Monday, May 19, 2008

England, My England

Pretty, isn't it? This is where I live. It's called "Great Britain" and it is couple of small fishing islands in the Mid-Atlantic, you might have heard of it/them. I actually live in the red bit. That's called "England." It's where all the history comes from.

It's not a bad place to live in, really - despite the weather and the crushing disappointment that is our national football team. I could - after all - have been born a Welshman and that would have been terrible. But I do sometimes wonder what me being born and raised in England actually says about me to the wider world. And, it seems that I'm not alone in this. There is something of a hot debate currently taking place in some political circles - and in the media at large - about that most vexed of subjects the nature of "English identity" and what relevence it can have in this day and age.

Here's a true story. I was in a record shop - Tower Records, I think it was - in Sherman Oaks near Los Angeles a few years ago buying some cheap CDs. I knew that I was likely to be asked if I had any photo-ID so I took my passport along with me. I was chatting to the geezer on the counter and, when requested, pulled out my passport to prove that I was who my credit card said I was. "How come you've got a British passport when you're Irish?", he asked. (I've grown somewhat accustomed over the years to many people - many English people at that - thinking Newcastle is a small suburb of Edinburgh, but I'd never before realised it had moved to become a small suburb of Dublin as well.)

In a St. George's essay in 2002, the songwriter, activist and author Billy Bragg called for the English to reclaim their national identity from the racists and xenophobes who have become so hatefully associated with the English flag. He followed that up with a - genuinely - excellent book on the same subject The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging (London: Bantam Press, 2006). Now, I respect Bill greatly - both as a songwriter and as a human being - but I think he's barking (s'cuse the pun, Bill) up the wrong tree with this whole "English National Identity" malarkey. I don't believe such a thing exists or that it ever has existed (except as an artifical construct of cosy jingoistic nostalgia to be sold as patriotism in times of war or preceived national crisis). And that, even if it did once exist, it certainly doesn't now. At least not in the way that most people would understand the concept of "a national identity."

If I'm ever asked how I would define myself - not that I ever am, but let's just suppose for the sake of argument - then I would say, first and foremost, that I'm a Tynesider and, secondly, that I'm British. And, that I'm very proud of both of those classifications. One is all about who I am and the region that spawned and shaped me and gave me a sense of belonging and the other is about who I came from and what my history is. Because, as the great reggae band Misty in Roots perceptively noted "Without knowledge of your history you cannot determine your destiny." By contrast, I have absolutely no idea what "being English" is supposed to represent - as defined by something that is specifically seperate from "being British." I can understand the Scots, Welsh and Irish having, and celebrating, their own national identity because all three have a very definite and unique aboriginal culture that is completely apart from the generic "British culture" that was imposed on them by English invaders who subsequently absorbed massive chunks of Scots/Welsh/Irish culture into their own. But, what culture should we aspire to from the English and the English alone? The race itself is - and has always been - a polyglot tribe, made up of lots of bits and pieces of different pre-Norman European invaders.

The English language is also an artificial construct, glued together from various Dutch and Germanic languages, along with a bit of Latin, and then given a distinctive Gallic flourish post-1066. England's vision of itself was largely shaped in the Middle Ages by a variety of romantic ideals for some mythical age that never even existed (King Arthur, Robin Hood, Jesus at Glastonbury). And, since the 19th Cenutry, English culture has magpie-like, consumed and digested whatever new ideas it could find from first its Empire and then, when that crumbled, from its immigrants (from Ireland, from the Caribbean, from the Indian subcontinent, from Africa, from Eastern Europe).

Everything - and this is genuinely not a criticism, it's something to be celebrated as far as I'm concerned - from our food, to our language, our music and our architecture takes freely from others to produce something that is ultimately described as "English." However much the Daily Mail may hate the very idea, "being English" doesn't necessarily mean being a middle-aged Tory Miles Cholmondeley-Warner clone from Berkshire who is disgusted because the Wogs and the Poufs and the Reds are conspiring to take over the world. But, of course, that then begs the obvious question if "being English" doesn't mean that what does it mean?

Yes, this is the indeed nation of Shakespeare and Shelley; of William Blake and Christopher Wren; of Tony Benn and Oswald Mosley; of Jane Austen and Hanif Kureshi; of John Peel and The Beatles; of Bobby Charlton and Douglas Jardine; of Bill Oddie and Jeremy Clarkson; of Thomas Beckett and Basil Hume; of Abi Titmuss and Jade Goody. But does that mean that any of these people were specifically shaped by their uniquely English heritage in the way that, say, Rabbie Burns or The Bay City Rollers were shaped by their Scottish heritage?

Whenever one sees a representation of what is supposed to be "Englishness" in the media - and I fully realise this is the kind of crass stereotype I normally rage against with much bile, but bear with me - it's usually a very "home counties" one: It is tea, cricket, the Queen, Stonehenge, Last Night of the Proms and 'Land of Hope and Glory' and England's Green and Pleasant Land. (A side-note: It's remarkable, is it not, just how few commentators bother to read the first verse of Blake's Milton before skipping straight to the second - straight past all of those "dark Satanic mills" - to get to the quaint, middle-class-friendly stuff?) Now, most of the above are totally fine in their own context (I LOVE cricket, for instance) but still, most seemed very alien to me when I was growing up as a fat schoolboy on a council estate in Newcastle in the 1960s and 70s.

