Friday, May 1, 2009

English Identity Crisis

Last week, here in the UK, there was a national holiday which no one celebrated nationally.

April 23rd was a double whammy of an English holiday: Shakespeare's birthday and St George's Day.

I'm not speaking about the United Kingdom as a whole. Too often, people who don't live in this scepter'd isle, and particularly in the United States, confuse the concept of the United Kingdom with England, alone. Just to clarify things, the official name of this country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 'Great Britain' comprises what was once three separate entities - England, Scotland and Wales. Wales, technically, is a principality, which the English conquered in the 14th Century and tagged the principality onto the Crown as a courtesy title for the eldest son of the reigning monarch, hence Prince Charles being the Prince of Wales. Scotland, always a thorn in the side of the English because it was 'there' in the north and pesky and always sided with the old English enemy (the French) scored a bit of a coup de coincidence when Queen Elizabeth I died, and her closest relative happened to be King James of Scotland. So, since the early 17th Century, the fates of the English have been ever entertwined with the troublesome Scots (hence the name of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, being named Jamestown).

History lesson over.

What has transpired during the past 400 years or so is not so much of an amalgamation of three nations into one entity, but sort of a grudging mesalliance of cultures, with much of the working-aged populations of the lesser two countries of the triumvirate descending at one time or the other on the metropolis of London in search - what else? - of work. The three nations, combined, came to be referenced under the blanket title of 'British.' And although the Welsh and Scots, at various times, have given the nation of Great Britain the odd Prime Minister (Lloyd George and Ramsay McDonald come to mind) and even the Queen Mother (a Scot, for all intents and purposes), they, themselves, have managed to retain their own cultural identities, distinctly different to that of the English.

The Scots wear the kilt - well, the men do and with nothing underneath (commonly referred to as 'going commando'), they have their Highland dances, and in the Highlands in some areas, Gaelic is spoken. In January, they celebrate the birthday of their much-loved poet Robert Burns in an evening of poetry and excessive drink. Such is the popularity of this event that Burns's Nights are celebrated by Scots descendents the world over, from the US to India to the wilds of Tasmania. They celebrate the day of their patron saint, Saint Andrew, every November 30th. They still live by the code of the clan, with each clan having an individual identifying kilt. Religion still plays a part in the lives of the Scots, if only to radge up a street-fighting fever pitch after Glasgow's two soccer teams - the Catholic Celtic and the Protestant Rangers - play each other in a local derby. The Scots even have their own flag: a white cross on a blue background.

The Scots are fiercely Scottish and want 'nae part of the Sassenachs (the English)', and their most vocal proponents are no less than Billy Connolly and Sir Sean Connery (who wants an independent Scotland, lives in an offshore tax haven and wasn't averse to taking a knighthood off the English Queen).

At the moment, it's 1-0 to the Scots because the last two British Prime Ministers have hailed from that part of the country, and whilst the Scots have their own separate Parliament, they can and do sit in the main Parliament in Westminster.

The Welsh, also, have retained their cultural identity and their language. Go to Wales and all the road signs are in English and Welsh. Welsh is widely spoken and is taught in most schools. They're a nation of poets (Dylan Thomas), of bards and minstrels (the late Sir Harry Secombe, Ivor Novello, Shirley Bassey and Sir Tom Jones) and immensely talented (and sexy) dramatic actors (the late Richard Burton and Sir Anthony Hopkins). Their patron saint, Saint David, has March 1st as his holiday.

And they, also, have a separate Parliament, but - yes - can and do sit in the National one.

All this 'separate but equal' (sound familiar?) status is a recent one, bestowed upon these separate but equal entities by the recent Labour government of Tony Blair, after years of fruitless lobbying for devolution by Scotland and Wales. Indeed, Scotland's long had a bit of a Texas moment, in wanting to separate entirely from anything whatsoever to do with England.

And so that leaves the English.

Pity the English, for they no longer know who they are.

In the years since the last vestiges of the old Empire crumbled into the modern and loosely-knit concept of the Commonwealth, their singular national identity has been more than somewhat eroded.

This has happened since the end of the Second World War. They entered that conflict a roaring lion (the Royal symbol), led by a half-American epitome of that most English canine, the bulldog (Winston Churchill). They came out on the other end an exhausted and bankrupt nation, living on rations and edging into socialism, heavily dependent financially on what had been the old colonies, in order to stave off starvation. It was much the situation of a grown child, coming of age, called upon to help a decrepit parent avoid the ravages of senility.

In fact, it was the Second World War which brought the first vestiges of globalisation to Great Britain and, specifically, to England. For many people on the homefront in the UK, they experienced the first direct contact with people from the 'old' New World. The Yanks arrived - overfed, overpaid and over here - and, if they didn't leave with war brides, they left a lot of legacy behind, much of which was bought for the price of a pair of silk stockings.

