Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Are you English?

Are you English?
I used to claim that nationality was an accident not a definition.
Yes, but are you English?
When I first came to Australia I was surprised by the culturally institutionalised racism an answer to that question invoked.
It’s there in the jokes I didn’t understand:
Where does an English man keep his money?
Under the soap?
How can you tell a plane has come from England?
The whining continues after the engines are shut off.
It’s there in the assumption that any criticism however well informed or essential is “whinging” and the product of being English rather than being concerned or frustrated with an obvious problem.
I never liked that: My country right or wrong. Love it or leave it alone.
One of the things I loved about home was the willingness to be critical, to scrutinise; what I probably romanticise as a European habit of talk, of willingness to indulge in argument as currency of friendship. The things you cared about were the things you talked about. As Heaney says: what use the held line that cannot be assailed for reassurance?
Yes, but Are you English?
It’s the baggage that comes with “yes” I don’t like. To be a Welsh or Scottish nationalist is cool, radical, acceptable. To be an English nationalist is to feel the terrifying drag of the black hole of the national front, skinheads, racist bigotry, mindless intolerance: To find oneself in the company of the brutal, the stupid and the braindead.
Are you English?
So do you want me to apologise for what some of my ancestors did to yours? Well, do you mind if I point out that the English half of the family were rural poor, or in service, and if they ever went abroad to fight it was because they were press ganged or fleeing from poverty or rejoicing in the choice between the gallows and the uniform. If my ancestors fought yours they were flogged to it, probably shitting themselves in a steamy red tunic.
Infact, it’s quite probable mum’s ancestors were taking pot shots of one sort or another at dad’s, who were doing their best to carve, cut, shoot or flay them, not realising of course that one day their genes would be combined in me.
Are you English?
I’m not proud of British Imperialism. The thought of men flogged into battle so some rich twerp could get richer doesn’t appeal to me at all. And for the dwellers in the slums, for the industrial poor, for the rural workers, I don’t see much to sing about. The arrogant assumption that there was some type of “civilising mission” involved is even less appealing.
But show me a country that didn’t try and expand its borders? Show me a tribe that didn’t fight for extra space? Do Dutch people have these problems?
Are you English?
My Mum would say yes. But when I addressed a letter to her and put West Midlands, England on the envelope the man in the post office said there was no such address. Every time I give him a package and say: England..he says Uk as he puts it on the scales. According to the Concise Britannica England does not exist as a political or administrative unit. There ain’t no such place.
We all know that’s what “Utopia” means so “England” is a Utopian ideal…a place of the mind…but who’s mind?
I like the idea of being Mercian. A people of the marches, of the borders, liminal interstitial. Penda’s folk. The middle kingdom. The middle ground. But that’s always been the most dangerous place to stand.
(And then I suppose I had better feel guilty about Haethfelth, but I am free to resent those imperialistic buggers from Wessex who conquered my country????)
Are you English?
No, like the badge says: Made in Coventry.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great comment.. Puts some reality in what working class poms went through rather some choked up idea we murdered everyone..
Craig from Nuneaton & Coventry now residing in NSW, Australia