What do the English think of Englishness?

Graham Cunningham asks why Englishness has failed to garner its own version of the self-flattering national mythology of so many other nations

Artillery Row

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality – George Orwell

England and the English: how best to characterise them? Well: theirs is a land of poets and dreamers; a land of fiercely independent gritty people who know how to take their drink and dance a jig. And you just can’t help but love to hear them sing. Then there’s the food of course – the marvellous food. And so sexy; with that famous dress sense, such gorgeous specimens of masculinity and femininity the English are overall.

Why has Englishness failed to garner its own version of the self-flattering national mythology of so many other nations?

If all – or any – of the above was passed through some AI software it would grunt out “Does not compute, does not compute!”  Why is this so? If the English are pricked, do they not bleed? When they party do they not dance and sing…and cook great meals? Do they not compete on reciprocally equal terms with Irish, Italians, French and Americans in the international romantic bonding market? Why, in short, has Englishness failed to garner its own version of the self-flattering national mythology of so many other nations? The answers are, like most conundrums, probably many and various.

Part of the answer may be a certain naivety, in earlier times, about nation-scale PR. Did this arise from a low national self-esteem count or, contrariwise, an aristocratic disdain for self display? Perhaps both. Either way, self-deprecation is a gambit all too likely to backfire. It’s the sort of thing foreigners might associate with the boy or girl they used to bully at school. And as every shy teenager comes to ruefully note, a bit of bravado gets you places that self-effacement doesn’t. Then there’s the faintly annoying do-gooder undertones of support for the underdog. None of it is the stuff of which Mel Gibson movies are made.

Another part of the answer: has the proximity on these small crowded islands of Scotland, Ireland and Wales – each with a romantic David-versus-Goliath story – been to the detriment of the image of England? Whilst the three nations have, in many ways, rubbed along pretty well with their big over-fed neighbour, historic grievances have been distilled and aged to a fine brew that when imbibed can arouse bile towards those English with their infuriating obliviousness to the rigours of life on its Celtic fringes. English as an ethnicity is of course awash with Welsh, Scots and Irish genes (much more so than in the reverse direction) but the Englishness part of Britishness has remained but a blank canvass splashed with vivid graffiti of Celtic myth. And in our time of course victimhood walks on stilts.

Some Englandologists see this as something that is now changing in the wake of fractious intra-UK divergences over Brexit and Devolution. According to Englishness: the Political Force Transforming Britain, an impressively researched new book, ironically written by Scots and Welsh academics, the English are now, belatedly, embarking of a kind of DIY assertiveness training. Nevertheless there have been few nations in the Western world so inclined to romanticise the national traits of others at the expense of their own.

From whence anyway does a nation’s self-image arise? In modern times it is probably fair to say that it arises primarily from certain sections of its middle class; from journalists, artists, academics and celebrities. Whilst it is inherent in any country’s news media to hone in on the downside of anything and everything, the English chattering class is unique in the degree of it disdain for the patriotic. With say Deutsche Welle or Le Monde or even (until very recently) The New York Times one senses an underlying protectiveness towards the national brand. This is something quite absent in the attack-dog culture of our London-based media.

Every nation’s middle class is sub-divided into upper and lower strata but this divide is particularly stark in the famously class ridden Nation of England. (The public-school educated English upper middle class is so subtly snobbish that they even pronounce place names different from their lower middle class neighbours.) And amongst this upper middle class a kind of anti-patriotism has perhaps always been latent. Some say it goes all the way back to 1066 and the establishment of a French-identifying Norman aristocracy on English soil.

In the halcyon days when this upper crust ruled the waves, they seem to have had a strange superiority/inferiority complex. Plenty of looking down noses at the rest of the world combined with a sense that culture and romance was something that mostly occurred south of Dover. There is though (or there used to be) a grudging respect for them in foreign parts – these stiff upper lipped, receding-chinned, phlegmatic, pasty-faced b*****ds; these seafaring, colonising anti-heroes who have so disproportionately altered the face of the planet. At its very best they gave the world an image of the Englishman as Churchillian. And in their post colonial phase they are arguably, on the whole, the most peaceable, law-abiding, non-rioting, tax-paying and tolerant citizens that humanity has known at any time in its history. So what if they are – in certain abstract ways – full of crap.