Some writers - I'm thinking mainly of Simon Sharma in A History of Britain and Andrew Marr in The Modern History of Britain - have attempted to address this challenging dichotemy but, the very fact that the word "Britain" is prominent in the titles of both of those works says much. We cannot divorce ourselves from the rest of the British Isles - however much some of us would like to - because, quite simply, they are us and we are they ... and we are all together, goo-goo-goo-joob. When Terry Collier delivers his famous rant in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? about never being able to stand the Irish or the Welsh "and the Scots are worse than the Koreans" it is comedy pointed, wholly, at the insularity and small-minded nature of the Little Englander. The rest of the world (right up to, and including, "the people who live next door" whom Terry also can't stand and who provide the joke's punchline) can be divided into neat little boxes. I'm presuming Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais implicitly understood that a sizeable chunk of the viewing audience would be laughing not at Terry but with him and that, in and of itself, is part of the joke.

Let me ask this question: The average person - an average working, tax-paying, TV viewing, newspaper reading, CD listening, we're-going-on-holiday-to-Fuetreventura-this-year man or woman - in, let's say Newcastle, or Liverpool or Sheffield, to use two other fine Northern cities. Does that average Northern person have more in common with the average man or woman in London or the average man or woman in Glasgow? I would suggest the latter, no question - we share a similar history of industrialisation, a similar sense of humour, similar traditions, similar - predominantly working class - forms of identity and social interaction, similar tastes for beer and football, or whatever. That kind of destroys the idea that a format for being "English" can be written down as a set of shared ideals for all of The English, when a good half of them have much more in common with our Celtic neighbours to the North or the West than we do with other Englishmen.

So how DOES one define "Englishness"? The major influence on almost all of our pop groups - and, indeed, the vast majority of our post-war films, television, literature and other media - are just about exclusively American; our railways and most of our major cities were built by the sweat of Irish immigrants; our Patron Saint was Turkish and we've got a monarchy that's mostly German with a bit of Greek thrown in. I dislike the wretched bellowing yobs who've already tarred one of our great national games and who are in danger of tarring the other as much as the next man but, in all seriousness, are they any less of an example of "Englishness", whatever that is, than some haughty red-coated huntsmen from the Countryside Alliance singing 'Jerusalem' on Songs of Praise? It was, after all, the scum of the back streets and the sewers of London and other British cities (not exclusively English, please note) that won the battles of Cressy, Agincourt and Waterloo, that drowned in the mud of Passchendaele and drove the tanks through the desert of El Alamain and the carnage of Monte Cassino.

I imagine yer average skinhead numbskull, his tattooed knuckles scraping the concrete as he chants another drunken chorus of "Come and Have a Go if y'think yer Hard Enough" at some helpless Belgian shopkeeper or Portugeuse barman or Italian waiter genuinely believes he's following in the gloriously violent footsteps of the soldiers whom Henry V called his band of brothers. (It's noticeable, of course, that when they all went home, Prince Harry didn't seem overly keen on having any of them round his gaff for tea and crumpets. I'll give his 21st Century namesake that much - at least he seemed to remember who his mates were once he got out of Afghanistan.) In short, are the teenage hoodies and pikeys and chavs who drink their alcopops on our streets and seem intent on stabbing each other to death with such abandon any less of an example of "Englishness", per se, than Hugh Grant and Keira Knightley sipping tea on the manicured lawns of Thomas Hardy's Wessex?

I've always thought of "Englishness" as being more of a casual ethnic tag rather than a national identity in and of itself. What was it Benjamin Zephaniah said? "Me come from afar but me live here/And all me want is an equal share." Rite on, brother.

On a, slightly, linked subject I'm putting up an extended version of one of my Top Telly Tips for tonite. Because, it's something I feel rather strongly about. You might've noticed. Comments are welcome, as always. Especially from the lady herself if she happens to stumble across this whilst scouring the Internet for unkind comments about her daughter's girth.

The Duchess in Hull – 9:00 ITV

Quite possibly the most single offensive show on television this year as Sarah Ferguson moves into a council estate on Humberside ("errr, nerrr") to help (I say “help”) the Sargersons - a family of overweight smokers. Or, since this is Hull, smirkers. It’s not just the crassly smug and self-delighted nature of the pre-publicity blurb for this show or the fact that the highlight (I say “highlight”) of the Duchess in question’s previous TV career being It’s a Royal Knockout, but rather a comment she made about her hosts last week: “Tonia [the mother] and I have identical views on certain issues, but we're not the same. I come from a privileged background and have been educated.” Because, of course, nobody who crawled from the primal sludge of a council house ever progressed beyond finger painting, did they Fergie? Sorry, remind me again how many O Levels you and Diana managed to get between you? It's 2008 - this used to be a free country, these days you can't even have a cigarette or a bacon sarnie without some member of the bloody royal family coming around your gaff and telling you to cut it out. But, what I really object to most is the fact that I spent several years my life watching my taxes - and everybody elses, for that matter - being used to subsidise the Duchess of York's lifestyle via the Civil List. A lifestyle which let us remember seemed to consist largely of her going on skiing holidays every other week between 1987 and 1992. Why anybody with an ounce of self-dignity or pride in themselves or their identity would want to watch this abomination - for either entertainment or information, the two things which television is supposed to be there for - is completely beyond me. But some readers may like to give it a go. For novelty - or, indeed, car-crash - value if nothing else. If you do tune-in then please let me know what it was like because I, myself, won't be watching it. I'll be over on Channel 4 checking out tonight's Team Team Special. Because like, I'm from a council estate, me, and as a consequence, am as ignorant as pigs shit. According to royalty, no less. If I watch enough TV I might, therefore, learn something from it - like wot my betters with their education and their privilege have. And she was crap in that episode of Friends as well.

I must remember to post-angry more often.

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