I am an Englishwoman, and like many of my nation, I’m a bit of a mongrel — one of my Grandfathers was Maltese. The English excel at assimilating visitors and migrants. We are good at ‘mixed marriages’. I once knew a Englishwoman who’s surname was Ping –not because she was of Chinese origin but because her ancestors were French Huguenot refugees. The standard history of England has the English being the descendants of Anglo Saxon who moved to our island after the Romans left. Not so! Our ancestors have been here for over ten thousand years according to the DNA evidence. We just married those Anglo Saxons and borrowed their language (good at mixed marriages, see).
Being English is sometimes defined in terms of negatives –I’m British, but I’m not Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish. Some ethnic surveys I was asked to complete 20 years ago didn’t include being English , but did include the other British nationalities. Many English customs are strongly aligned to British customs, as a result of England being the dominant country in the Union. Indeed many foreigners fail to see the difference between being English and being British
I’m proud of being English. England is relatively large compared to the other countries of the Union, and there are different flavours of Englishness; London, Home Counties, West Country, Brummie, Liverpudlian/Scouser, Geordie, Yorkshire, Lancastrian….the list goes on. And people do self-identify as these, even if their ethnic origin is from outside England.
Each nationality in Britain has an unofficial National Anthem, and the English use a poem by the radical visionary William Blake. It’s been sort of crowd selected, as it was being sung a sports matches by English team supporters long before those in charge starting using it. Here are the words –its an odd choice really.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
I support the English Cricket team, but a colleague born and raised in the Midlands and who calls himself English supports Pakistan because that was his Father’s team. We both cheer for England in the Ashes matches, because, hey, that’s the set of England versus Australia grudge matches. We are all a bit nervous about celebrating our national day (St George’s Day, April 23rd) for a variety of reasons mostly to do with past right wing politics –although this is beginning to change. We are all proud of the English Eccentric. And many of us hanker to be one, deep in our reticent English hearts…..
So being English is varied, and difficult to explain. What do we have in common?
A certain reticence. We don’t show our feelings very well. We certainly understate things. “I’m in spot of bother” can cover everything from having mislaid your keys, to being bankrupt, or worse. An attitude which means we tend to put up, keep calm and carry on. This is probably why there hasn’t been a civil war since the 1600s. We have a sometimes fierce pride in our homes and gardens. “An Englishman’s home is his castle” still holds true.
But being English is changing. When my then fiancé and I worked in Sicily one summer, we were astonished to find the locals placed flowers next to the roadside to make where a loved one had died. Now this is accepted and ‘the done thing’ here in England. We eat more Chicken Tikka Marsala than we do Fish and Chips. It is now OK for a man to hug his closest friends, when it certainly wasn’t even 20 years ago.
And nobody wears bowler hats to work, honest.