Discussion:
Is this the key to Englishness?
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Lance
2007-06-15 09:04:55 UTC
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The Angry Island
Hunting the English
by A.A. Gill
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Inc. | Date published: 06/12/2007
ISBN: 9781416545606

Excerpt
1
The Angry Island

Is England like this?"

I looked out of the dusty window at the red earth and the swaying blue
gums. The acacious scrub along a drainage ditch was an equivocal
ribbon of slum that occasionally bulged into a sprawl of shanty
suburb. That unmistakable global vernacular. The architecture of
invisible people. In the distance vines neatly engraved the curves of
rolling hills; all basked under the deep azure sky.

We were driving out of Cape Town. The taxi driver, who had kept up a
desolate monologue for an hour, a well-thumbed and threadbare litany
of homespun irritation, suddenly asked: "Is England like this?" Like
this? No, not really. Not remotely, actually. The question was
laughable. Few places are as precisely not England as the southern tip
of Africa. He was an Afrikaner, a Boer. An old man who bitterly clung
to the bottom rung of his own tribe's hierarchy and was now being
squeezed and threatened by the pressure of these squatter camps and
the turn of history's screw. This was probably the epitome of some
kind of England for him-that other pale tribe who had colonized this
land. The Cape was the heart of English Africa. Ten minutes earlier,
we had passed a memorial to that archetypal Englishman Cecil Rhodes, a
statue of a heroic man on a horse which, weirdly, is a cast of one
called Physical Energy by George Frederic Watts that I walk past on
wet autumn Sundays in Kensington Gardens.

"Well, what is England like, then?" he asked, and the tone was just
the other side of polite tourist's enquiry. I continued to stare out
of the window. I didn't want to get into the unstated current of this
conversation. What is England like? I dipped into the bran tub of
trite and came up with hedges. Hedges and sheep. He snorted. We drove
on in silence.

It's a question that's been tugging my sleeve ever since. What is
England like? I'm a member of that postwar generation who first
grabbed the benefit of cheap and easy international travel. Our
parents went to the seaside, the Lakes and the Dales; we went to the
Balearics, the Cyclades and Kathmandu. And then swiftly leapfrogged
the globe.

We didn't do England, unless it was to visit relatives or go to
school. I can recognize the England in the Cape or in Simla, Hong Kong
and the Costa Brava. Those little deposits of Blighty that are by
turns charming, absurd and embarrassing. But the original, the real
England, I only see occasionally through the dreary window-from the
motorway or train, or on the television. It's familiar from books and
magazines and conversation, but secondhand. A strangely alien place.
It's a shock to realize that I'm more familiar with East Africa than I
am with East Anglia. One of the reasons I've traveled as much as I
have is because of Kipling's rhetorical question: "What should they
know of England who only England know?" but a Boer taxidriver made me
think that I don't actually know England at all. That begs yet another
rhetorical question, how can you truly know where you're going if you
don't really know where you've come from?

* * *

Now, some months later, here I am at the edge of England. This is
where it starts. And if the cloud hadn't crashed, I'd be able to see
some of it. Today the weather has got so fed up and lazy it can't even
be bothered to rain with panache. It's just lying here on its back
being wet. I suspect if you ask most Englishmen where England started,
they'd say Dover. The White Cliffs. Named by the Tourist Board
"Shakespeare's Cliffs." What could be more English than Shakespeare
and chalk?

This is the chalk that the Continent is cheese to. This is the
bastion, the great white wall that separates the "them" from the "us."
This is what has made England first and last. It's an island.
Everything that's English stems from this apartness. Except-point of
order here-England isn't an island, it's half an island. And I'm not
standing at its southern tip, but at its northern end. For me and the
other half of this island, England starts up here, on Hadrian's Wall.
No one ever says Scotland's an island, though it is just as much one
as England is.

Hadrian's Wall is only a great big disappointment if you come to it
without expectations. If you visited it with a completely open mind,
it would be distinctly underwhelming. Possibly one of the most
underwhelming experiences of an unexceptionally uneventful life. It's
a peasant's outward-bound park of signposts.

