see, that the constitutional settlement of the late unlamented government is such a mess that the pattern is unravelling and unravelling fast. I could wish it were not so, I could wish Blair and Dewar had paid proper attention to the West Lothian Question, but they did not. I do not look to the funeral of Britain. But the blow delivered against the Union is, I fear, mortal.

  26. I'm Anglo-American: by chance, I happened to be born in the US, but spent more of my early years in England than the land of my birth. My mother was born in England and her line contains no trace of foreign taint as far back as I have been able to discover. My American lineage is paternally English back to the 15thC and before that Manx; maternally it owes input from Wales and Scotland - Griffiths and Oliphant among others. The question I faced as a youngster in two cultures is quite similar to that which you have posed, Ana.

    What I discovered is that those who wrote most vividly of the meaning of their national and cultural roots were almost always, like me, those who had spent some of their lives in cultures very different from the land to which they felt allegiance.

    As a boy, I searched for the England of story and myth and discovered it was more faerie than fact. Reality was more complex and, sadly, crass than the dreams of Kipling, Buchan, Yates, Wodehouse . . . the England I sought was a shadow cast by a dream that no longer existed. Worse: for most of those born in the 'sceptered isle' that dream was something they never shared. Their reality was entirely different and always had been so.

    Since then, the nature of the land and of the people who inhabit it have been altered and adulterated even more, so that even the real England of my young days is a faint palimpsest overlain by a dark and angry scrawl of newer ideas and - to me - nightmare visions of an offshore dirt platform inhabited by quarrelsome foreigners not quite European enough to engage in the Continental version of Social Democracy.

    How does one deal with shattered illusions and broken dreams? What can be made of the shards of fantasy if one simply cannot bear the ugliness of the new reality, but one is too honest to deny it?

    Work is the answer. It doesn't matter what England really was or is. What matters is making England what you believe it ought to be, and that is a task for heroes. You know what heroes are, because England produced so many and flung them out to the world. Pick up their banner and continue the work. Make the England you love real.

  27. Adam, your link was rather good. :-) On the architecture question I actually quite like a lot of modern buildings - always setting the dreadful assembly-kit monstrosities of the sixties and seventies to one side. The Gherkin is one of my favourite buildings in London. :-)

  28. Calvin, thank you so much for your splendid words. I will make this my life's effort. I just hope I am heroic enough for the task.

  29. I'm glad you enjoyed John's little rant. We agree about the mid-century communistical monstrosities, but I would as Prince Charles and Johnny Rotten do(I can't believe this is a true statement, but it is), put all the modern degeneracy in with it. It's fine in Berlin and indeed throughout Germany and much of Northern Europe. It's fine in Japan, it's fine in America and Australia, but it is just not English, just not British. What's so creative about the Gherkin? It's a marvel of engineering, I accept that, but what are the aesthetic consequences? It's just an upright robot's penis obscuring the magesty of St. Paul's.

  30. Spaceship, penis, whatever; I've heard it all. Come back in a hundred years by which time it will be a much-loved classic. :-))

  31. I tend to take John's view. St. Paul's will be remembered for five hundred years to come. The Gherkin will be seen as a monument to the frivolity of the post-industrial age. The age where one could be wealthy whilst possessing nothing. Wealth without possession is a garden of inedible fruit.

  32. There are many statistical points of analysis one can examine when talking about the Brown recession, but there is one fundamental reason that kind of economy failed. No great nation can build a great economy that is not fundamentally based on property and the cultivation of property. It is property that creates capital, capital cannot create property. Parcels of land, cars, iron, ships, steel, coal--all of these things are property. One sells the possession of them in exchange for capital.

    The asexual mono-partite reproduction of capital cannot sustain but for short periods. I m ay turn this into a blog.

  33. I'm posting the comment below for Nobby, unable in his present location to contribute directly.

    Nobby said...


    An intersting blog. I would like to contribute directly to your blogs but
    circumstances prevent that. So here is another comment.
    I agree with what you say regarding a certain vagueness about English identity.
    This vagueness may well depend on many English people being somewhat
    disinterested in extremes of any description. Historically this has been the case for centuries. And, yes, it is also quintessential.

    So being English can be argued to be via negativa rather than via positiva -
    what we are not, rather than what we are.

    I also agree with comments by Adam (and Orwell for that matter) in that English
    identity has been shaped by its culture and this is recognisable in many
    different ways from sport and recreation to buildings, faith and, behaviour.
    Culture has shaped attitudes.

    But who or what created an English culture?

    If Islamic conquest had expanded beyond France and Spain and into England in the
    11th century instead of the Norman French or if Han Chinese had populated
    English shores instead of the Anglo Saxon or if Black immigration had been in
    the 14th century at levels similar to what it has been since the 1950's - the
    question must be asked, would the history of England have been any different?

    My guess is that it would have been very different and that this difference
    suggests that Norman Tebbit has a point which is at odds with prevailing
    political fashion, I must admit.

  34. Thanks, Nobby, for such a considered contribution. This is clearly a subject that could be debated endlessly!