Saturday 23 April 2011

England, my England

A happy St George's Day to you all!

We should do more to celebrate it - so, each year, this blog adds its small voice to the hope that we might put out more flags.

Others might do more too. Perhaps it is tricky when it sneaks up, slightly unheralded, on an Easter Saturday, the weekend before a Royal Wedding, but it was disappointing to see that Mr Dacre's Daily Mail seems to have entirely failed to mark the occasion this morning. The Daily Express masthead is decked in a free Royal Wedding bunting offer, all Union Jacks, but St George takes a back seat there too.

St George never foot in England, of course, and the slaying of a dragon is rather hard to document. But the questionable provenance of the story of St Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland does not the global Guinness festival on March 17th.

Another reason to celebrate England and the English on April 23rd is that it is both the birthday (maybe, or close enough) and the date of death of Shakespeare, the greatest writer ever produced by the English, or anybody else. That should be enough occasion for a Bank Holiday every year, without needing to marry off one of the Royals to get a day off.

The reason that English has the greatest and richest of any world literature has been its openness to bringing new voices and accents to the great literary tradition of Shakespeare. That argument was made particularly well by Michael Gove, now Tory education secretary, who had been asked by the Quilliam think-tank to speak alongside Liam Byrne and others to talk about Britishness, marking St George's Day a couple of years ago. (Watch it here)

Gove drew on TS Eliot's argument about the tradition of English literature to make a broader point about English and British cultural life, arguing that because Britain had been multiethnic and multinational from the start, it had a strong tradition of being more successful than any other country at including new citizens.

We have all benefitted from that. And, in that process, Britain has changed for the better. It used to be the case, particularly on the right, that when new citizens came here, we required of them that they integrate or assimilate.

I happen to think that request or demand gets its wrong, and that there is a better metaphor. A metaphor that somebody who was themselves a migrant to this country came up with. That was the metaphor that TS Eliot used when he was describing the great tradition of English literature. Eliot described the presence of each new author in the tradition as subtly altering how we saw that tradition.

What Dickens, or Hardy, or Yeats or indeed Eliot himself contributed to English literature changed how we see all of English literature.

And so when we think of Britishness, it is impossible to think of it now without the contributions of each successive wave of new citizens.

Not just in the sense as Robin Cook famously pointed out that chicken tikka massala is now Britain's favourite dish. Some of those who best summed up how Britons think were not John Bull figures themselves. There is no better author who better understands the English tradition of liberty than Isiah Berlin. There is no better student of British history than Lewis Napier. There is no better exponent of the British tradition of pragmatism and empiricism than Karl Popper

All of these figures sum up what it is to be British, what it is to have a British sensibility. They are all people who took their place in an existing tradition and subtly altered it by their presence. And that particular British tradition, as Liam argued, has been uniquely open to the world.

Even if George never quite made it here to contribute as an immigrant, we should embrace St George for England and the English, as John Sentamu argues in The Sun today.

To make this a day of unity rather than discord, let me also endorse the fine sentiments of Michael Gove along with that other recent laureate of the mongrel English, Billy Bragg.

Here are the lyrics to Bragg's English, Half English, part of his jubilee year meditation on English identity.

I enjoyed hearing Bragg sing this at lunchtime during the Fabian Future of Britishness conference five years ago (as well, as a dissenting voice 'Take Down the Union Jack' as the flag which Gordon Brown had reclaimed on the same stage that morning fluttered alongside):

My mother was half-English
And I’m half-English too
I’m a great big bundle of culture
Tied up in the red, white and blue
I’m a fine example of your Essex Man
And I'm well familiar with the Hindustan
‘Cos my neighbours are half-English
And I’m half-English too
My breakfast was half-English
And so am I you know
I had a plate of Marmite soldiers
Washed down with a cappuccino
And I have a veggie curry about once a week
The next day I fry it up as ‘Bubble ‘N’ Squeak’
‘Cos my appetite’s half-English
And I’m half-English too
Dance with me
To this very English melody
From Morris dancing to Morrissey
All that stuff came from across the sea
Britannia , she’s half-English
She speaks Latin at home
St. George was born in the Lebanon
How he got here I don’t know
And those three lions on your shirt
They never sprang from England’s dirt
Them lion’s are half-English
And I’m half-English too

That history of openness reflects some of the many reasons why I'm proud to be English.

A very happy St George's Day to you all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

St. George was a Palestinian-Turk falsely patronised for an action he never carried out. Now it's merely a way of the right promoting nationalism instead of it's false yet original purpose: to celebrate the slaying of the dragon.