A Cup of Tea and Game of Cricket? What Is It to Be English, Today?
Shields, Rachel, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
While the Scots, Irish and Welsh are at home with their identity, the changing face of Britain has led to a new interest in Englishness. Academics and film-makers meet to discuss the issue this week. By Rachel Shields
A "crisis of Britishness" is prompting growing numbers of people to redefine themselves as "English", raising troubling questions about national identity and the extremes of home-grown Islamic radicals and the far right.
The question of what it is to be an Englishman has exercised some of the finest minds. To George Orwell it was "solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes", while the American-born poet T S Eliot argued it lay in the Henley regatta, Wensleydale cheese and the music of Elgar.
Academics and film-makers aware of this nationalist trend are gathering in Derby this week to explore English identity at ID Fest, a new film festival exploring English identity.
"There is a crisis of Britishness," said Jeffrey Richards, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University. "Because of things like devolution, the EU and the crises in parliament - and, in the past, the monarchy - some people have felt the need for a separate identity from Britishness."
Earlier this year, the Arts and Humanities Research Council cited a resurgence of interest in English folk music and dance as evidence of this. The experts also admit English is not as well established as Scottish, Irish or the Welsh identities. If flying the flag is a an important symbol of national identity for our neighbours, the St George's cross has come to be associated with football hooliganism and fascism.
"The English have never really had to assert their identity, as they are the senior party in the UK," said Professor Richards. But the problem of defining the national identity of a country of more than 51 million people is complicated by mass immigration, which has made England one of the most multicultural countries in the world.
"It's the elephant in the room of national identity," said Robert Colls, professor of English history at Leicester University. "England is much more tolerant, and open to difference. On the other hand ... major changes in the nation-state have left many wondering in what sense they are living in the same country."
Such divisions were highlighted last week by police who warned that demonstrations by nationalist groups such as the English Defence League are fuelling Islamic extremism.
"When I go to Pakistan I feel English, but when I am in England I don't always feel that I am English because there are so many Englands, from metropolitan London to horrible racist places where people who are different get stared at on village greens," said the cricketer Imran Khan.
While some believe English identity lies in morris dancing and brass bands, the literature of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and an obsession with cups of tea and the weather, others see this as reductionist. The poet Ian McMillan said: "You can either take the John Major view of Englishness, that it is about warm beer; or the idea of radical Englishness - that we've been invaded so many times Englishness is a construct, and can comprise a multiplicity of languages and cultures."
In the quest to find out what it really means to be English, we travelled to two very different locations - Ripley in Derbyshire and Bradford in West Yorkshire - both of which have been described as among the most English places in the country.
Eighty-eight per cent of Ripley residents have an English ethnic background, while 97.8 per cent of the area is white. Nestled in Derbyshire's Amber Valley, the market town was mentioned in 1086 in the Domesday Book as a flourishing industrial town.
It is a world away from the multicultural city of Bradford. Despite the high proportion of …
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Publication information: Article title: A Cup of Tea and Game of Cricket? What Is It to Be English, Today?. Contributors: Shields, Rachel - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: November 21, 2010. Page number: 16. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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