On Being English

12 Apr

Patriotism is often an arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles.
– George Jean Nathan

So I’m English. From my point of view that means I’ve been born in a certain region. Nothing much more. I’ve always thought of myself as a person, and those from other countries are simply people too.

In the past I’ve been rather bemused when people from other countries are so proud of their origins, and when they presume that things from their culture or geographical region are good, or even superior, simply by virtue of a link with their country.

This view was adjusted somewhat when I went to Cuba. To see the limits on their freedom of expression, movement and politics, and their low standard of living, I understood just how lucky I was to be born in the UK.

Lucky, but not proud, not patriotic. Patriotism is define as “Love of and devotion to one’s country”; something that seems extreme to me.

I appreciate certain things about my island, namely the people I know, and the shared culture which means I can communicate more easily with my fellow Brits.

I grew up not even knowing the difference between England, Britain and the United Kingdom. The fact that my history education at school was non-existent may have influenced my attitude. Perhaps a sense of what has gone before would have given me a better feeling for the achievements of “Great” Britain and so engendered more of this sense of belonging that those from other countries seem to have. But when I stopped to think about it, calling our island ‘great’ seemed a bit big headed to me. I’ve heard it said that the education of kids in both America and France inculcates them into thinking of their countries as superior, though I’m not sure I would support that approach.

The only place I see a real patriotism in the English is supporting the country in sport, particularly in football. But football passed me by so I never really got into that.

This jingoistic attitude just doesn’t work for me. I enjoy watching tennis and I’ve never supported a person simply because they’re from this island. I cheer on a player because I enjoy their style of play and their on-court demeanour.

This is in direct contrast to other countries. When I went to Croatia their national pride was palpable. Perhaps because they’ve been through a recent struggle for independence they are more protective of their national identity. I’ve seen it argued that since the English have a recent history of world domination, both through the days of the Empire, and due to being key in winning two world wars, we have no need for such pride. Interestingly the prevailing attitude of Germans seems to be similar, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.

So, as a result of noticing this disparity, I’ve been doing a bit of reading around what it is to be English, and I’ll be posting some book reviews over the next few days.

Here are the reviews:

The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg (1/5)

Tickling The English by Dara O Briain (2/5)

The English: A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman (4/5)



8 Responses to “On Being English”

  1. Dan April 13, 2012 at 5:48 am #

    England should be proud to be the birthplace of me

  2. 5i5i April 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    And the next review: Tickling The English by Dara O’Briain: https://unfebuckinglievable.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/tickling-the-english-by-dara-o-briain/

  3. 5i5i April 16, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    And the final review, the best book of all The English by Jeremy Paxman.

  4. Urban Muslim September 1, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

    Interesting. I’ve misunderstood the term Great. I thought, in this context, it is like saying Greater Britain (as in England, Wales and Scotland).

    I grew up believing I was British (taught at school), with an origin of Asian British (important when filling in forms). Perhaps (can’t remember) I always saw the English as being the white people. My parents never talked to me about identity. May be they were too busy working and living.

    Racism use to be an big issue in my life, but this is perhaps a slightly different subject.
    I could be still be a victim of racism regardless of whether I was British or not.
    And nowadays, although it’s rare, I face just as much racism from Asian, Arab and Black people.

    Almost ten years ago, I was a bit surprised when a Scotsman suggested I should be comfortable with the term English. It was funny, since he’s from the other side of the ‘border’, that’s actually how he saw me. And now, as Scotland gains more autonomy, I realize I may need to become comfortable with the term English for myself.

    Perhaps English is defined by what most people in England speak and how they live, as well as (to some extent) national institutions, e.g. the BBC.
    Once, a boy in Egypt asked me to teach him the BBC English – the standard English language (in his mind). He said to me, “Do you speak BBC English. I only want to learn the BBC English”.

    There are exceptions (minorities), but I think to some extent we can safely ignore that, but not deny, and as long as there is an ethos of inclusiveness then it does not really matter.

    Then there is the fact the most people of England are and traditionally were (for a very long time) of white Anglo-Saxon origin. This is what English means to a lot of people around the world, but I think we should not deny anybody of the Asian-Saxon or Anglo-Arab or Anglo-Black categories from being English.
    Of-course not all White Anglo Saxons are 100% identical to each other anyway. And within the Asian-Saxon or Anglo-Arab or Anglo-Black categories there is diversity within diversity.

    There seems to be certain stereotypes out there, such as the English always being on time for appointments and always standing in queue and having a sense of professionalism and being concerned with safety standards. There is even the image of an English ‘gentleman’ (but only heard this once).

    To be honest, I’m still not really clear on this topic. Perhaps it will always be open to discussion and debate.

    Something I’d like to add is that in the USA it seems to be a case of when you become American (nationality wise) then, that’s it…you are 100% American despite the differences (from society’s point of view)! Of-course, in reality there is still a lot of racism, but perhaps that’s another topic. My point is that this contrasts with Europe where there is (or was) a different general view towards minority groups. You have to confirm to a set of narrower boundaries, then we will accept as our own (may be).

    Not sure where England stands with this, but, similar to the USA, I feel there is generally more tolerance and acceptance of differences (and even promotion of diversity). Are things changing (again?)…


  1. Tickling The English by Dara O Briain « unfebuckinglievable - April 14, 2012

    […] The third in a series of posts On Being English. […]

  2. The English: A Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman « unfebuckinglievable - April 16, 2012

    […] The fourth in a series of of posts On Being English. […]

  3. The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman | unfebuckinglievable - February 10, 2014

    […] enjoyed his book about the English people and this book is bigger and better: more in-depth and better […]

  4. The Progressive Patriot by Billy Bragg | unfebuckinglievable - June 9, 2015

    […] Interesting viewpoint on being english, and links to more englishness book reviews. for more reviews of books on being […]

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