The same could be said, only more so, of England’s much more numerous lower middle class; its petite bourgeoisie. They are the great missing centrepiece of the Bayeux tapestry of Englishness. It is they who, in the early to mid 20th century, when mass-mediated national stereotypes were first being projected worldwide, perhaps took self-effacement to an extreme; seeing this as merely what good manners dictated. In my young days in the ‘60s this lower middle class, white-collar stock was perhaps England’s model of decency and sobriety. Most would have missed out on a university or polytechnic education and so missed out too on The System needing to be smashed and vengeance needing to be wreaked on trade union picket line crossers etc. These were people bored quite quickly by political opinions – including even their own – and least prone to fashionable dysphorias. But they weren’t the kind to become television producers.

Suburban Man of early English TV sitcom is the one no sane woman would fall for; Suburban Woman the harassed one with lingering thoughts of the Spaniard or Frenchman she fantasised about on holiday. The Celtic fringe neighbours, whilst also getting the mick taken, fared much better overall. And in America, the suburban equivalent enjoyed a much more celebrated tv pedigree: Mom’s looking pretty at the white picket fence waving off Pa (who is doing “real fine” at the office); meanwhile the baseball-capped paperboy flies by on his bike, taking expert aim at the mailbox.

The aforementioned kind of Englishness did in any case (like so much else) begin to be shredded from the 70s onwards but by then the media pattern book of national stereotypes was hard copy. I am probably not alone in my nostalgia for its unsung, almost apologetic kind of self belief; the kind portrayed in Orwell’s England Your England. I feel it particularly when shuffling disconsolately along behind my wife, feet dragging, long face, past seeming mile after mile of retail units selling every conceivable thing that the heart does not desire. I dream of me in my Saturday overalls, toolkit in hand, ready to mend the old vacuum cleaner. Forays into the deepest recesses of the larder to use up out-of-date-stamp tins of beans. Putting on an extra thick woolly jumper instead of air conditioning the whole street. Taking my recession medicine like a man – Luxury!

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher – lower middle class shopkeeper extraordinaire – almost managed single-handedly to recast the English brand, synthesising, as she did, a stiff upper lip with a down-to-earthness with none of this wishy-washy self-deprecation. True to form, the London-based media did their utmost to trash her of course. It is a tragic irony then that – quite antithetical to her own personal instincts – she unwittingly presided over the emergence of a new middle class subset: a loads-a-money professional class cruising on such cheap GNP gas that they could easily afford additional luxuries like liberal guilt-tripping and moral tourism. And mixed in with this new elite was a kind for whom being part of an elite is not enough; they also want to taste the fruit of oppression and so, when drunk at elite parties, will bang on about their working class roots.

The 21st century remnants of my English lower middle class idyll still go relatively unnoticed at home or abroad

Economic theorists have attributed Britain’s relatively poor performance in capitalising on its early prowess as an exporter of manufactured goods to an unconscious alliance of a lordly aristocracy, their sniffily servile menials and their Luddite peasantry all ranged against those petite bourgeois upward-strivers in ‘trade’. George Orwell identified a similar tendency in the English literary tradition – nobody wanted to write about the business of business. Has something analogous been at play in the export of Englishness as a brand? The English constituency that, in former times, would have holidayed in Great Yarmouth or Blackpool are, in the age of cheap air travel, now often seen to have exported an image of us as an ungainly kind of sun-worshiper. Not so long ago an unholy alliance of drunken pot-bellied football fandom and faux shock horror journalism exported a degraded version of English patriotism made all the more cringingly pathetic by being combined with routine failure on the pitch. Meanwhile the (still primarily public school) media class just can’t wait for their annual sojourn in Provence or Tuscany. The 21st century remnants of my English lower middle class idyll still go relatively unnoticed at home or abroad. They will be amongst those least likely to try to get on a phone-in or reality tv show.

They do things better in France: so said Laurence Sterne. And yet…and yet: radiating out from the centre of London and other great English cities is a tapestry of streets and avenues, semi detached and terraced – front garden, back garden – the archetype home of that unsung English lower middle class. An empiricist’s tale of two cities: central Paris, perhaps rightly, has a far higher international standing than London as the quintessential European city. But compare the two as megacities – Greater Paris and Greater London – and the ranking is radically reversed: you have, respectively, perhaps the ugliest and almost certainly the least ugly European metropolis. But anyone who is anyone in the English establishment can still be guaranteed to wax lyrical on the virtues of anything Gallic or Mediterranean or Celtic whilst their own culture evinces merely a wince which – thanks in large measure to the outsize international clout of the BBC – they have managed to export around the globe as the correct way to view the unenviable condition of being English.

But anyway let’s not get into stereotypes!

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