Englishness: Who Cares?

By Bywater, Michael | New Statesman (1996), April 3, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Englishness: Who Cares?


Bywater, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


Michael Bywater cooks like a Frenchman, eats like an Italian and makes love like a Greek (or so he says). So why does he need a national identity?

I am English. And ashamed of what it means. I am ashamed to be white; ashamed to be middle-class; ashamed to have been educated at an elitist university, to speak Received Pronunciation, to be emotionally constipated. I am ashamed of my violent history, my rape of the globe, my racism, my egophalloethnocentricity. I am ashamed of the unspoken discourse of supremacy that lies at the heart of my foundation myths and my literature. I am ashamed of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of my (established) religion and the entrenched interests of my ruling class. I am ashamed that bad food, bad sex and bad weather led to my disenfranchisement of so many peoples, the enslavement of some, the obliteration of a few. I am ashamed of our stroppy proles, white-van men, thugs, oiks and geezers.

I am English. And ashamed of my political culture: the lying, the cronyism, the establishment arse-licking, the secrecy, the monarch. I am ashamed that we have let things run into such disarray that our kinfolk in Wales and Scotland have run screaming for devolutionary cover. I am ashamed that I had to elect Mr Tony because he once appeared to us to be marginally better than what went before. I am ashamed of the growth of our computer surveillance; our dislike of democracy; our dismantling of the presumption of innocence, the right to silence, and the freedom to foregather; the disintegration of the NHS. I am ashamed of Mr Tony's little plans (Mr Tony knowing better than the Christ he claims to worship) to criminalise the poor. I am ashamed of a government that conspires with the French sandwich-and-incarceration company, Sodhexo, to print special joke money to shame people seeking asylum here. I am ashamed of the rubbish, the potholes, the dirty-minded tabloids, the sodden dung food, the endless rain, Britpop, Brit Art, motorways, officials, the Underground, rude notices, Jobcentres, Blackpool, Polperro, Murdoch and the Dome.

I am English. And proud of what it means. I am proud to be a member of the most innovative, creative people in history; proud to belong to its middle class, known throughout the world for fairness, discretion, a respect for privacy, for the cultivation, not of flamboyance, but of decency. I am proud of the way my people have fought as often for dignity, freedom and justice as for power and self-interest. I am proud that my people were immune to tempest and drought, to the lures of gluttony, to narcotic flesh and the sodden tumble of bedsheets. I am proud of my nation's established religion, tempering mysticism with fair play, infusing clear-eyed thought into excitable Italianate transcendentalism. I am proud of our working class, neither slaves nor aspirant bourgeoisie: culturally coherent, ironical, resourceful, uncowed and uncorrupt.

I am English. And, frankly, I couldn't care less. As Englishmen never say: Nu? This is the 21st century. The world has not just shrunk: it has shrivelled. We inhabit a globe increasingly pocked and raddled by the corrupt imperatives of dollar-hegemony; we lie down compliantly while American media barons dangle their wares (as rugose and unwholesome as a dotard's scrotum) in our stupefied faces. We are ring-fenced by concentric, competing appeals to our loyalties. Are we comizens or Europeans? Are we Anglo-Saxon or multicultural, united by blood-line or by the territory in which we live? Are we citizens of Nato or the EU, of Britain or the UK, global or local? The boundaries that we adopt - a primitive means of defining ourselves by reference to those whom we exclude - are redrawn according to self-interest or the subject under discussion. When we are ranged against American cultural imperialism, we are Europeans, and speak proudly of our European heritage. But speak of beef, and -- behold! -- France is another world away, our ancient enemy.

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