The English are addicted to public labels. I've never been anywhere
that has such a pressing need to subtitle, footnote and instruct the
particular. Hadrian's Wall's labels draw your attention to things that
aren't there, but might once have been. So we all slither along,
looking at invisible gatehouses, barracks and communal lavatories. It
would be funny if it weren't so damned sheep-shit miserable. But of
course, us natives don't come here without expectations. We have heads
full of them. We can see it all, the Eagle of the Ninth, the
legionaries huddled in their cloaks. We can smell the peaty fires,
hear the centurion bark orders and the cohorts march past-dexter
sinister, dexter sinister. We look north with a weary weather eye,
over the great defensive ditch for signs of the fearsome-painted Scot.
In our collective imagination we understand that this isn't just where
England begins topographically; it's where, for that long rumpty-
tumpty epic, England really kicks off. Hadrian's Wall is the first
page. The start of history. Before the Romans there were some mythical
"them," and after the Romans, it's the beginning of "us." Never mind
that this was actually Italy's garden wall built by Germans and
garrisoned for the most part by poor bloody Belgians, it's England. A
cliff at one end, a wall at the other.

Having their creation myth begin with the Romans has been very
important to the English. It gives them the straight road in the soul
and a birthright of order and rigor. A stoic square jaw, stiff lips,
noble brows, steely eyes, deaf ears, sure hands, beating breasts and
well-planted feet. England's moment as the most distant, nebulous,
unconsidered and unimportant afterthought of a decaying empire allowed
the English to pretend that Latin was their spiritual first language
and put up statues to their great and good dressed in togas. It also
gave them permission to have a classical revival once a century. And,
most important, this little servile touch of the Pax Romana gave them
the model for their own defining achievement, the blessed Empire.
Hadrian's Wall may have been built to keep the Celts out, but now it
keeps the classicisms in.

Just beside the Education Centre and Resources Gift Shop, huddled in
the lee of the wall, is a little refreshment kiosk, a couple of puddle-
white plastic garden chairs and a hatch that dispenses tea, Coca-Cola
and KitKats. Maureen, a lank-haired plumply-pretty schoolgirl, is
bored to rocking distraction by this grisly Saturday job. She's
sitting her exams this summer and her ambition is to travel. The
ubiquitous wish of the young, to be somewhere else. I rather like this
little hole in the wall, it's the most authentically ancient English
thing here. There must have been stalls like this 1,800 years ago and
Maureenish girls dreaming of getting away. There's a sign that
recommends sandwiches made to authentic Roman recipes-well, who could
resist? I ask for a chicken one. Maureen wrinkles her nose and hands
over a polythene-wrapped pocket of pita bread that oozes a vivid
chemically yellow lumpy slime. Anywhere else, it would be Coronation
Chicken with turmeric. At the first bite the seams of the pita burst
and I'm holding a palmful of viscous slurry that plops onto the
ancient Roman paving stones and my mouth's full of a simpering goo.
Vile. Yet somehow evocative. The origin of the bread is Greek, the
mayonnaise French, the spices are Asian, the chicken Indian. But all
together the concept, the construction and the flavor could only be
old England. This is where England really begins, with this
speechlessly polyglot, misbegotten cod-historical sandwich.

I'd better come clean. You may have suspected I don't like the
English. One at a time, I don't mind them. I've loved some of them. A
lot of my friends were born here between the cliff and the wall. It's
their collective persona I can't warm to. The lumpen and louty,
coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd of England. And
although I live here amongst them and have done for virtually all my
life, although I sound like an effete middle-class paragon of them,
I've never been one. Never thought of myself as one. After more than
fifty years of rubbing up against the English, I still resist
assimilation. I don't stick out, but neither do I fit in. My heart
doesn't syncopate to "Land of Hope and Glory." I don't want three
lions on my chest or the cross of St. George on my windscreen. I've
never been moved to bellow the theme from The Great Escape whilst
watching a game. The truth is-and perhaps this is a little unworthy, a
bit shameful-I find England and the English embarrassing.
Fundamentally toe-curlingly embarrassing. And even though I look like
one, sound like one, can imitate the social/mating behavior of one,
I'm not one. I always bridle with irritation when taken for an
Englishman, and fill in those disembarkation cards by pedantically
writing "Scots" in the appropriate box.

