Englishness – part three
The Germans, by reputation, excel at obtaining the best sun-loungers in Mediterranean resort hotels. The British (and perhaps others) excel at grumbling about it.
I have no idea whether the reputation is deserved, as I never take that kind of holiday (and therefore probably never rub up against that kind of German…).
Popular repute also has it that this speaks volumes about the kind of people that the Germans are – while eliciting certain, rather unflattering adjectives. I hasten to add, that this is nothing whatsoever like my experience of that nation – which may of course also speak volumes about the places that I choose to frequent.
The cultural telescope, however, has two ends. For all that we use such anecdotes to illustrate our impressions (and prejudices), such stories can say as much about us as ‘them’. I wonder how (if at all) healthy-and-efficient, early-to-rise Germans perceive the laggardly and perhaps-disorganised British in the race for sun-beds.
Such perceptions of the Germans amongst the British seem fairly common – and yet when one examines the outcomes of our two approaches, in the way our respective nations and societies function, I wonder who the joke is really on. It is visible in all sorts of ways – for example in the fact that German Railways have just reduced their fares to encourage sustainable travel – on the same day that British rail companies yet again raised theirs. That, to me, speaks volumes.
It is impossible to know how culturally-representative these two examples really are, of two nations that total some 160 million people between them. And that is without trying to factor in all the comparisons that might be made with all the other nations of Europe.
We cannot but have a tiny, selective impression of the culture and identity of a whole nation. We should remember that our minds selectively edit what they see according to our preconceptions. We also need to remember that the base-lines in such comparisons are rarely consistent: my Swiss friend Alfred regularly complains about the traffic congestion in Basel. I can only conclude that he has never fully experienced British roads at rush hour. Maybe I have just been very lucky in Basel – but I doubt it.
In another way, the shortcomings of our ability to see such things accurately don’t matter. Identity is, ultimately, entirely a matter of perception – and if our imaginations construct certain images, then for all intents and purposes that is what is true. Which is not to say that it is unwise to remind ourselves regularly that we may be romanticising what we (think we) are seeing. Our mind-picture can only ever be partial.
The big problem arises when we try to compare cultures about which we have different ‘resolutions’ of knowledge. While it is probably reasonable for a Briton to make comparisons between, say France and Germany based on an equal, outsider’s view of both – the real problems arise when we are trying to assess our own culture. As I suggested previously, from the “inside” – as we can only be with our own culture – things can appear very different indeed. Perhaps is it simply impossible ever to step far enough away from our own culture to be able to see it as others do? It can only be all the more difficult if one fails to appreciate that cultural judgements are only ever relative – they appear differently depending on which end of the telescope you are looking through – so trying to conclude that one is in any way “better” than the other is probably doomed to failure. “Preferable” might, however, be possible.
Perhaps the only way of doing this is to examine the physical manifestations of those cultures in terms of the way each nation operates, the values it upholds, and the success with which it appears to achieve and sustain them. Always remembering that even ‘desirables’ such as equality or social stability can be seen in more than one light… But when it comes to sunbeds, it still seems that the German way is more successful than the British.
The starting premise of this piece was the suggestion in The New Statesman, that English culture is in crisis because it lacks a clear and positive sense of itself. It occurred to me that this may also be why there is a strong inclination among some Britons to admire cultures other than our own: ones that appear to offer strong, positive identities that we cannot find nearer to home. As I said, even if those identities are imaginary, at one level that doesn’t matter, so long as they provide the observer with what they are looking for.
That certainly resonated with me, as an explanation for many of my personal choices and actions, even down to the identity of this blog, whose name and underpinning purpose is the search for aspects of a “well-lived life” that I feel are at best elusive in general lived experience in the UK. What bothers me is why those “feel-good” moments happen much less frequently in my home country than they seem to elsewhere.
The obvious starting point for this has to be that familiarity breeds contempt; that we simply cannot appreciate our own cultures in the way we do others’ because “that is how normal life is” – and we tend to respond more to the exceptional and defining. If this is true, then the same should be true everywhere – but that, by definition, is not something I can easily judge.
What I can see is that those external expressions of other nation’s culture often seem to align with my own aspirations far more frequently elsewhere, than in England. The fact is, I find much of English culture to be insipid, confused, aesthetically illiterate, and dominated by social signalling and matters of class and status. It is for this reason that I find it difficult to identify with the culture that is supposed to be my own.
Perhaps the strongest icons of English culture – those that seem to figure most frequently in the minds of the non-British, are nearly all associated with the traditional upper classes. Be it sartorial style, interior décor, foodstuffs, motor cars, table-manners, social convention, matters of personal deportment and more, most of the “so English” things are all the preserve of a small, exclusive section of English society, to which I do not belong – and do not want to.
While the old leather, polished wood and tweed does have a certain aesthetic appeal, it is almost impossible to dissociate it from its aristocratic connotations. It is also inherently traditionalist, fuddy-duddy, backward-looking and socially-repressive in ways that I do not wish to associate with. What’s more, despite a certain “richness” it is also often aesthetically illiterate, as the violent clashes of colour and pattern of traditional English menswear show. It glories in its contrived eccentricity, fake under-statement – and a lasting, starchy attachment to its military origins that I find most off-putting. In the final reckoning, English style is a uniform, a social statement of conformity and individual repression, rather than a form of personal expression. It also rejoices in its lack of aesthetic coherence, the bumbling aristocrat personified in cloth and hide.