While this country has always been stringently divided along class lines, after the war, social mobility between the classes became more fluid. Women from middle-class homes, where servants had formerly been the norm, were now doing their own housework. Men who skivvied for paltry pay wanted something better. Churchill, the aristocrat, was dumped as PM in favour of the socialist Clem Atlee. There were jobs on the market that the indigenous English simply didn't want to do.

The labour problem was solved by issuing a call for workers from the poorer parts of the old Empire, and England saw the arrival of its first black residents from the West Indies. In the years following the partition of India and Pakistan and the ensuing home rule there, Hindu and Muslims alike came to work in the northern textile and steel mills. The Irish, north and south, also came looking for work.

Great Britain - and, in particular, England - became a melting pot.

A great many of these immigrants settled, raised families and got 'British' passports. But here's the difference between what happened in England and what happened in that great nation of immigrants, the United States.

We are a nation of immigrants, the only 'real' Americans being those whom we displaced, the indigenous Native American population. Yes, we're a young nation and more times than we would care to remember, the people in social power haven't looked too kindly on those whose racial and ethnic make-up didn't quite fit the accepted norm. And that's reprehensible. But at the end of the day, in this nation of ours, we're all Americans. Yes, we're African-Americans, Italian Americans, Polish Americans, Irish Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans ... but the emphasis is on the last proper adjective American.

We haven't always got along and we still don't. But our cultures have blended. We've borrowed from each other. We eat soul food and jambalaya. Italian cuisine is the norm in homes whose residents don't have a drop of Italian blood. Chinese New Year is celebrated. So is Hannukah and Yom Kippur. We're mutts and our leaders reflect this. In modern times, we've been led by aristocrats (the Roosevelts), jumped up shanty Irish (the Kennedys), crooks (Nixon), farmers (Carter), film stars (Reagan) and the mentally deranged (Bush II). Bill Clinton could claim Native American blood and was a bubba. Now we've got a mutt President who can claim affinity with the African American community as well as being an 8th cousin of Dick Cheney, a relative of Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis and whose Irish blood entitles him to march proudly in any St Patrick's Day parade.

This is us. This is America.

But the English ...

They're still not accustomed to a technicolour view of their country. They still live in black and white - as does a great deal of Europe - when modern society is blazing along in living technicolour. Their leaders preach a religion of multiculturalism, which is unlike any multiculturalism I experienced in growing up in the United States.

They just don't get it.

The immigrants arrived, specifically from the Indian sub-continent. The English encouraged them to keep their own customs and language. They were not encouraged, even in the schools, to adapt to the culture of the new country they'd chosen. Whilst many male immigrants went to work, their wives, all of whom subsequently became citizens, still could not and would not speak English. Whole swathes of schools in certain areas have student populations where English is not spoken in the home. Dress codes in schools have to be adapted to conform with cultural and religious dictates, especially concerning women. The concept of arranged marriage was practiced exclusively - ofttimes, recently, with tragic results. The English social leaders (often policticos and social workers) who advocated this sort of multi-culturalism thought this approach was progressive. It was anything but.

And that's just the Asian community.

Twenty-eight years ago, when I arrived, a bride, in the UK, the English cities of London and Liverpool were alight with race riots, the likes of which I hadn't seen in the US since the late Sixties.

And this is the country who thought to lecture us on racial prejudices.

It's still there, subtly, on both sides of the political divide.

In the late 1990s, the all-white town of Cheltenham in Gloucester, whose inhabitants hail from the pages of John Betjeman's Joan Hunter Dunn and Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster, adamantly rejected the Conservative Party's chosen Central Office candidate, John Taylor, a distinguised lawyer and academic ... because he was black. Take a look around the Cabinet tables of either Blair or Brown ... in the words of one ex-Chairman of the BBC: hideously white.

As if almost to excuse this prejudice and in an almost tacit apology for it, English councils and authorities began to act somewhat strange. For example, Birmingham, the second largest city in England and with a large Asian population, banned the word 'Christmas'. Instead, they celebrate 'Winterval' because Christmas might offend some Muslims. The Red Cross and the Royal Mail have banned any religious depiction on Christmas cards and postage stamps for fear of offence. In an East London council office, everyone must observe the dietary laws of Ramadan in order to appease Muslim employees. That means from the time you arrive at work until the time you leave, no eating and no drinking.

