“What does it feel like to be British?”
I asked a year ago in my Posterous blog and received the following comments. I’m now securing their safety here in this post.
Read, discuss with your students (like I’ve been doing), enjoy the insider views.
In the first place I feel like George Mikes: you can be British but you can never be an English! Perhaps your question isn’t directed at people like me who aren’t British by birth, but yes, I am British, and, what’s more, a British passport is the only one I have!
So, what does it feel to be British? In my case, well, I feel more like a global citizen rather then British, to be honest. Right now, I feel more at home in Las Palmas than anywhere else, but put me in London, and in no time, it feels like home, too. Strangely enough, I feel more British when in Britain; here, I just feel…well…foreign!
So, how else do I feel? I don’t really know. Do I have any so-called British habits? I have tea in the morning and I rarely have it again during the day. I almost never have English breakfast nor Sunday roast here. Language and music wise, I feel more British than anything else, but I’m talking about 60s and 70s music and not what comes out today. I follow more Spanish sports than British and I’d sooner cheer Nadal and Alonso than Hamilton or Button. So, I guess I’m not so loyal now.
I’m probably an atypical British, but I’d like to hear from other British who have been abroad for a long time. Are they like me? Do they adapt to the local environment? Chiew
For me, Britishness can be a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it gives me a sense of history and culture stretching back well over 2000 years, and further back if you count pre-Romans. This richness in the environment around me is fascinating, and I’m constantly discovering new parts of my culture and country. As a country with a lot of immigrants, Britishness is also being challenged (in a good way) and our culture is becoming much more receptive to other races and cultures, up to a point. Having the passport I have has also given me an extraordinary amount of opportunities, for which I am very grateful.
On the other hand, being British abroad can be very embarrassing, because the reputation of Brits as alcoholics and/or hooligans seems to be spreading rapidly. It has already spoiled some places, although hopefully not beyond repair. Many Brits also seems to have the ‘insular’ mentality that takes it’s name from living on an island. Despite having a diverse culture at home, many Brits still think everyone should speak English and adapt everything they do to the Brits around them, whether at home or abroad. For me, this can make me feel embarrassed about being British at times.
Having said that, I will always tell people my nationality without shame, although I may end up apologising for some of my compatriots! Sandy Millin
I’ve been thinking about this more since I wrote my initial post, and what came to me is this:
The only British people may well be politically correct English people. People from other parts of the British Isles will probably tell you that they are, for example, Scottish, before they are British. Other parts of the British Isles seem to have much stronger regional identities than those of us from England. For example, Scottish flags greet you at the border, as do large ‘Welcome to Wales/Croeso y Cymru’ signs on entering Wales, while the English signs are small and don’t seem to feature any national symbols (at least, not that I remember). his lack of a strong unifying identity is something that I’ve often thought about. Sandy Millin
The first thing that popped into my head was sense of humour and self-deprecation. I have been living in France for about 6 years and this aspect always stands out to me.
But as the first response mentioned I do feel more of a world citizen than British. Maybe that is to do with my background – Sri-Lankan Tamil family, born in Ghana, grew up in Wales, married to a French! I wonder what our soon to arrive baby will feel like when he gets asked a question about culture and nationality?
My personal top 10 of British-feeling things would be:
1. Humour – it’s in every conversation, whether silly, sarcastic, satirical or surreal. Wordplay is a national sport and we’ve produced some truly amazing comedy series (imho). One of the few things that makes me really proud to be British.
2. Reservedness – we’re an excessively private people. We don’t like people standing too close, making too much noise, asking personal questions or coming to our house unannounced. I can see why others often think we’re cold!
3. Embarrassment – we’re chronically embarrassed by everything, from talking about sex / our emotions to unfamiliar social situations. Until we’ve had a few beers – then it’s a different story altogether. It’s why the British drink so much 🙂
4. Supporting the underdog – as soon as someone becomes successful, we try to knock them down (especially if we think they’re not modest enough about their success). We always support the little-known team, the person who’s come from a poor background, etc…until they too become successful, and the cycle starts again…
5. Tea – tea solves EVERYTHING. I’m a pretty bad Brit because I take mine black – the commonest way is with milk and sugar (also known as ‘builder’s tea’).
