English as tuppence, changing yet changless…

As I have mentioned in the previous incarnation of this blog, I took up running a month or two back and have been building up to participating in the Chris Brasher Memorial 10k run. On Sunday, and by way of a change from pounding the roads of the Isle Of Dogs, I chose to run circuits of Victoria Park instead. As I ran, I took in the sights and sound in this most English of settings and as I did, I found myself pondering on the changing essence of England and Englishness, now that we are a part of an internet-connected global village. Thinking this a great idea for a blog piece, I made my way home only to discover (whilst leafing through the The Guardian’s Review section in the smallest room) that this very topic is covered in Timothy Garton Ash’s new book Free World: Why a Crisis of the West Reveals the Opportunity of Our Time. In the extract in the paper, Garton Ash describes an England that sits in a limbo between four competing elements, Island, World, Europe and America. I see the push and pull of these elements every day where Starbucks sits awkwardly alongside Ye Olde C15th Coaching Inn. I see it in the youths outside my window who measure their credibility in term of the latest footwear worn by their South Central counterparts but manufactured by less fortunate peers elsewhere in the world. I see it when we happily scrabble for authentic Mediterranean peppers that have been blast-chilled and flown in overnight but turn our noses up at a locally grown Cox’s Pippin because it has a slight blemish. As I see it, in our rush to embrace the easy, the convenient, the new and the bland into our daily lives, we seem only too happy to ignore or discard the cherishable, the unique, the valuable and the worthwhile. As Garton Ash relates, ‘there has been an England, and a people who have called themselves the English, continuously since at least 937’ and yet we seem more than happy to abandon this heritage to assimilate the worst the world has to offer rather than the best. The piece continues with the observation that ‘the historical connection between “world” and “island” is direct and simple. The world has now come to the island because the island first went to the world’. As the world flocks to England’s shores in forms many and varied, we seem to readily embrace the very worst excesses of globalisation and uniformity that the multinationals have to sell, whilst we fear and shy away from the cultural diversity, shared experience and new horizons that individual migrants can offer.

As the Guardian article points out, England was the cradle from which the modern notion and model of ‘human rights’ grew through the centuries. It is for this reason particularly that I, and a good many others it would seem, find it abhorant that the traditional notion of English and Englishness are under constant threat of misappropriation. This misappropriation is being stealthily but steadily carried out by those who use terms like English and Englishness to describe a country and a state of being that excludes others who do not fit a prescribed racial blueprint. I suspect many flying the flag of Saint George from their windows or mini flagstaffs on their cars around these parts, see the Euro 2004 competition as ideal cover for overblown statements of national pride and anti-elsewhere behaviour. Sadly, I witnessed just such an expression a short while ago, when I broke from writing this to collect the kids from school. I was in a line of parents exiting the school building, walking behind a tall shaveheaded white man in the now seemingly ubiquitous uniform of the masses, the England football strip, trainer socks and expensive white trainers. When the Bengali mother ahead of him failed to hold the door long enough to allow him to barge his way through, he rammed the closing door hard with the buggy he was pushing, presumably to cause it to hit her. When he failed to accomplish this, he swore, tore the door open and set off to pursue the unwitting woman across the playground. Upon catching her up, he rammed her heels extremely hard with the buggy and loomed over her, thrusting his beflagged chest and tattooed arms towards her and leering as if to challenge her to complain. Sensibly, but sadly, she turned and quickly moved away. Just as when some of those round these parts used the well-worn but hollow ‘protest vote’ argument to defend their voting in a BNP councillor in 1993, the cross of Saint George seems to be a flag of convenience, with it’s symbolism open to interpretation, depending on the circumstances.

Billy Bragg talked on the subject of ‘the England flag’ on Radio 4 earlier this week, in programme looking at the concern over possible football hooliganism in Portugal during Euro 2004. He recently participated in a march in Malmesbury where there was a single racist marching in opposition, waving a flag of Saint George. Bragg said that he wished that he and his fellow marchers had had the foresight to also carry and wave flags of Saint George, as this once simple action would have helped reclaim the flag from those who seek to use it as a symbol for their own ends. Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with this and think the idea has genuine merit, I will not be flying the flag at home or in the car. The thought of someone seeing the flag, looking at my close-cropped hair and assuming the worst is just too awful to contemplate.

Title from Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End.

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