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England, My England

by Anastasia (writer), London, January 18, 2012

Credit: Nicholas Shanks
The Royal Arms of England
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What is England? This, for me, is England.

What does England mean to me, what does it mean to be English? Why, I suppose it’s a little bit like a reflex, a little like breathing: English is what I am; English is what I will always be.

For me it’s not about sport, or politics or any transitory passion; it really does rest on something altogether deeper. I love the English language, a love the beauty and the rhythm of simple English prose.

Yes, I know the language is not exclusively ours any longer. It’s been launched into the world sometimes with uncertain - and unhappy - returns! But I would continue to look for Englishness, Englishness expressed through words, in what I like to call the original ‘mines’ of our language, our poetry and our literature. There they are before me: Langland and Chaucer; the Bible, both in William Tyndale’s translation and in the King James’ version; the Book of Common Prayer; the plays and poetry of Shakespeare, the Jacobean poets and more.

I’ve been working my way through The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. He’s a super writer, a true craftsman, expressing himself in simple, limpid prose. In England Your England part of a longer essay entitled The Lion and the Unicornhe analyses at some length what exactly it means to be English.

A lot has changed since 1940 but a lot remains remarkably the same. The individuality is still there, the dislike of regimentation and officialdom, the suspicion of ‘ideology’ as something foreign, something un-English. These were the rocks against which Fascism and Communism floundered. It’s these same qualities that continue to make English people distrustful of identity cards or the European Super State; of standardisation in any form.

I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that the English, with all of their idiosyncrasies, all of their baffling eccentricities, are simply beyond the comprehension of most foreigners. Karl Marx spent most of his life in this country in exile. Always expecting great things from the English proletariat, the most advanced in Europe, by the lights of his theory, he came to see that England was the one country in Europe with a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois working class as well as a bourgeois bourgeois! His last recorded words were “To the Devil with the British.”

Britishness? Ah, yes, now there is a problem. I grew up believing simply that Britishness and Englishness were more or less the same thing though I was very well aware that the Celtic nations had a separate and somewhat prickly identity. It’s been their assertiveness, their determination to be ‘themselves’, to govern themselves, that resulted in our present botched constitutional settlement, one that has really forced me to focus more specifically on simple Englishness. I no longer use British to identify myself other than to say that I have a British passport.

Yes, our present constitutional settlement is botched, badly thought-out and unfinished. It has raised more questions than it has answered, the question over England’s political sovereignty above all, our right to manage our own domestic affairs without outside interference, interference by those who are not English. Where does England fit in the devolved United Kingdom? I simply don’t know. There is, so far as I can tell, no great desire for a separate English parliament, but things cannot go on as they are indefinitely. It’s a house of cards which will fall, I believe, if we ever again have a Labour administration only kept in place by MPs from Scotland and Wales.

Sovereignty also raises the question of our position within the European Union. This is a touchy subject because I see considerable dangers in the current integrationist drift in European policy, dangers in the Lisbon Treaty for our future liberty. If we ever do become Airstrip One it will be largely thanks to the efforts of our own politicians, arguably more damaging than those of Philip II, Napoleon or Hitler.

I’m sure it comes no surprise that I’m a history student. And it is English history, our common heritage, which I believe defines us as a nation in the fullest sense. Our pride, our individuality, our idiosyncrasies, our distrust of foreign ideas and, yes, of foreigners, has largely been determined by our island story, by a slow evolution of a common culture. I simply refuse to accept that there is a single English person, admit it or not, who does no feel a stirring of the blood when hearing the great St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. It most assuredly stirs my blood, as does the speech of Elizabeth I at Tilbury. That’s Englishness, a dogged courage in the face of terrible odds. That’s my England.



About the Writer

Anastasia is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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6 comments on England, My England

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By Uttam Gill on January 19, 2012 at 01:09 am

Anastasia your England is your England but English is mine too...I am sure you are generous enough to accept this...lol.

From the language, we translate our senses and that’s how in the evolution of thoughts, language gained the prominence. Thoughts which created the languages, with passage of time, subsequently became subservient to language. English gained the prominence and for that credit goes to great scholars ...Now English is the language which has gone far beyond your Island.