Parliament enacted recently a religious hate crime act, but it only pertains to anyone inciting religious hatred against the Muslim faith. Christians and Jews are fair game - especially Jews. Anti-Semitism is growing apace in England, in particular. It's fashionable amongst the chattering classes of Islington and Hampstead Heath in North London. In a recent election in the Tower Hamlet section of East London, the sitting MP, Oona King, the biracial daughter of Jewish mother and a black father, was pelted with eggs during her campaign, subjected to racist abuse and voted out and supplanted by the ex-Labour now rogue independent candidate George Galloway. In many cases, Galloway, a practicing Catholic, led the verbal charge.

And here's the rub in that: for all a lot of rationalists in the US (and there are many of us and we're growing) look to the United Kingdom as an example of a nation functioning in a post-Christian society ... the United Kingdom is, by dint of its unwritten constitution, a Christian country. Our mutt President isn't wrong when he says the US isn't Christian. We're not. We're not supposed to be. We were founded on secular tenets. But the United Kingdom, in particular, England, is Christian. Protestant Christian. The ruler's specific title is Defender of the Faith. And that faith isn't being defended very well at the moment.

Which leads to another paradox ...

The state church, the Anglican Church (we call them Episcopalian), is a dying entity. Churches are being closed all over the country due to lack of attendance and membership, although the majority of white Anglo-Saxon England identifies itself as Anglican. There are Christian memberships growing - the Catholic Church and the - shock, horror - born-again fundamentalist movement are increasing their flocks by leaps and bounds. And that's scary.

With the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, many economic immigrants from Poland have swelled the population of England. Catholic churches are teeming and Catholic schools over-subscribed. Add to that the Luddite Anglicans who couldn't live and wouldn't live with the idea of female priests, who have joined the ranks of the Catholics, with the convert-in-chief being Tony Blair. And there's a growing fundamentalist movement, with the selfsame belief in home-schooling, Creationism and purity pledges. Don't ask me how this happened, even I have trouble getting my head around that one; but they're growing in number, so there you go.

So, where is the English identity in all this, you ask?

Well, the government of the day has basically subverted it. A lot of this subversion has to do with a quasi-Nazi organisation, the British National Party, the British - or rather, English - version of the Ku Klux Klan, minus the sheets. When I arrived, they were a violent but often ludicrous assortment of ugly, ill-educated an inarticulate skinhead thugs, whose chief pasttime was baiting innocent and defenceless Pakistani immigrants. In the ensuing years, however, they found their David Duke figure - the Cambridge-educated Nick Griffin. Targetting not only the Asian immigrant population, they're now singling out Eastern European immigrants; and they've adopted as their symbol the flag of the English nation: the red cross of St George on a white background, which means that, by extension, the BNP have adopted St George, the patron saint of England.

Not only have they assumed the English flag as their symbol (thus, making it as synonymous with racism as the Confederate flag has become in the States), they've preached their gospel of fear and racial hate amongst the basest element of indigenous English society, uniting them with the leftover dredges of the Colonel Blimps and Hooray-Henry-Nice-but-Dim types frequenting the outer edges of the upper echelon of English society. And they're growing in number too. And that's not nice at all.

On the one hand, I can understand how these drifting souls are attracted to someone like Griffin. He feels their pain. They're adrift in an England that suddenly doesn't seem to be England anymore, or at least, the England of their imagination.

But that's almost laughable, because to me, England never has looked like the England of my imagination. My England, taught to me by an Anglophile English Literature teacher, who'd taught the same to my mother, was the England of green countryside and cottages, hedgerows, Shakespeare, Canterbury Tales (I can still recite the Prologue in Old English), the Wars of the Roses, Henry V ('Cry England for St George and Harry!'), Bolingbroke's speech upon returning from exile, George III tanking, Queen Victoria and Churchill, fair play and sportsmanship and Wimbledon. My idea of England as a child was that if boys grew up to look like a young Paul McCartney, they couldn't be all bad and were worth persuing. It was freedom of speech and the cradle of democracy, with honour enough to instill those ideas in its first colonies in the New World, balls enough to fight the adolescent child trying to burst its colonial parameters to stand alone, and decent enough to know when to let the child go its own way.

Women could vote in England before they could vote in the US, and so they promptly elected a daughter of Virginia as their first woman Member of Parliament. England stood up to Hitler as the last bastion of defence when the French rolled over for a tummy-tickle (and I still say Churchill's gumption came from Jenny Jerome's Manhattan roots). England, simply, did not appease. England fought the fight for the little guy.

