Hot on the heels of England's Rugby triumph and the victories of Amir Khan and (hopefully) Lewis Hamilton. Here's my requested contribution to 'What England Means to Me' - A Domesday Book of the Mind
In 2003 British Asian writer, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik met and interviewed BNP leader Nick Griffin for Malik’s critique of multicultural Britain in the Channel 4 documentary ‘Disunited Kingdom’. He started off by asking Griffin to define ‘English culture’. His reply was ‘You can’t describe it, you just know it….its like being in love, you either are or you are not’(1). Not only is this the mother of all cop outs on behalf of Nick Griffin, a man who attempts to vehemently defend and protect something he cannot even define from dirty foreign influence, but in itself it says something about English culture. English culture is something that is difficult to describe, but not for the reasons that Nick Griffin gives. English culture is indefinable for the very fact that it is an open ended, living entity. The English culture of today is not the English culture of the 50s, as the English culture of the 50s was not the English culture of the nineteenth century.
For Nick Griffin would look at the example of curry becoming the national dish as a sign of weakness within English culture, a sign of loss. However the English are merely doing as they’ve always done. That is seamlessly assimilating something foreign into its entity without losing its own identity, and even reinventing itself in the process. By the time of the mid 1990s the new movement of British musicians were deliberately recreating a form of music that to most seemed as English as Yorkshire pudding, as a backlash to American dominance of pop culture. The irony didn’t seem to dawn on others that while they were trying to ape the Beatles, back in 1963 they and all their ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ were the epitome of Americanization within England.
In fact Liverpool’s ascendancy to being the first city of British rock and roll was no accident. The Maritime city of Liverpool had many sailors who had made frequent trips to America often bringing back records that the rest of the country couldn’t get hold of. Also a major part of Merseybeat that has had a lasting effect on the culture of the city is the adoption of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, number one hit for scouser Gerry Marsden in 1963, as its unofficial anthem. However this Rogers and Hammerstein number originates from the Broadway musical ‘carousel’, not the pen of any Liverpudlian wordsmith.
Also as a direct result of the Britpop movement of the 90s, the ‘Mod’ culture of the 1960s had come to be defined as the archetypal English cultural style. This is despite the fact that it was heavily influenced by black culture, particularly black American and West Indian music and style, which had came to Britain with the migrant populations. As explained by Paolo Hewitt ‘as second generation Caribbeans moved deeper into British society…Braces, pork-pie hats and the return of the Crombie coat were some of the clothing items that were taken from the Rude Boy by his white counterpart’(2).
This is not the only part of English pop culture that has been taken from the New World Blacks. A vital part of the birth of white sock wearing Essex man with his Escort XR3i complete with furry dice was on the dance floors of the Lacy Lady or Goldmine nightclubs. The Essex Soul Boy scene was built with a soundtrack straight out of Black America. As is the case with today’s most famous Essex man – David Beckham. In his 2005 Channel 4 documentary ‘Black like Beckham’, British afro-caribbean journalist Paul McKenzie refers to this modern day icon of Englishness as ‘Britain’s most famous black man’ because of his incorporation of ‘Black’ Urban style and culture within his public persona. McKenzie states that in turn Beckham has ‘got black style and he’s accepted by black people as a hero’(3). Not only is this something that only the soft southern soul boys did, in the 1970s an entire culture of 24 hour party people sprung up across the north of England, playing obscure soul tunes by obscure soul singers. From the dance floors of the Wigan Casino and the Flaming Torch in Stoke came ‘Northern Soul’, an entire genre of Black American music whose sole definition is a geographical reference to the part of England where it finds its popularity. This despite the fact that barely any English Northerners played a note on those records!
This is also not a phenomenon of the 20th/21st centuries, even William Shakespeare did this back in his day. A quick browse through Shakespeare’s complete works shows settings such as Florence and Marseille in All’s Well That Ends Well, Athens in ‘Mid Summer Nights Dream’, Verona in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and of course the self explanatory ‘Merchant of Venice’. Shakespeare had used the imagery of cultures foreign to England, the result of which centuries later is that his work epitomizes ‘English culture’ in the eyes of others around the globe.
The main conclusion that we can come to here is that the English are among the most misrepresented peoples on earth. Far from being the insular conservative reactionaries that we are often portrayed we are among the most receptive of peoples on god’s earth. People often note the rudeness and bad behaviour of English tourists and yet not only fail to note that this is a minority of people who get disproportionate coverage, but also the fact that once a European holiday came within the financial means of most English people a caravanning holiday on Canvey Island or St. Osyth was never going to cut it ever again. In fact over one million people from the British Isles have emigrated around the med, so contempt of foreigners surely cannot run that deep.The high number of people who emigrated from these shores have recently been misconstrued by the right wing press as a sign of decline and, even more ridiculously, because so many foreigners are coming here. Again the English are doing what they’ve always done, emigration out of Britain was higher than immigration into to Britain for over 300 years, England has after all repopulated entire continents in its time. This had only changed in the 1980s because countries such as Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the U.S., who had always received immigrants from Britain started to restrict our entry. In essence the English are a people that do not believe that the world ends at the white cliffs of Dover and that rather than shut the world out would rather see what it has got to offer.
This is isn’t the only part of England’s historical culture that the right wing has misconstrued, for when the least pleasant of those who follow the fortunes of our national Football side are singing ‘with St. George in my heart keep me English’, they might want to dwell on who St. George actually was. He was non-white Palestinian born in Modern day Turkey and a soldier of the Roman Empire, who had not even set foot in England. The reason for his sainthood is that in 303AD the emperor of Rome had authorized the systematic persecution of all Christians across the whole empire. George was ordered to participate in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticized the imperial decision, which in turn lead to his torture and execution. George is also the patron saint of Aragon, Canada, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Russia, Palestine and also the cities of Genoa, Beirut, Ljubljana, Freiburg and Moscow. So why is George the patron saint of England then? The answer to that one is simple – the actions and ideals of the man meant more than his place of birth.
And that Mr. Griffin, is the explanation to the secret to England’s culture, and why that culture is so enduring. If you take into account that an incredible number of the world’s inventions came from these shores, you know that the English have always appreciated the merits of a good idea, regardless of where it came from. After all we would not have been able to have stayed ahead of the game for as long as we have if we did not. Also the title of this site says it all – a doomsday book of the mind. William the Conqueror was not English at all, he was born in modern day France. The fact that he came here and invaded us should fill us with revulsion if we were anywhere near the Daily Mail stereotype of what we are. The fact we took on board a lot of what he brought speaks volumes about the English and what the English actually are.
2) Hewitt, Paolo, The Soul Stylists: Forty Years of Modernism, Mainstream Publishing 2000:76