Taking a crisp Christmas evening turn around the small, ancient town where we live, my thoughts returned to something I had read a few days before. Quite a few of the houses were in darkness, but in others, still-open curtains allowed glimpses into timber-framed rooms where formal tables were set, or the remnants of the Christmas lunch lingered. Children lounged on sofas, engrossed with digital devices, while candles flickered in inglenook fireplaces, occasional hints of adult laughter somewhere out of sight. If anywhere, then surely this is where the heart of the nation is to be found, and on this of all nights, in this most turbulent of years? Was this much-needed evidence of a nation at ease with itself?
I’ve never paid very much attention to the repeated suggestions from a number of commentators that there is a crisis of English identity. Not because I necessarily disagree with the premise, but because (despite my roots) English identity simply didn’t interest me very much. I’m not sure what it is, for a start. For all that one gets a certain impression in a small, relatively affluent town in the liminal lands where the Home Counties merge into East Anglia, I was all too aware that it is hardly universal.
At the precise same moment as I was walking, there were rather different scenes being enacted within a matter of tens, or at most a few hundred miles, all of which exert their own claim to the national identity. The mean and glossy streets of the capital are a mere 45 miles away – where both international oligarchs and destitute homeless continue their proximate but parallel lives. I was aware, too, of places I know in the midlands and north, that still feel dour and abandoned decades after the last heavy industry closed. I know of the bed-sit land of faded seaside resorts, the remaining fishers and farmers scraping a living from the northern hills and harbours, and I know about the drug and knife-crime – and the bland, cloned suburbs – of the big towns and cities where nine in ten Britons now live. I wondered what significance a “national identity” could possibly have.
What’s more, I’ve long set my sights further afield: I know communities in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and more, which somehow always seem more appealing, more characterful, more vibrant, and more cared-for. I’ve been to autumnal and Christmas festivities in countries where such things seem to have an intensity, warmth and authenticity that make English efforts look watery and half-hearted. These images, too, are particularly potent in December, not least because their traditions have gradually infiltrated ours, to the point that it isn’t clear any more what ‘English’ actually is.
It’s been a long-term process of course. Much of the English Christmas is a Victorian confection, with a hefty chunk of German import, courtesy of Victoria’s husband. More recently, we’ve added German Christmas markets and stollen, Italian panettone, and Scandinavian hygge. Ironic, really, when you know that much of the community has just voted to cut itself off from Europeanism. And there has, of course, been a hefty and brash dose of Americanism, too.
The thing about Christmas, of course, is tradition: precisely that to which one might turn in search of a nation’s true identity. But once again, I am faced with not knowing what to make of it. A few weeks ago, my town also had a “traditional” Christmas market of its own, an enjoyable community event that happens every year – but dominated by loud pop music and flashing lights. On Christmas Eve, we had carols around the town tree; a good few hundred turned up, but few seemed willing or able to sing very well, and most seemed more interested in the arrival of Santa Claus to the strains of Wizzard’s I Wish it could Be Christmas Every Day. Well, I suppose it has become a tradition of a sort – but it is, for my money, hardly the stuff of national identity, at least not one I would want to identify with.
It is telling that there have been several complaints this year, that the relatively recent import that are Christmas markets is rapidly being turned into just another fest of cheap commercial tat at odds with the experience abroad. That is certainly my experience: every second-rate garden centre now has a few sad kiosks that it brands “Christmas Market” on huge plastic banners along the adjacent trunk roads. Somewhere, something – quite a lot in fact – is being lost. Not only can we not maintain our own genuine traditions, but it seems that we can only debase the imported ones too.
I find it all genuinely saddening. It’s not that I’m humbug. I love the festive season: it is the one time of the year when tradition almost gets the better of my modernist tastes – but it also seems to me to be the time when our lack of authentic English culture – and its replacement with a cheap plastic version that comes pre-assembled and microwave-ready, is at its most blatant and repulsive.
Yet the article cast a rather different light on this. It struck home where others have not, because it argued that Englishness is in crisis precisely because it has, for too many for too long, been defined by the absence of something. To feel English is to feel the loss of something that other cultures still seem to have. To be English is to be not-Scottish, -Irish or -Welsh: to be part of the majority-hordes of these islands for whom an authentic identity is not allowed. For many, it seems it is also be emphatically not-European.
It has only been amplified by the resurgence of Scottish, Irish and Welsh identities with the United Kingdom, and it is indeed very easy to feel that England is missing out on something. This was something I could identify with: in most of my experiences of my supposedly own culture I repeatedly get an uneasy sense that it is fake, or at best contrived. It is perhaps why my own need for identity has sent me looking elsewhere. For all that the English think they are a tradition-loving nation par excellence, the supposed tradition with which they seem to identify is a plastic confection of commercialism, sentimentality and low-brow popular entertainment. In fact, when presented with the earthiness of real, ancient English pagan-derived tradition, most recoil in horror.
The “traditional” English Christmas seems to me to be a sickly confection of middlebrow convention lashed together roughly between the years of 1850 and 1950, whose main purpose is to boost commerce. And like everything in this country, it is heavily class-based. The ideal Christmas descends from notions of quasi-Victorian middle-classness – and for those who can’t muster the considerable means now needed to do that properly, there is a synthetic, plastic version on offer, which was until some years ago characterised by Noel Edmonds’ facile jollity and loud pullovers on the BBC.
What perhaps hit home hardest about the article was its suggestion that those, like me, whose Europeanism has been such an important part of our lives – soon to be torn away – are in fact simply experiencing a different manifestation of the same difficulty.
In identifying closely with other countries and their cultures, we are, it suggested seeking a surrogate for our own lack of identity. It is a suggestion that resonated strongly. Why is it that we admire the Christmas traditions of Germany, Italy, Scandinavia – and yet somehow little of our own makes much of an impact? Why is it that we seek the cuisines, lifestyles, durables, furnishing and fashions of elsewhere? Why is it that English offerings seem pale and insubstantial by comparison? Even within the British context, I find much more to attract me in the Scottish and Irish identities, an experience compounded by an inexplicable fascination I have had with the landscapes, places and traditional music of those cultures since childhood. Could it be that even as a child I somehow latched onto places that could provide something that was missing from my bland English non-identity?
The more one thinks about the issue of identity, the more perplexing it becomes – not least because I have a large suspicion that it is like looking for trees and barely seeing even a wood: when one is ‘inside’ a culture, it is simply not visible. The icons, habits and thoughts that comprise it are simply the stuff of everyday life, so familiar that they seem devoid of the distinctiveness that one perceives when looking in on someone else’s culture from the outside.
In a way, that is rather sad: it means that the only cultures we can ever truly appreciate are ones that are not our own. I must say, though, that other cultures I have experienced seem fully aware of their own cultural selves, and revel in them to a degree that the English would probably find embarrassing. In another, it might offer reassurance that English culture is not as non-existent as it might seem. Perhaps we are simply looking too hard for something that is, by definition, too innate to see. Those digital devices, plastic decorations, fake traditions, loud music and louder pullovers are English culture. The trouble is, I just don’t like it.
(to be continued)