The Shame of Being English

My most recent trip to the cinema proved unexpectedly depressing.

The popcorn was disappointing, though it always is in Britain.  They do not seem to believe in freshly popped and insist on offering a Sweet as well as Salty variety.  The only reason popcorn should ever be sweet is if it has been coated in caramel/toffee!  Don’t get me wrong, I still buy a bag every time and eat it greedily but it always leaves me cold…largely because it is cold.  It should be an arrestable offense to serve popcorn cold.

The film was grim but I expected it to be.  The depressing part occurred before the film even started.  It came in the form of a humble advertisement.

My reasons for finding this depressing will no doubt puzzle some of you—certainly the Americans will be baffled by my dark view of this seemingly harmless promotion of British holidays.  Countries do it all the time—particularly nations such as Britain which rely upon tourism.  We see it all the time: Come to California and, says Betty White, “You’ll see how we roll”.  So why should a charming foursome of British luvvies trying to convince their own to invest in regional tourism send me into a spiral of gloom?  Because it’s just so damned unnatural!  Brits don’t advertise!

The British people—specifically, particularly and especially the English—are incapable of self promotion.  Maybe it’s culture, maybe it’s genetics—who knows.  They do not publicise themselves.  Not as individuals and not as a collective.  They do not brag, they do not boast they do not big themselves up in any fashion.  How any of them ever get promotions, land a date or win elections is beyond me.  No wonder the tourist board hired talented actors—no normal English person could have kept a straight face whilst convincing the world how joyful it is to surf in Bridlington.

The English do not even celebrate their own holiday of national pride.  The Scottish feast for Burns Night every year and declare St Andrew’s Day a Bank Holiday (which means everyone gets the day off—rather like Memorial Day) every 30th November.  St Patrick’s Day a national holiday in Ireland.  The Welsh celebrate St David’s Day to a lesser extent on 1st March.  But St George’s Day on the 23rd of April?  Barely a whisper of red crossed flags mark the day of National English pride.  Those who do celebrate are often branded as racist or ridiculous.  The English tend to associate patriotism with football hooligans and posh talking toffs.  Imagine having no fireworks displays or flags waving in early July.

The English do not even identify themselves as English.  They refer to their nationality as British but never English—never, ever English.  Why?  One might assume they are ashamed of their Englishness.  Ashamed to be English?  Ashamed to be the ancestors of a people who once conquered half the planet, gave us Shakespeare, Darwin and the Beatles, built the Industrial Revolution, developed the most successful language in history and taught the world adding milk to their tea made it better?  Why on earth would anyone be ashamed to be a part of that?

The answer lies partially in the English character.  The sin of Pride is truly treated as a sin here.  The most popular and loved English celebrities are invariably humble ones like Hugh Grant, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson who stammer and blush and mumble their undeserved gratitude for the small accolades which come their way for reasons they do not understand.  Self-effacing, self-mocking, self-deprecating—that is the English.  Self-aggrandising?  Not a chance!

A more thorough answer can be found in the current climate of culture.  Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland.  Scottish identity and pride is clear from the sounds of their voices, their shameless kilt wearing and their regular attempts to break from Britain and form a separate Parliament.  Welsh pride as well is on the rise in the form of a renewed interest in speaking, promoting and using the native Welsh language.  Both Scotland and Wales have a kind of defiant tribalism England lacks.

England at the start of the twenty-first century suffers from an identity crisis brought on from a dramatic change in national circumstance.  One hundred years ago Britain was still an Empire.  In the early part of the twentieth century this Empire dwindled little by little.  The sun sets all the time on the British Empire now…in fact most days it does not bother to even get out of bed.  Imagine a nation of people whose identity came from their cultural, political and economic supremacy for four hundred years lose it all in the space of a few generations.  That very absence of British supremacy—and by British in this case I really mean English—has bolstered the sense of self for Scotland and Wales.  Not so for England.

England does not know who she is.  She will not align herself fully with Europe because she does not quite feel European.  She is too far away culturally and geographically from the US to truly feel like she belongs there either.  Meanwhile people from around the world arrive at her doorstop and integrate themselves into her home causing more confusion.

England will find it difficult to avoid promoting herself this year.  In less than five months this same country plays host to the world as it comes to London for the 2012 Olympics.  Everywhere I went in London this past weekend I observed evidence of preparations.  When I speak to English friends and colleagues about The Olympics they reluctantly agree that “Yes, I suppose this will be a rather large event won’t it?”  Some of them hope to attend events.  Most of them hope to keep their heads down until the whole thing goes away.  No wonder the tourist board hired actors.

I find this all rather depressing.  I want England to stand up and up and take a good look in the mirror.  You are not the country you once were it is true.  But your bones are strong, your eyes are bright and your mouth is full of possibility.  The world admires you—why can’t you see what they do?

 


 

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12 thoughts on “The Shame of Being English

  1. I agree with you overall. I know I’m conflicted about patriotic display because it feels like it has been appropriated by EDL/BNP thugs, tainted with xenophobia. I’d like to celebrate England (and the rest of the UK) because there are so many things I love. Countryside that’s as beautiful as any you could see, anywhere in the world. An incredibly rich literary, artistic and musical heritage. Overall, despite the above-mentioned thugs, a tolerant and inclusive society.
    That advert is just cringey though. Who is it aimed at? It seems to be peddling cliches which surely won’t appeal to Brits – just saying, stay here because silly old ‘abroad’ is a bit rubbish, is hardly a winning argument.