6. Multiculturalism – this is the double-edged sword that Sandy mentioned above! – our cities, especially London, are amazing because of the diversity of people in them. But a big part of the reason for that was probably colonialism, which is something most British feel still feel uncomfortable about (see no 3 above).
7. Eccentricity – we’re not comformists. We collect weird stuff, celebrate weird stuff and wear weird stuff. It means we produce interesting artists, musicians etc though, and I love that.
8. Freedom – having lived in other parts of the world, I now value how free I actually am when I’m at home. I can marry (or not) whoever I like, I can live where I want, say what I want in public, practice any religion or none…these are all things to be thankful for.
9. Passive aggression – linked to no 2, maybe, we hate direct conflict and hardly ever say what we really mean. Debates in the House of Commons are a brilliant example of this!
10. Pessimism – we just can’t achieve the perkiness of our American cousins. We think every new project is doomed to fail and we love to have our pessimistic predictions proven correct (‘Typical!’ is a particularly British refrain).
Other things which didn’t quite make the list: talking about the weather (we really do!); fairness; bizarre double standards regarding animals (OK to kill and eat but not to harm in any other way…) Laura Phelps
It means feeling like an island but always longing for the land beyond the horizon
It means craving sunshine but knowing one’s spiritual home is a rainy sky
It feels like early dark and Gothic civic architecture covered in soot
It feels like a land crowded with football towns and lost canals
It means reaching for the salt as soon as food is served
This is really interesting question Ann, although I’m not sure you realise just how political it is, especially at the moment!
As an English person, I consider myself both English and British. However, that is because I consider nationality to be a large part down to geography. Simply, I was born and lived most of my life in England, which is part of Britain. That’s the land mass where I was born and I can’t claim to be anything else. Some people might claim to be only English, but I would dispute that based on my opinion that they don’t have a choice. They were born there, and that’s it.
This might sound obvious, but there are people in Scotland (and Wales to a lesser extent) who wouldn’t consider themselves British because they see Britain as a political entity. Of course, I can’t deny that, it is by definition a “United Kingdom” of nations under one government. However, I don’t feel that this kind of excessive patriotism is particular useful.
I understand why people want to define themselves culturally in relation to the place where they were born, it’s a useful way of creating a shared identity. My problem is when patriotism slips over into jingoism (from “my country is great” into “my country is better than yours”). This, for me, is dangerous and lies behind so many pointless conflicts around the world.
I should point out that I’m not classifying all patriotism in these terms. Personally, I don’t get much out of it, but if other people want to be that way, it doesn’t bother me.
So the point of this is (yes, there is one 🙂 ) is that as an English person I’m proud of our culture and the things we have given the world courtesy of Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, the Beatles, Tim Berners Lee & Emmeline Pankhurst and so on, but I don’t feel I can take any credit for that and I’m aware that most countries and cultures can also point to their own equivalents of equal stature.
So do feel I British? Yes, but it doesn’t mean much to me, but then neither does being English. The more I travel and live abroad, the less useful it becomes as I see it as fairly restrictive group of stereotypes, some true, some not, that don’t really serve me any purpose.
I hope this ramble answers your question. Now I’m off to have a cup of tea. James Taylor
Coming from Scotland I would say that my attitude towards Britishness is a rather distant one. Even though I no longer live there, I don’t think that changes all that much. My experience is that many Scots feel something similar. I can’t myself remember the last time hearing a Scot say “I’m British” unless they were publically expected to do so. I think we shouldn’t generalise but at least some of the English community feel more comfortable with their Britishness.
Yes, connections run deep after the last 300 years together and we do seem to drink a lot of tea. But Burns did write that Scotland was a “parcel of rogues” and some down South find us up North well a bit ‘savage’. Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that we share many values but the UK is a patchwork of very different identities. Is that a good or bad thing? Who’s to say. So, I’ll just bloody-mindedly and Scottishly end with the Irish poet W.B. Yeats who wrote “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. Roy Bicknell
Many thanks to the wonderful Brits who took the time to leave a comment and, well, educate me and my students in the sense of giving very genuine explanations to their feelings of belonging or non-belonging. One won’t read that in culture studies course books. I’m grateful.
If you think you have something to say to the question I posed – please do!