I was born and part bred in Edinburgh. When I look out over Hadrian's
Wall I'm looking homeward. I only lived there for a scant year of my
life, of which I remember not a thing. But still it's the place that
raises in me all that sentimental porridgey emotion that England can't
reach. Scotland is the home of my heart. I'd rather have a bouquet of
thistles than roses. Scotland is a country and a people whose defining
characteristic is built on the collective understanding of what
they're not. And what they're not is English. Difference is all
comparative. To be different you have to be different from something,
or someone. The Scots are different and, it goes without saying,
better than the English. But having said that I don't feel English,
neither do I recognize the caricature that the Scots make of the
English to underline their Scottishness. That snobbish, stuck-up, two-
faced, emotionally retarded, dim, foot-in-mouth prat and his good
lady. The truth is, I don't know what it is that makes the English so
dreadfully English. So impervious to fondness, sympathy or attraction.
I've been searching for a national characteristic, or a basket of
characteristics. There is a familiar problem with the English. They
lack a single image, an instantly recognizable mannequin to hang their
character on. It used to be the bowler-hatted, umbrella-wagging civil
servant, but no one under the age of forty has ever seen a bowler hat
worn seriously. There are no universal cultural icons. There's just
tons of culture.

The English are great collectors and curators of culture, perhaps more
than any other people. They love nothing so much as a glass case full
of numbered bits and pieces. But all this stuff deflects rather than
reflects who the English really are. And they're no help themselves.
Ask them what an Englishman is like and they'll probably go, "Well,
um, you know, sort of nature's gentleman." OK, what's the definition
of a gentleman, then? "Um, an Englishman. Not being French." The lack
of a national logo has periodically niggled the English, particularly
at points in their history when cohesion seemed important. The
Victorians spent a lot of energy and pulpit time trying to define
Englishness. They saw that not having memorable brand recognition was
a problem. Everyone else seemed to have a pithy label, a subtitle. The
French of course were vain, the Germans bellicose, the Italians
excitable, the Spanish proud. Americans were optimistic, Orientals
were wily, Arabs were shifty-and then there were a lot of off-the-peg
monikers that could be awarded like Birthday Honours to the lesser
nations of empire, when the need or event demanded. Plucky, valiant,
devoted, loyal, stoic. But what could we say of the English? "Nice
manners"?

So the Victorians set about constructing an idealized Englishman. He
was clever though not intellectual, worldly but shy, moral but not
judgmental and, above all, fair. If the English could award themselves
one attribute it would be fairness-as in sporting, though not
necessarily sporty. Australians could be sporty. Sporting fairness is
an English obsession. You may recognize the composite character that
embodies all these dreary virtues. He is the hero of dozens and dozens
of Edwardian schoolboy novels written by ageing Victorian men. That
prig, who taciturnly plodded and punched his way through hectic
adventures, overcoming foreigners and duplicity. But despite the best
efforts of Englishmen, he remains a fiction. You won't recognize him
in the street, the factory or the pub. Fairness, though, is a
recurring English concern, whether it's embodied in referees, High
Court judges or gunboats. So perhaps it's a good place to start. But
actually I think it's the wrong way round. What the English are
eternally concerned with isn't fairness, it's unfairness. There's a
constant mutter of grievance at the deviousness, mendacity and
untrustworthy nature of the rest of the world that has molded the
bottom half of this island.

