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?