Thursday, November 03, 2005

Elsewhere: Getting In Touch With His Inner Englishman

Elsewhere, Jonny Nexus, noted columnist and satirical writer, is musing on what it means to be English.
Some time past I had a conversation with an Irish friend of mine called Stephen ("eight hundred years!") in which he mentioned something that he found disturbing: that every English person he knew said that they weren't at all proud to be English.
Having been reading his amusing blog for sometime, I reckon we could all help him out. I'll get him some more stuff after I finish work, but in the meantime, go give him a few pointers?

For other entries, I can also recomment this post on the Mi6 website, especially
Because the point about MI6 wasn't that it was secret, because it wasn't - everyone knew it existed. Except that it didn't. Exist that is. If you asked the Foreign Secretary a question about MI6 he would reply that he didn't know what you were talking about. MI6? There was no MI6.

Just a bunch of people like the later Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, who after a career in the Royal Marines and the Special Boat Squadron (the Marine equivalent of the SAS), left the army, to become...

...a diplomat. Working in Geneva..

Yeah, right. Diplomat. Like we all believed that.

5 comments:

helen_of_romford said...

But why be proud of a mere location of birth ? The general assumption of "pride" is usually associated with our history, indeed invariably our military history. I'm not sure on those terms I'm comfortable claiming "kinship" with events that often nowadays are viewed as morally dubious.

However, I do claim a fierce pride. Not in the events of our history, but in what we are. Or more accurately, what we aren't.

We are not, and have never been, culturally homogenous ; despite Enoch Powell's claims of a 1000 years of "english" cultural history. We are in fact an "onion" people. There's celts overlain with anglo-saxons and french, dutch, african and arab. And that all happened before the 18th century.

After that, add practically any culture you want to think of and you'll find them here. Not as a separate group but in a couple of generations asiimilating into the blend, that's our culture. Despite all the aggro with various groups as they settle in, being "english" is the onion. Strip off each layer to try and get to the "english" english and you're left with nothing.

We are a blend. We change immigrants and they change us. And that's the pride, being part of a culture that accepts and absorbs and becomes.

Naive in todays tense world. Maybe. But we are accepting by nature.

MatGB said...

Helen, I pretty much agree completely. Layers upon layers upon layers of people moving in, settling down and becoming part of what we are.

It's the fact that we do that that makes me proud of our heritage.

Also, on the "morally dubious" point, yes, some things in the past that were done in'our' name were terrible. Some were even done for terrible reasons. Doesn't mean we didn't do a lot of good things as well.

Paul (OGR) said...

>>> Strip off each layer to try and get to the "english" english and you're left with nothing.

I'm hoping Helen is joking when she assumes the English have had no discernable role in the fascinating and complex cultural team that makes up the British nation...

The Early English were a remarkable bunch... Advances in representation, law and governance during the Anglo-Saxon period laid the foundation for later achievments... The 10th Century tax system alone was the most advanced on Earth (far more efficient than China's)... Alfred's contribution to this process is well documented...
And there is the superb poetry (Beowulf, Maldon, The Wanderer etc etc)! All of the core elements of the 'English' character are discernable (or emerging) in these works...

I recommend the following as introductions:

Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford History of England) (Paperback)
by F. M. Stenton
The Anglo-Saxon State
James Campbell Published 2001
The Anglo-Saxons - James Campbell (ed) - paperback

As for interesting remark about our military history - judging the past should be based on the morality of the period being studied, or comparison with contemporaries, not on our own transient belief systems... Otherwise we risk falling into the
hypocritical & racist trap of judging existing cultures harshly because they don't accord with our current (fashion led & usually temorary) moral assumptions...

helen_of_romford said...

Oh, I assure you, no joke was intended, but I do think you've got the wrong end of the stick about what I meant.

Of course the english have a role, a huge role but my point was that the question of who the "english" are culturally is actually beside the point. Certainly I contend that we are not, and never have been, a single culture, that we are instead many cultures that cross-fertilize and continually re-create ourselves anew. However, my point is that if englishness has any definition it is that willingness to be culturally heterogenous that has extended over the centuries, to not just assimilate others, but to allow ourselves to be changed in turn, irrespective of our national mythologies. That is the aspect of englishness I celebrate in and take pride over. That is the answer to the question matgb asked.

As for the moral relativism afforded to history, I simply don't agree. Even by the moral standards of the day, some of our official policy in the Imperial era was deliberately reprehensible. Indeed Professor Holmes in his recent TV history on empire pointed out that one major cause of the British Empire's collapse was the divergence of supporting mythologies and official reality.

However that really is a completely different discussion and I've learnt from other boards not to mix and match subjects on threads.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I misunderstood your initial point - I assumed that having nothing 'once you pealed away the layers' meant the Engligh/English made no contribution...
In support of your developed argument - I'd heartily agree that the uniquely English contribution to this process was to actively welcome anyone (or any group) who was happy to join the team...
Weirdly enough, this is one of the positive aspects of our military history... We admire honourable enemies and revel in a defeat where we 'played well' but were out-fought (we employed Gurkhas within a year of fighting them)... Ask any country in the world who they'd prefer to have fight alongside them and the British/English would be high on every list (this must have some value when one considers whether to be proud of one's history!)...
I agree entirely with your point about Imperial/military history including a grim catalogue of unfortunate (and sometime savage) events but it doesn't contradict my criticism... The point Holmes made concerned 'contemporary' criticisms on errors in judgement, he was discussing failures that competant Imperial administrators could have avoided, and thus making a valid criticism (he was not assuming that they ought to have apologised for the Empire and scuttled home)...
If you and I had been born in 1850, we would think like people born in 1850 and have the same chance of doing something 'moral' as anyone who actually lived at the time... This is not moral relativism, it is respecting the ever-changing nature of a culture -thus enabling us to recognises heroic moral decisions when they do occur (anti-piracy, anti-slavery, fighting against tyranny etc etc)...
Imperial or military successes, in their historical context, are STILL successes and are therefore something to be proud of when one recognises all of the processes that form a culture...
After all, how can you explain the presence of descendants of Imperial citizens in the UK to a ignorant racist unless you point out the superb efforts of their ancestors - fighting alongside British troops... The Indian Army in WWI is still the largest volunteer force in history and we should respect them for their selfless assistance in a conflict based upon a 'European' crisis...
The question of 'pride' has often been hijacked by extremists but those who assume that national achievements are made worthless by association also destroy the best weapons they have in the fight against ignorance...
The English often fought on the 'wrong side' but we fought on the 'right side' more often than almost anyone else in the last 500 years - by looking at the political decisions behind our history we might come to understand what makes a powerful country make sacrifices on behalf of others (IE RN vs slavery) and not abrogate international policy to the neo-cons 'realists' who believe in pure national interest...
As you say - its best to leave the discussion there and (if necessary)agree to disagree... Thanks for your excellent & thought-provoking comments...