This isn't the England I know. The England I know has sprung fully grown, like Athena from Zeus, from the forehead of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher's most famous quote was an observation that 'there is no such thing as society' and the England she created reflects that. It's a slate-gray nation of feckless single mothers who start producing progeny from childhood (this nation has the highest rate of underaged sex and the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe) and move from man to man, living off the state and letting their children run feral. It's a nation of haves and have-nots, where if you've got what you need, you always want more. Thatcher's England is founded on greed. She stripped the country bare of its industry and created the faux industry of Gordon Gekkos and rogue traders who meted out a false impression of wealth and preached the right to home ownership based on excessive debt. (Again, sound familiar?) As long as you were all right, sod the poor bastard made homeless down the street. That's the attitude, exemplified by a 1950s pre-Hollywood Peter Sellers film entitled I'm All Right Jack.

It's a nation where 40,000 people per month are either being downsized or unemployed, where wages are stagnating and prices are rising, yet where a professional soccer team can afford to hire a player on a wage of a million dollars a week and fans will go hungry in order to afford a ticket to spend 90 minutes watching this paragon parade about a pitch. It's the nation who gave our nation the awful concept of reality television, a nation brought to a standstill over the tragically early death from cancer of a reality television star. It's a nation of z-list celebrity, where a talented yet drug-addled singer can be caught on film smoking crack cocaine and the nation relishes in watching her physical decline. It's a nation where a mother drugs a daughter and hides her for weeks with a funny uncle in order to spark a nationwide hunt for her 'kidnapper' as a perverted scam to get money. The nation that gave us Shakespeare also gave us Jonathan Ross. The nation who gave us Noel Coward also gave us Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan, who - as the editor of The Mirror - revelled in a particularly nasty form of anti-Americanism, until he was offered the chance to judge American Idol and to rub shoulders with David Hasselhoff. It's the nation who laughs at our sentimentality and then goes ga-ga over the death of a pretty shallow princess. It's the nation who poked fun at the atrocious display of sentimentality exhibited by Gwyneth Paltrow when she won her Oscar and then gave us the equally atrocious Kate Winslet.

It's a nation where feral youths in hoods stalk the streets with scant respect for property or person, where children are bullied remorselessly, where people are still killed because of the colour of their skin, their religion or their sexual orientation. It's a nation where the people's tax monies help fund the porn addiction of the husband of a government minister. It's a nation with a massive alcoholism problem, which starts in earnest for most people during adolescence. It's a nation whose youth go abroad to fight, not in the armies, but on the beaches on drunken holidays. It's a nation of open rudeness, with a government that shows a singular lack of common sense.

And at the moment, it's a nation quick to blame the US for anything majorly wrong that happens in the world, yet it secretly nurtures an incipient jealousy of the direction in which the US seems to be taking. They're jealous of Obama, that he's ours and that we chose him. The nicest things the populist pundits are admitting is that we're enjoying the euphoria they felt with Blair after 18 years of Tory corruption and sleaze.


But maybe not. And that's down to the difference between our type of representative democracy and their political democracy. We chose our man because he was the best man for the job, not as a gimmick because of the colour of his skin, but because he was what we perceived to be a good leader - and here's the rub: we chose our leader.

Some nations have born leaders, some have politicos who aspire to great leadership and some have leaders foist upon them. England fits into the latter mould. The majority party picks the leader, the Prime Minister, not the people. Tony Blair was chosen by his party and got the nod when that party got a whopping majority. Gordon Brown forced Tony's hand and stepped into the breach.

It's a demoralised nation, looking for reasons to be cheerful.

I think they need a national holiday. Not Christmas or May Day or New Year's, but a truly national day of ENGLISH celebration. Like our Fourth of July, which some English pubs rather pathetically attempt to celebrate here. That, alone, tells me the English are wandering aimlessly in search of a national holiday to call their own. The central government has poo-poohed the idea of celebrating St George's Day, considering the saint and his flag have been snatched by the fringe right. There's always the Fifth of November, Bonfire Night, commemorating Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up Parliament; but again, the government says that would offend Catholics. Of course, April 23rd is also Shakespeare's birthday, and no greater proponent of the English language or literature has ever existed. His phrases are stock components of our everyday expressions. He's known and translated the world over. He fits. Nicely. And celebrating Shakespeare's birthday would tip the nod to someone and something appreciated worldwide about England and of which the English can be proud.

Now all we have to do is get the English to read some Shakespeare and familiarise themselves with the subject whose life they should want to celebrate.

Fingers crossed.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Marion

    Some of us celebrated St George's Day, and do so every year. See my Facebook photographs for a gander at what goes on.

    Perhaps it's part of living somewhere that's a little like the set of Midsomer Murders, but my village celebrates it with gusto, and a proud Scot like myself is happy to join in.

    Coming in from Banbury by bus last week is the only time in the 20 years I've lived locally that I've seen the bus full - of young people coming from town to village to watch morris dancing. So there is one corner of deepest North Oxfordshire that 'tis forever England!

    PS Can't stand Brown, but really don't envy you Obama. Dreams from my Father put paid to that!