Skip to main content

This Is England

This Knife of Sheffield Steel

When you grow up in Scotland (or at least, when I did so during the sixties and seventies) you pick up a fair amount of anti-English feeling. It’s mainly to do with football, but it is linked to what is seen as several hundred years of oppression. Although the Act of Union was, in theory, a mutual act between two independent nations, it is clear which was the dominant partner.

I’ve lived in England — in London — for nineteen years, though, and am unlikely to leave (or not to go back to Scotland at any rate: if I left London it would be to escape the UK’s ubiquitous surveillance state and paranoid anti-terror laws). It should be obvious, then, that I harbour no great dislike of England or its people. Indeed, to harbour such a collective dislike for fifty-odd million would be bigotry of the most ludicrous sort.

However, I have long been bothered by the apparent inability of many English people to distinguish their country’s identifying features from those of the larger nation-state of which it is part. And I’m further disappointed by what seems to be a similar difficulty that many of Dave’s Big England guests have had: finding things to love that are uniquely and explicitly English.

As I discussed with Roldy on his Big England piece, so many of the the things that people have chosen are not English — not uniquely so, at least. Though many of them are uniquely British.

On A Catwalk Jungle

John Lennon was sadly mistaken when he sang “The English army had just won the war” — and not just because he was ignoring the contributions of Canadians, Poles, the Free French, and of course, the USA.

That is poetic licence, and it would be churlish of me to complain. But it is perhaps the most famous example of the casual use of “England”, when the speaker or writer really means one or other of “Great Britain”, “The United Kingdom”, or even “The British Isles”.

Some would say that it doesn’t matter. However, I believe it is always worth taking care with language, to try to say precisely what you mean: how else are others to understand you? Also, it’s bloody annoying to us Scots (and probably to the Welsh and Northern Irish, too). Maybe that’s why they do it, of course.

Where the Well-known Flag of England Flies

It used to be that the English also seemed confused about which country they meant at football matches. All through my childhood and well into my twenties I wondered why English football fans supported their country using an emblem that contained representations of two other countries as well as their own. I’m speaking of the Union Flag, of course. Stadiums used to be draped in it, even when England were playing Scotland in the old Home Internationals (just as an aside: can you think of another country which has such a tautologically-named event?)

What did they think the blue part with the white cross represented, I used to wonder?

In recent years, though, football fans at least seem to have worked out which country’s flag they want to fly. Which brings us back to why Dave started this whole thing.

Land of One Thousand Stances

I guess I like England; but it took me a long time to realise that I don’t have to like it in opposition to anything, particularly Scotland: I can (and do) love London, and still love Edinburgh.

London is something of a special case, though. While it is undoubtedly in England, there is a sense in which it is not of it: it is not really part of England, or of any country. Perhaps all great “world cities” are like that. The old song goes, “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner,” not, “Maybe it’s because I’m English and London is the capital city of my country”.

So where does all that leave me? In a word, I think, ambivalent. All the things that I might list that I like about this country, I don’t see as uniquely English (except by geography), but rather as British: music, literature, scenery, beer, the BBC…

Maybe the thing to do is turn it on its head. While I would claim The Beatles or The Clash as “British bands”, rather than “English bands”, I would claim Iain Banks or Irving Welsh, say, as “Scottish writers”. So maybe I’m being unfair to England.

But then, I’m in the oppressed minority.

And cricket’s still the most boring thing imaginable.

Comments