Not being able to put your finger on a national character doesn't mean
it doesn't exist, and the thing that seems impermeably English is, in
fact, anger. Collectively and individually, the English are angry
about something. The pursed lip and the muttered expletives, the
furious glance and the beetled brow are England's national costume. A
Pearly Queen's outfit of thousands and thousands of lovingly stitched
and maintained irritations. A simmering, unfocused lurking anger is
the collective cross England bears with ill grace. I can see it in
English faces, in the dumb semaphore of their bodies. It's how they
stand and fold their arms and wait in queues. It's why they can't
dance or relax. Anger has made the English an ugly race. But then this
anger is also the source of England's most admirable achievement-their
heroic self-control. It's the daily struggle of not giving in to your
natural inclination to run amok with a cricket bat, to spit and bite
in a crowded tearoom, that I admire most in the English. It's not what
they are, but their ability to suppress what they are, that's great
about the English. The world is full of aggrieved people whose fury
engulfs their land and lives. Places where feuds and retaliation have
become the sole motives for existing. But the English aren't like
that. They live and have always lived in a comparatively harmonious
and liberal country. There is more give and take and compromise in
England than anywhere else you can think of, but I know as certainly
as I know anything about this place that this is despite the nature of
England, not because of it.

People with therapists will tell you that repressed anger is a
dangerous thing that in the end will consume the repressor. That it's
a spiritual, emotional cancer. That it must be evacuated like trapped
wind, transformed and metamorphosed. But the English are an
uncomfortably living testament to the benefit, if not the pleasure, of
repression. They have come up with dozens of collective and individual
strategies to deflect and contain their natural fury. Not least, in
inventing a bewildering number of games. It's not in the games that
the English excel, it's in making the rules that govern them, and the
committees that oversee those rules. It's in controlling the
consequences of unbridled competitiveness. Only the English could in
all seriousness say: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts,
it's merely taking part." If the result is secondary, why bother
taking part in the first place? But of course, for the English, just
getting off the pitch without their opponent's ear in their pocket is
a personal victory over their natural national inclination. And it's
their anger that has made them arguably, over the long run, the most
consistently successful of all the old European nations, certainly the
most inventive and adventurous and energetic. Controlled anger is the
great impetus to achievement. You have to do something with it. Anger
simply won't let you be comfortable in your own skin.

The English aren't people who strive for greatness, they're driven to
it by a flaming irritation. It was anger that built the Industrial
Age, which forged expeditions of discovery. It was the need for self-
control that found an outlet in cataloguing, litigating and ordering
the natural world. It was the blind fury with imprecise and stubborn
inanimate objects that created generations of engineers and inventors.
The anger at sin and unfairness which forged their particular
earthbound pedantic spirituality and their puce-faced, finger-jabbing,
spittle-flecked politics. The English have, by the skin of their teeth
and the stiffness of their lip, managed to turn what might have been a
deforming fault into their defining virtue, but it still doesn't make
them lovable.

Copyright © 2005 by A. A. Gill.
Peter Ashby
2007-06-15 15:59:51 UTC
Permalink
Post by Lance
The Angry Island
Hunting the English
by A.A. Gill
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Inc. | Date published: 06/12/2007
ISBN: 9781416545606
Excerpt
1
The Angry Island
Is England like this?"
it made me smile at least. I think though he may be onto something, I
certainly recognise much of what he says.

Peter
--
Add my middle initial to email me. It has become attached to a country
www.the-brights.net
Philip
2007-06-16 01:09:51 UTC
Permalink
"Lance" <***@gmail.com> wrote in message news:***@q69g2000hsb.googlegroups.com...

