For Harry, England, and a severely underdeveloped national identity: Why I won’t be celebrating St George’s DayPosted: April 14, 2012
Whilst getting ready to have my fingerprints taken by U.S. Immigration yesterday, I listened to an episode of ‘Objective‘. For those not in the know, ‘Objective’ is a radio program in which comedian Richard Herring deconstructs seemingly objectionable symbols to see if they can be recovered for normal people – this particular episode was about the English Flag, and its use by far right groups. Whilst I was listening to it, I realized that April the 23rd will be the first Saint George’s day I will spend outside of England, and that I don’t especially care. This isn’t because I’m a super Anti-nationalist; the English national day – the Anglo-Saxon equivalent to Saint Patrick’s day – is generally ignored by the people it apparently celebrates. Those who take part in English Celebrations generally can’t explain what it is their celebrating other than that ineffable entity “Englishness”, talking about “Fairness” which apparently no culture ever has thought of, queuing, which is less of a value and more of a serving requirement, and “Tradition” which will always involve talking about the Monarchy as though being born into a rich family and reading what the prime Minister has written for you every October is either an achievement or something the whole nation is involved in. The idea of these things as uniquely English has never really stood up against any outside scrutiny that I’m aware of; for example, my American wife continually makes fun of the fact that a Pringles campaign of “Great British Flavors” features “Salt & Pepper” as though that particular combination of rare spices is and has always been enjoyed by the inhabitants of one small European island. The fact of the matter is that the English, unlike any other nationality on earth, seem to have no idea what they’re about.
My general experience of how English people are supposed to see themselves is calm, collected and grown up enough to not have to bother with flights of nationalistic fancy, viewing other nations who do partake in flag waving and cultural celebrations as somewhat petty, as we – the English – are the most accepting, most tolerant group of people in the world, demonstrated by the fact that we have annexed three other countries and then, taught the world how to build trains and play cricket before resigning ourselves to allowing all the other childish nations of the earth their special day to let them think, if just for one day, that they’re nearly as good as us. A strangely arrogant impression of the world expressed probably most vehemently by the mediocre historianesqe TV personality, David Starkey, and explained correctly by the significantly more competent actual historian, Michel Fry.
This attitude is ingrained in my parents’ generation and almost certainly in my grandparents’, and is so probably because of the empire. Unlike America, or France or any nation on earth you care to name, English culture as we know it today grew up as that of the primary nation on earth. From 1763 to at least the middle of the 1920s the British state was the most powerful, most domineering and most successful world power, which meant we didn’t have to define ourselves as we were the benchmark against which all other nations where judged. Shakespeare is apparently the greatest playwright In the world, Anglo-Saxon common law is supposedly the best legal system and the Germanic Latin pyratical dialect people began speaking in the East Anglia marshes fifteen hundred years ago is the world’s most widely spoken language. Our ancestors did such an amazing job of creating the world in our image, we, their decedents, have been left with a somewhat vestigial idea of who exactly we are. When I looked up the rest of the flavors Pringles were offering as “Great British Flavors,” I found out the other three are “Smoky Bacon,” “Curry,” and “Kebab.” Bacon as a food is incredibly universal within the western world and if I had to pick a country for it to specifically belong to it would probably think of America or Germany as more into pork than the English. Curry and Kebabs begin touted as ‘English’ or ‘British’ is obviously strange to an outsider but to an English person, just obvious. Both these dishes are as much part of the English way of life as Sunday roasts, and definitely more so than the Queen, or the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, or any other silly thing we’re supposed to think of when we say “England.” These things haven’t simply been appropriated, they’ve been altered into wholly new things – Chicken Tikka Masala as most westerners would know it was invented to cater to the English, and the Donner Kebab is almost certainly the most popular drunk food in Britain today, just as Dried fruit is the staple of an English christmas because it’s way people in the middle east preserve food. Not to mention the fact that Saint George was a Palestinian who fought for the Roman Empire and is celebrated as patron saint of, amongst others, Georgia, Egypt, Catalonia, Greece, India, Palestine, Ukraine, Beirut, Rio de Janero, Moscow, Qormi and Serbia. In many ways, I feel the way Four flavors Pringles uses “British” sums up what English culture has become: Half universal, half piratical.
Not to suggest that English culture is somehow a multicultural paradise in which we’ve learnt the lessons of Empire and managed to balance the mingling of cultures with the respect they all deserve though I’m sure a lot of people In England would like to think that. The lack of what can be tangibly be called ‘English’ apart from killing Welsh people and drinking room temperature ale didn’t used to matter because we were what everyone else has to accommodate themselves for; but now, in the post colonial world it’s meant that unlike almost every other country In the world – who had to define themselves to become countries – any overt nationalistic feelings we have are necessarily reactive. A case in point would be the English Democrats who include in their Mission statement:
“The English Democrats believe in standing up for what made England great. We believe that by putting our people first and by making sure that England is more than just a cash cow for other parts of the UK and Europe, we can once again by the country which is the envy of the world.”
I sympathise with the goal of the English Democrats – that being to devolve power to the English in the same way it has been to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish – but I still don’t understand what they see as the core of Englishness beyond not being Celtic or French and that we used to run the world; these things in themselves are trappings of the English Aristocracy and they are the ones who can point to India, South Africa, Canada and Australia and say their ancestors had a role in creating what those countries are today. For the Majority of English people, our identity has been shaped by our industrial instead of our imperialist past and with both gone the English are unique in other post imperialist, post industrial European nations by having nothing else we can truly call our own. We have no alternative to the Bagpipes, or Kilts, which is probably why we’re all so bitter about Scottish Nationalism – at least their nationalist movement is a positive one.
I won’t be celebrating St George’s Day on the 23rd of April, not just because I’m in another country, or that I’m a right on lefty, or even that I think the holiday’s been taken over particularly by racists or that I necessarily think that England’s day in the sun is over. I won’t be celebrating because I have no idea what a Saint George’s day celebration would entail and I don’t think English nationalists do either. And until they can define to us what it is we should be proud and unified about, The Confused and the reactionary will always be the most prominent voices promoting “English” culture.