The English cultural identity is really quite hard to define. We are part of a collective; an assimilation of peoples, cultures, ideas and values. Most immediately, there are many areas where we simply cannot separate English from British. In some cases it helps to be inclusive and to share both the advantages and the blame. Other times we need to look deep within. In this review there will inevitably be some trumpet-blowing, but also some breast-beating and self-criticism. To begin with we need to raise some serious questions about the patron saint of England.
Let’s have a look at the man and what he stood for. He is a romantic legend; that seems fine. Known for coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress by slaying a fierce dragon. Admirable, perhaps. But did the creature really have to die ? In the National Gallery there is a painting by Paolo Uccello showing the dragon on a leash, under the control of the damsel. This rather spoils the heroic tale. In a popular version of the legend, George, let’s dispense with the formalities now, was born in Lydda, Greece, circa 280AD. So he wasn’t even English. Moreover he never even visited England. Problematically, he was a military man, a Christian soldier fighting in the Roman Army. In the Middle Ages. George was regarded as a hero by the Crusaders, with the dragon representing a perceived religious threat. That’s not my kind of heroism or saintliness. William Shakespeare, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale are much better candidates in my eyes.
St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, 1470
Still, we have the flag of St. George. Remarkably similar to the flag of Georgia, and from the name of their country they seem to have a better claim. But there’s no need to quibble. It’s our flag. And like George the man, it has some unhappy associations. Due not least to its having been hijacked by the ultra right-wing British National Party and the English Defence League (a most horrendous misnomer). Nowadays, it’s rarely safe to fly the flag of St. George without fear of being linked with social and political bullies. The only time it’s really acceptable is in the early rounds of the football World Cup, when England are present and when they need all the support they can get. One thing we need to beware of is mob culture. In the Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Peter Acroyd claims “The English mob, screeching and laughing and yelling, is a thing of horror in what we deign to call the civilised world.” This is not a good way to behave.
The Flag of St. George
So, let’s seek out something indisputably positive. We have….
The English language. Diverse, tolerant and all absorbing. By far and away the most wonderfully positive aspect of being English. Quintessentially English, but also a compendium of many foreign influences. The language of international business, even if the French and the Chinese might disagree. The language of Shakespeare, certainly, though in my experience it can be hard to follow the dialogue without scholarly guidance. The language with which you can have most fun with crosswords and wordplay. The authority of the Collins English Dictionary. The stirring novels of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. The poetry of Milton and the comic one-liners of Milton Jones. Simply brilliant. I’m struggling to find any negatives here at all. And here’s just a few of my favourite words : Beach. Connection. Coral. Culture. Declutter. Peppermint. Pistachio. Sand. Story. These words have a diverse background but they are all wonderfully English.
Moving outside, and thinking about the natural environment, we have…
Wonderful seasons, starting with :
Spring. The emergence of green shoots and the hope of great things to come. Tulips, cowslips and marigolds. Carpets of bluebells in the woods. Next, Summer, when it happens. The seasons never quite appear or disappear when they should, nor behave as they should. My favourite summer pleasures include charming coastal resorts in Devon and Dorset, wonderful beaches and a sea that warms up a little around about August. Then there’s Winter, bringing forth an image of purification. Everyone loves to see snow, until it ices up, causes treachery on the roads and turns to slush before it eventually disappears. OK, I missed out Autumn. Autumn can be fun too. But I tend to feel a bit sad when I see the end of summer and the fall of beautifully coloured leaves.
Alliums and Grape Hyacinths in an English Garden
And then we come to the national delights on our plates and in our glasses…
Food. Yes, food. And yes, my French friends, we do have good food. Proper, edible, wholesome food. We do not serve snails or frogs' legs, nor pour oil down the gullets of geese to make paté de foie gras. Haute cuisine indeed. We have fish ‘n’ chips, still the official national take-away, substantial and delicious. We have chicken pie, jacket potatoes, home grown corn on the cob and custard slices. We have cheese on toast, our very own version of pizza. Cheese and tomato toasted sandwiches to rival calzone. For drinks, we have English tea, the finest example being Yorkshire Gold, and the most exquisite sparkling wine from Bruisyard St. Peter. Sadly, there are some negatives to consider, too. The English, but really the British, are a shade over fond of sugar, salt, fat, processed food and alcohol. Thankfully, haggis and deep-fried Mars bars are usually only on the menu north of the border.
Thinking now about social interaction. Let’s have a stab at defining our National Character. What typically sums us up ? We are, well let’s face it, really rather good at…
Humility and self-deprecation. We are prepared to laugh at ourselves. We know that we are rubbish at taking penalties in the World Cup. This really is definitely an English trait. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish rarely make it to the finals of major tournaments, so don’t have to take penalties. But I’m being a trifle harsh on our neighbours.
But wait, did someone just say that English humility is countered by a superiority complex and a hugely inflated sense of self-worth ? Perish the thought !
As an extension of our humility, it has been suggested that the English have…
A sense of fair play, though sometimes this is arrogance in disguise. Fair play is a feature in the game of cricket. Not a sport, but a game. We can be happy that we gave cricket to the world. This showed considerable generosity of spirit. We like to think we set the standard. How to play, how to behave on the field. See what I mean about arrogance ! Still, sometimes we really do have a decent team. Then there’s Patience. We are famous for queuing. It doesn’t always work. There is not always a positive result at the end of a queue. But we do it dutifully. Sometimes smugly, but invariably fairly.
And since we’ve mentioned sport, I can’t resist a mention of Royal Ascot, a wonderful event that takes place every year in June, just up the road from where I live. Known for its grandeur and excess, hats, fashion, gambling and champagne quaffing, Royal Ascot is a thrilling celebratory occasion with Her Majesty’s seal of approval. Yes, the Queen represents Britain and the Commonwealth, but to me she is a neighbour. She lives in Windsor, just a few miles across Windsor Great Park; sometimes a little further afield in Buckingham Palace, London.
The Queen in a delightful shade of pastel pink, Royal Ascot 2014
So, there’s a lot to celebrate. Plus a few false friends to be wary of. Some stunning successes yet some areas where we need to improve. We really should adopt a better role model as a patron saint. Perhaps a new flag too, one that doesn’t remind us of Richard the Lionheart and the crusades. I have left out a lot of history; see my article ‘British to the Core’ for a more scathing approach. Here, I have preferred to cherry pick some of our finest moments and to focus on some of our contemporary areas of genius. Discerning readers may just realize that I am quite happy to be English, but this is only part of the story. I also thrive on connectivity with other cultures, and none of the above matters in isolation.
© Eddie Hewitt 2015
See also my companion piece : "British to the Core"