  2. “no normal English person could have kept a straight face whilst convincing the world how joyful it is to surf in Bridlington.”
    That made me laugh out loud – Yes!

    That’s just *such* a terrible advert. It’s so negative, and small minded, and patronising,and unadventurous (“It’s just not worth it” as they race to pack for the airport. Ugh.). If they wanted to be inspiring, where was the stirring music and sweeping aerial shots, like in the Visit Scotland ads? Feh.

    But as to your wider argument … Yes, nationalistic pride has a very bad name in English Liberal Middle Class culture. It’s considered right-wing, working-class and a bit stupid (“Ashamed to be the ancestors [descendents?] of a people who once conquered half the planet” . . . Uh, actually that’s generally considered a Bad Thing in liberal circles). Why should we be proud of our imperial history, we ask ourselves, when it’s always getting cited as the cause of current evils (corruption/ethnic violence/poverty) across Africa, Asia, etc?

    Welsh and Scots nationalism is based squarely on hating the oppressive English. The whole of South America is closing ranks against us over the Falklands. We are the bad guys, we’re told. DOES the world admire us, as you say? I can’t remember ever receiving that impression – mine is that the world dislikes us. In US movies the “English” (RP, middle class) accent is openly associated with villainy.

    The only things the English consistently say they’re proud of is Shakespeare and the countryside. That’s it. Hey, at least nobody can blame the Lake District for global cultural oppression.

  3. Very fair points as to the Imperial England issue…no one wants to be reminded of their oppressive past. Americans manage to live their lives with very short memories which I think is both a strength and a weakness.

    I stand by my assertion that the world admires you. America certainly does even though we cast our bad guys as British–you will notice that the bad guys we cast as British as almost always more clever, more cultured and more interesting than the square jawed hero who defeats them. The truth is Americans feel inferior to the English…always have always will…and we resent that just as much as I believe the Brits resent America for its success and infantile use of power. We believe completely that you are smarter, more cultured, more adult, have a longer history etc etc.

    I do not think America is alone in this. Harry Potter alone has made Britain internationally popular–add the Royals to that (yes, I know you all resent them but like it or not they are part of you) and the mystique of England is strong in the human imagination.

  4. Found this really interesting to read! As a liberal, middle-class Brit I feel I’m one of the main perpetrators.

    Unless it was buried deep in my subconscious by generations of Brits before me however, I can’t see our imperialistic roots being the cause of my shame. My shuffling, apologetic gait around people and countries I don’t know well must come from somewhere, but I don’t think it’s there.

    From past experience acting, working and interviewing for various things, there certainly is a huge wall to climb past when it comes to self-promotion, and it remains a mystery to me. I think as a nation we’re very self-conscious, and far too damn polite. We’d hate to impose on anyone – and when you’ve been surrounded by other Brits living by the same nervous codes for your entire life, it leaves you with somewhat of a complex.

    I think we need to be more like the Buddhists, and embrace our quieter existence instead of worrying about it. Or more like the Americans, and speak out without giving a damn!

  5. I am not sure past Imperialism is where the self-effacing nature of the English comes from but I do think it is part of the reason why no one I know identifies themselves as English. I think there is a sense of shame there lingering from that not very distant past. Perhaps like America you do just need to say that was then live in the now, you dweebs. But from my observations it is not in the nature of the English to forget. Ya’ll gots history imprinted on your DNA. History is in your blood. You don’t work through it quickly. It’s part of what makes you a nation of adults as opposed to the nation of teenagers I hail from.

  6. I blame the tories for this AD. Remember C´s comment about the Olympics being held in the greatest city/country in the world? Last summer I recall. Very embarrassing the English said. Your normal English would probably think though it but NEVER boast it out loud. More likely it would be presented in a low voice sarcastic comment. Possibly at the local pub but never publicly. :-)
    I am really enjoying your blog Kate. Being married to an Englishman reading your observations is quite satisfying.

  7. I am proud of being english tainted with slight embarrasment also. I speak no foreign language and feel ashamed of that lack. Its as if we are so superior that everyone should be able to communicate with us. Talking louder really isn’t communicating. But the sense of national pride I feel when walking/driving through the countryside is sometimes overwhelming.I am proud of my ancient heritage but saddened by the loss of it, our folk stories and music are slipping away from us.globalisation is killing our past the one thing we have to hold on to and all we are left with is tourism. I guess the best way to describe my inarticulate thought procees is to quote a line of a Show of Hands song, “its my flag too and I want it back”. And boy do I want it back.

    • Well said! I feel the same way about America often. I admit with (as you said) slight embarrassment that patriotism for my country runs deep. I get very misty eyed when I hear God Bless America and This Land is Your Land (I know…nearly as bad as my Lionel Ritchie adoration). But it is (as you also said) tainted. I feel like the definition of my country has been co-opted by people who want American to mean something similar to the South Parkian World Police idea of America, but without the irony. I love the Show of Hands quote, but something that comes back to me over and over again when I think how profoundly America has lost its sense of self is a quote from Bill Clinton (or more likely from one of his speech writers): “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be solved by what is right with America.” May the same be true of all of us.

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  10. I think part of the lack of English pride is that there’s no real ‘English’. We have been invaded so many times; each new set of settlers has brought a different culture, which has mixed with the one already there to create a new way of life. The cumulative effect is that ‘English’ is just a mix-up of Roman, Saxon, Viking, French and whoever else.

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