The alternatives are scarce. While few of us actually live in the kinds of mansions that the foregoing might suggest, the values of that social stratum have extended into almost all other expressions of Englishness. Perceptions of English countryside almost all descend from the idealised aristocratic ideas of what is delightful. Those who aspired to social advancement (itself an antisocial concept) felt the need to assume that aesthetic and other values. Hence we have vast swathes of suburbia whose identikit Tudorbethan is widely furnished with pale imitations of ‘traditional’ “good taste” which derive directly from the stately home. Social mores were likewise dominated by aristocratic rules of acceptability – thus we have amost infinite gradations of cringingly genteel Margo Leadbetter-like middle class ‘taste’ whose main cultural benchmark appears to be that which will confer social acceptability with those a rung or two up the ladder – if only in the imagination. It is another expression of Englishness that I find utterly repulsive.
The only other alternative appears to be what was left for those without the means or hope of acquiring such faux-gentility. There are “working classes” everywhere, of course – but I detect in other countries less of the exclusion from wider cultural capital that exists in England. The logic is clear: when the higher echelons of society have so completely corned all of the best for themselves, the only thing left is to define oneself in opposition to that – by actively disowning the cultural capital of higher arts and culture, and revelling in a crude, brutal and utterly utilitarian persona which is all that is left of the national identity once the aristos have finished with it. It is all the easier when the higher orders treat you badly in the first place: the only thing you can really do to retain any sense of autonomy is to show them your arse.
And that is what much of non-faux-genteel English identity resolutely does. It is a form of inverted class-snobbery that revels in the crude, the anarchic and repugnant, the unimaginative and the crushingly routine. Positive La Bonne Vie artfulness is something utterly absent from ordinary English life. Much of what it is now fashionable as “gritty authenticity” is, to my eyes simply rough. When does ‘down-to-earth’ become ‘boring’ or crude? That may seem grossly condescending, but it is still true that many of those who could escape such cultural environments took their first chance and never went back.
Even though (perhaps because?) my own roots are in the working class of a couple of generations ago, I find the studied crudeness of English tribal mass-culture to be no more appealing than the aristocratic type. If you happen not to like Corrie, Footie and beer, it is just as excluding. It is, in any case increasingly false: a factory-processed replica of itself, spewed back by huge commercial and media interests in plastic, Anglo-American form at “the masses” who supposedly aren’t able to cope with anything more.
There seems to be little in the middle. For a while, I had hopes of the English food revival – but it turned out to be just another form of gentrification, the main effect of which (as anywhere) is to destroy authenticity. Gentrification takes mundane, authentic cultural capital and turns it into exclusive delicacies for the new elites, who in reality crave little more than the respectability (rebranded as Cool) of their stodgy antecedents. It mostly appeals to the chattering classes, whose magpie-like predilection for cosmopolitan cultural novelty, I suppose I might appear to ape. But novelty is the last thing I want. Continuity is more like it: the enduring, solid cultural icons and institutions that one can go back to over a span of decades, that give our own identities roots. (It is possible to do that without atrophy). The preciousness of gentrification seems to so-alienate so many that it removes any claim it might have to be a genuine national identity.
The irony about both sides of English culture is that they are two sides of the same coin. Both are backward-looking, fundamentally nostalgic for things that perhaps never really existed. Both are more about signalling what they think they are – or want to be – than anything more genuine. Whether it is social climbing or studied roughness, it is all about pretence rather than honesty: probably the inevitable outcome of a society so heavily predicated for so long on a strong social hierarchy.
In that sense they are no more a real identity than my apparent idealisation of continental cultures. They both rely on people knowing their place, rather than finding their own in the way that Sprezzatura implies. They are now both cardboard cut-outs whose purpose is not to create a sense of heimat-like belonging, but to assign people their place in the social pecking order. I think their inherent superficiality invokes a sense of emptiness that leaves people feeling as though they lack something deep.
To invoke “The English People” is nothing like invoking the German Volk or even French Citoyens. Such English culture as still exists is a revivalist, sanitised caricature. When people encounter the guts of real, old English tradition, they find it lumpen and crude, and are often repelled – which is why in England folk traditions are a thing of mockery, unlike in Scotland or Ireland, for example. And what most people think if as “folk” is actually a form of soft, acoustic pop: a sanitised modern expression of cultural longing that can’t actually cope with the ancient reality of what it longs for.
And so, I am left failing to find anything meaningful in English culture that does not in one way or another repel me. I am left with the only option of constructing my own identity from what I see and value elsewhere. There is no reason why, over time, cultural acquisitions cannot assume a level of authenticity – though they will never feel ‘native’ within the course of a single lifetime.
A confected and ridiculous position, perhaps – but one which, if the “crisis of Englishness” is correct, a lot of other people perhaps feel too. And while they do, it will only increase their sensitivity to what they perceive as unwelcome incursions.
This was intended to be a three-part item. However, there remains the issue of whether the Englishness deficit can be addressed. One more installment to follow…