English… Nationalism? (not what you think)

A few days ago in class, one of the teachers I work with explained to a class of fresh-faced junior high first years that “English” derives from “England”, which is “part of the UK”. Geography is not a strong point here and my students looked kind of bewildered, but thinking about England and the English gave me a warm glow. It’s a subject I’m fond of. I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from jumping in and rambling on about the Angles and the Romans and the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings. As I stalked about the back of the classroom on autopilot pointing out that sentences start with capital letters and Monday is spelled with neither E, I or U, my mind wandered and I found myself pondering the root and meaning of my happy English glow.

I’ve never been to the UK and I have no ties to the place. The closest I’ve ever come is Australia, where they put the Queen on their money and are therefore guilty by association. In fact, as a South African with probable Irish heritage (I’ve always been highly sceptical about my family tree), I probably shouldn’t especially care about the UK.

But I do. Whenever I think of England I think of Peter Rabbit and old country houses and the Famous Five and the Beatles and the Sex Pistols. I think of Shakespeare and the Fire of London and Michael Oakeshott. I think of the crown jewels and bagpipes and highland games and How green was my valley, and fudge, and that tapestry with King Harold getting an arrow upside the face (or not). Pastoral England and cities with an ancient magic, the food, the culture, the stories – every thought sends out vast webs of connectedness until my brain feels saturated with Union Jack. (And on a totally unrelated note, here is an awesome illustrated RSA talk about networks. Watch it, it’s awesome.) Also, bagpipes make me cry, but in a good way – they move me to tears. Let’s not be judgemental here.

Maybe I feel protective of a culture that isn’t really my own because of the overwhelming volume of cultural artefacts that have saturated the Anglosphere. So why don’t I feel the same about, say, America? Why do I regard the amorphous spectre of America as alien and foreign whereas the UK, though equally foreign in truth, feels like a sort of spiritual home?

I interviewed some subjects in a highly scientific poll (by which I mean I asked a few of my English-speaking mates from South Africa and Australia), and at least some of them have confessed to this same vague feeling that England is our spiritual home. (Others, of course, think I’m completely nuts.) I don’t mean that it’s my mother country or any of that rubbish, and of course I don’t suffer from the delusion that a) I’d like to live there or b) return there to die. I’m not a salmon for the UK, OK? But it’s a kind of comforting headspace, a weird default setting. It’s pretty dreadful, but I find it disturbing when people in historical TV shows don’t speak in British accents, even if they’re a bunch of proto-Italians. (Julius Caesar didn’t sound like a 1950s BBC announcer? What are you talking about?)

I think it has something to do with the fact that we automatically put on the kettle for a cup of tea whenever anyone is upset, regardless of the temperature outside. It’s a cultural thing, and rationally it’s frankly weird, but in practice it’s just… there.

I know this is kind of a lame way to end a post, but I really can’t think of a conclusion. So, a question! Where are you from, and what do you think about this?


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