UK, Britain & England: the Geography of Class

When I announced to my family and friends I would be moving across “the pond” I was met by a variety of emotional responses.  Most were happy for me but moaned that “London is so far away.”  A few were irritated with me: “How can you leave your country to live in England?”  Some were pleased they would have “someone to stay with in London.”  Apparently “London” and “England” are not only interchangeable, but they are the only places in the UK anyone in the US has ever heard of.

It was very quickly pointed out to me by the natives of this great island, that I was also guilty of getting my terminology and geography wrong.  I kept randomly switching my references to Britain, England and UK.  “You can’t do that,” came the protests.  “They are not the same thing!”  England, Britain and The United Kingdom are indeed three different places, culturally, politically and geographically.

(The author clears her throat, takes out a long pointer, pulls down a map over the whiteboard and addresses the class.)  England (she slaps the pointy end of the stick to the middle of a roughly stretched, s-shaped squiggle on the map) is one country on the island known as Great Britain (she waves the stick around to indicate a wider geographical area).  Great Britain (more stick waving) is made up of England, Wales and Scotland (the author smacks the point again in the middle of the s-shaped squiggle and then taps it in two areas: one to the left and one above the squiggle).  The United Kingdom or (she raises two sets of fingers and makes the international air quote gesture) “UK” is Great Britain plus Northern Ireland (waves the stick again, then slides the stick to a point on the map even further left than before)—that is, England (tap), Wales, (tap) Scotland (tap) and (tap) Northern Ireland. The author holds her long pointer authoritatively in both hands at hip height, confident she has made her point.  Any questions so far?  The class all look at her blankly. 

When I refer to the country I live in I generally say UK because using two letters to identify my location feels right and familiar.  But I refer to the people I consort with daily as British.  I have never actually heard a British native refer to themselves as “English” or say “I live in England.”  On the whole, they identify themselves as British or specify an area of the country: Londoner, Scouser (someone from Liverpool), Geordie (meaning you were born and/or grew up in the area around Newcastle in the extreme North East) etc.  No one, it seems, actually wants to own up to being English—an issue I plan to explore in more depth soon.  When analysing the culture and geography of this country I call home, I will refer to England because, though I have travelled in Wales and soon will travel to Scotland, England is really the only place I can speak about with any confidence.

Like every country, there are definite socio-political implications to the geography of England which involves unfamiliar and perplexing terminology.  This new kid on the block certainly found it confusing when a BBC correspondent identified her location as “The City”.  The city?  Which city?  Don’t you have quite a few cities here?  Of course, there is only one “The City” in England and that is London.  There is such a London-centric approach to life in England that the wider area around London is even referred to as “The Home Counties.”  This encompasses Essex, Kent, Hampshire, Suffolk and other such southern spots I have seldom found reason to visit.

To someone who lived in Mid-Central Illinois (I love that we have to qualify our middleness twice) for nearly fifteen years, this sense of geography feels rather familiar.  Chicago dominates the political, social and cultural landscape of Illinois, though in geographical terms it takes up very little room on the map compared with the rest of the state.  Having met a great number of people from the Chicagoland Area (and it is amazing how far Illinoisans will go to claim Chiciagoland status), they seem to believe the state ends in Joliet and that anything south of that must be either part of Missouri or in some kind of black hole.

In terms of class-consciousness, Britain is the exact opposite of the United States.  The South—and anyone using the term “The South” in Britain really means to say “The South East” to be truly geographically accurate—is regarded as the “posh” part of the country.  The place which people of taste, refinement, money or at least the outward appearance of such, call home.  The level of “poshness” is generally measured by proximity to London, and peters out the further out you go.

In this respect, it is similar, though geographically reverse, to the North Eastern area of the United States, where—in my experience at least—everyone either has or goes to great lengths to radiate the appearance of money, breeding and a level of education superior to the rest of us mere South-Westerly mortals.  While North Eastern Americans peer down from their lofty height on the map, regarding the rest of us as beneath them in every respect, residents of the South of England don’t even deem the North worthy of looking down upon.  They adopt that very British attitude of aggressively ignoring their up-map neighbours.

Meanwhile, Northern Englanders regard Southerners with the same amount of disdain (they would no doubt say more disdain) Southerners traditionally show to anyone who lives above Warwickshire.  It is the same “Dumb Hicks vs. Snobby Yanks” arrangement so familiar in the US.  People from the South of England consider anyone with a Northern accent to be stupid and jokes about sheep are usually involved, while someone from the North would probably retort with the term “Southern Nancy” or just hit them in the face with their pint glass.

Even more interestingly, there is a definite hierarchy of Northerness.  My friend Adam is from Stratford (he attended the same grammar school as Shakespeare—one of his many claims to fame) and he insists until he is blue in the face that Stratford is in The Midlands—the middle of the country. Geographically speaking, he is quite right, but his girlfriend Heather is from Barnsley in Yorkshire and considers anyone who lives below Doncaster to be Southern.  But even Heather was out-Northed while she went to school in Durham…and someone from Durham would be considered a Southerner to someone from Newcastle.

It’s all wonderfully complicated, fascinating, comically bizarre and one of the many things about this country I love so dearly.

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One thought on “UK, Britain & England: the Geography of Class

  1. Actually, Charleston was in east central Illinois, not mid-central….but that’s just a quibble. Part of the desire to identify with the east, probably. Sure didn’t want to identify with Chicago.

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