[snip]
Post by Lance
Only the English could in
all seriousness say: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts,
it's merely taking part."
The person best known for expressing this sentiment was Baron Pierre de
Coubertin (French), who appears to have lifted it from a sermon by Bishop
Ethelbert Talbot (American).
Peter Brooks
2007-06-16 05:44:58 UTC
Permalink
Post by Philip
[snip]
Post by Lance
Only the English could in
all seriousness say: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts,
it's merely taking part."
The person best known for expressing this sentiment was Baron Pierre de
Coubertin (French), who appears to have lifted it from a sermon by Bishop
Ethelbert Talbot (American).
No doubt, but isn't it at least a little revealing that it is assumed
to be an English aphorism without and difficulty? Eddie 'the eagle'
Edwards is one of the very small number of Olympic competitors whose
name I know (the only one from a Winter Olympics) and he's certainly a
Pom and his exploits (which, apparently have led to a change in the
Olympic rule book - quite an achievement for an individual in itself)
appear to provide evidence for the sentiment.
Richard Corfield
2007-06-16 07:02:15 UTC
Permalink
Post by Peter Brooks
Post by Philip
Post by Lance
Only the English could in
all seriousness say: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts,
it's merely taking part."
The person best known for expressing this sentiment was Baron Pierre de
Coubertin (French), who appears to have lifted it from a sermon by Bishop
Ethelbert Talbot (American).
No doubt, but isn't it at least a little revealing that it is assumed
to be an English aphorism without and difficulty? Eddie 'the eagle'
Edwards is one of the very small number of Olympic competitors whose
name I know (the only one from a Winter Olympics) and he's certainly a
Pom and his exploits (which, apparently have led to a change in the
Olympic rule book - quite an achievement for an individual in itself)
appear to provide evidence for the sentiment.
It's something I remember from my childhood, something my parents used
to say. The tendency now seems to try to avoid the situation of losing
coming up for children, rather than try to teach them something like
this.

The nature of the sentiment can be seen in some religion at least. I'm
thinking of those that emphasise living in the moment not being attached
to the results. Buddhist football - play as hard as you can but not keep
track of the score?

- Richard
--
_/_/_/ _/_/_/ _/_/_/ Richard Corfield <***@gmail.com>
_/ _/ _/ _/
_/_/ _/ _/ Time is a one way street,
_/ _/ _/_/ _/_/_/ except in the Twilight Zone
Paul Grieg
2007-06-16 10:16:56 UTC
Permalink
Post by Richard Corfield
Post by Peter Brooks
Post by Philip
Post by Lance
Only the English could in
all seriousness say: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts,
it's merely taking part."
The person best known for expressing this sentiment was Baron Pierre de
Coubertin (French), who appears to have lifted it from a sermon by Bishop
Ethelbert Talbot (American).
No doubt, but isn't it at least a little revealing that it is assumed
to be an English aphorism without and difficulty? Eddie 'the eagle'
Edwards is one of the very small number of Olympic competitors whose
name I know (the only one from a Winter Olympics) and he's certainly a
Pom and his exploits (which, apparently have led to a change in the
Olympic rule book - quite an achievement for an individual in itself)
appear to provide evidence for the sentiment.
It's something I remember from my childhood, something my parents used
to say. The tendency now seems to try to avoid the situation of losing
coming up for children, rather than try to teach them something like
this.
The nature of the sentiment can be seen in some religion at least. I'm
thinking of those that emphasise living in the moment not being attached
to the results. Buddhist football - play as hard as you can but not keep
track of the score?
There's a whole industry of "The zen of..." books that apply this to
every sport you can think of. Tiger Woods is influenced by Buddhism
and applies its principles to his golf. That must really rile his
opponents. Wins everything and doesn't care about it :-)
Philip
2007-06-16 11:45:02 UTC
Permalink
Post by Peter Brooks
Post by Philip
[snip]
Post by Lance
Only the English could in
all seriousness say: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts,
it's merely taking part."
The person best known for expressing this sentiment was Baron Pierre de
Coubertin (French), who appears to have lifted it from a sermon by Bishop
Ethelbert Talbot (American).
No doubt, but isn't it at least a little revealing that it is assumed
to be an English aphorism without and difficulty? Eddie 'the eagle'
Edwards is one of the very small number of Olympic competitors whose
name I know (the only one from a Winter Olympics) and he's certainly a
Pom and his exploits (which, apparently have led to a change in the
Olympic rule book - quite an achievement for an individual in itself)
appear to provide evidence for the sentiment.
I've no argument with that, but the claim was not just that it was English
but that it was exclusively English.
Toby Kelsey
2007-06-16 16:12:02 UTC
Permalink
Post by Lance
Having their creation myth begin with the Romans has been very
important to the English. It gives them the straight road in the soul
and a birthright of order and rigor.
I and GK Chesterton would beg to disagree.

The Rolling English Road

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

Toby

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