Let me now say something about your England and surely, I have with me, my credible thoughts, which are structured, with impressions of 200 years of rule by England. These two hundred years are well documented and as I know there cannot be any error in knowing the history of England with that of my country India. This island as you named it gave us a lot...Your England contribution in making this country cannot be denied. I beg to differ with you as you tried to define the Englishness. I hope you know that Lord Bentinck ,Dalhousie, Wellesley, Warren Hasting, Curzon, Annie Besant and many more done a great job and they did it because of great qualities imbibed in those English people...They certainly delivered to this huge nation a lot ...Their Englishness are visible in many ways and we always admire them for that...As you said that “the English, with all of their idiosyncrasies, all of their baffling eccentricities, are simply beyond the comprehension of most foreigners....”Permit me with all humbleness that I certainly don’t believe that you have accumulated many credible reason to define the English. Ask me, I am a foreigner, he will tell you how we look at English people...we know you well and understand you. You cannot right your own testimonial ...Let me say with all fairness that English is not as you are perceiving...Long back your forefather left that Island and came to this country and left a legacy and we are preserving that in your language, in the institution like railway, armed forces, postal services, Irrigation....Anastasia you know why because In English we found the lost touch of our Freedom. Your England is yours but your English is mine too...come over India and feel it...I cordially invite you...surely on seeing the monuments and system which left by your forefathers, you would say “Forever for England”...Come and see the part of your England is here too...

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By ColonialBoy on January 19, 2012 at 04:35 pm

Ana - while I agree w/you that Brannagh's portrayal of Henry V is one of the finest bits of theatric history, I agree somewhat with UG's disagreement w/your portraying the English as being largely xenophobic. I see England as being a merger of people and cultures much as my own America is. [If the BBC's archeology shows are to be believed,] In ancient times you started with Picts, who were invaded by the Celts (whilst they were being shoved around by the Roman Empire), who were displaced in turn by said Romans (and their Gaulic minions). After their retreat, the Germanic tribes the Angles (from which you got your current name, Angle-land) & the Saxons (hence your primary ethic group, the Anglo-Saxons) came over, then the Danes and just a few Vikings. Overthrow all of this with a few (not!) invading Frenchmen, and you finish up your first millenium of being Englishmen. Over the next 500 years (or so) the foreign invasions were repelled, but the English still absorbed foreign influences into their culture. Then you started colonizing the world (this period not ending until the mutual destruction of you and your German cousins during the wars between 1914 and 1945). I think that until this point, the English culture represented the tightly assimilated combination of many cultures.

Regretfully, with the breakup of the empire, whilst the offspring of the former colonists are returning "home" to England, they are not recombining into a single culture - the Pakis are forming their enclaves, the Yobs theirs, & so forth. I worry about this, & what effect this will have on your culture.

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By Anastasia on January 22, 2012 at 05:41 pm

Uttam, I have been to India; I was there three summers ago; I came, I saw, I was beguiled. Actually my enchantment came long before that. My grandfather was an officer in the British Indian Army, serving both before, during and after the Second World War. He used to thrill me with stories of the Raj. I give you this from an article of wrote – oops! – in praise of empire;

The British also in a very real sense helped to create modern India, giving it a complete political unity it never before possessed in its history; giving it a rail transport system which still functions today; giving it a common language which has managed to unite such a diverse and polyglot nation, allowing it to make an impact on the modern world.

So, yes, I think I understand. :-)

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By Anastasia on January 22, 2012 at 05:43 pm

CB, I think xenophobia is far too strong a word. The English have often defined themselves by distrust not hatred of foreigners. Yes, you are right, England has absorbed successive waves of foreigners, who, in the end, are no longer foreigners, or at least they weren’t until the disease that goes by the name of multi-culturalism hit these shores. We have absorbed others, in the process creating something unique and highly idiosyncratic. This is a paean to my country, that’s all; my attempt to define what is for me its essence. I give you more Shakespeare;

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…

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By Uttam Gill on January 22, 2012 at 11:12 pm

Thank you Anastasia for making me understand. I am glad to know about your grandfather served the British Indian Army. To inform you that I am an Ex Army officer and my unit was 3rd Battalion of the Rajput Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s own). This unit was raised in 1778 during the initial years of British rule. It was then known as "Kilpetrick ki paltan"...I would be writing soon about my unit to share with the common legacy...Whatever it is...It is heartening to know about your grandfather connection with Indian Army...It's good that three summers back you visited India...However, my invitation still stands...You are welcome and be our guest...

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By Anastasia on January 27, 2012 at 04:28 am

Uttam, that's very kind of you. :-)

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