I’m planning a novel at the moment that’s something new, yet wholeheartedly what you might have expected (or wished to see) from me – a traditional ghost story, with all the right elements in their place. Obviously there’s be a disturbing twist – but basically I’ll be taking on a format that has existed here for a couple of hundred years. I’ve started researching, but here follows a tangential observation (the sort of thing that usually crops up during research) so bear with me.
I was deciding which period to set the story in, and it struck me that it really didn’t matter as much as I’d thought, because for all of the great societal changes we’ve seen in the UK, including the switch from royal to state governance and the acceptance of a multi-cultural society, there’s a sense of continuity that remains stable across the decades that many would probably define as ‘Englishness’.
Now I’m not big on defining nationality, because that way lies an unhealthy attitude to cultural difference. However, you can’t help but notice the continuity of Englishness in nearly all aspects of life, particularly in the semiotics of design, television, public events, private homes, theatre and print media – there are all kinds of tropes that remind you of a shared past. For example, if I showed you this, what era would you think of?
Well, it’s a section of a drawing of a Victorian pub, but you’re probably also thinking of the mid-1970s, because plastic fascias were added then. Everywhere we look, design acts as rock strata, allowing the placing of dates – and the conjuring of memories. Our culture and our conversations are peppered with these signifiers. So many of the words and phrases we use come from long before we were born (although I was thrown by ‘poodle-faking’, a phrase that turned up in the film ‘The Happiest Days Of Your Life’ on TV the other day).
There are many Indian words still in use, of course, from ‘bandanna’ and ‘bungalow’ to ‘juggernaut’, ‘loot’ and ‘shampoo’, and Hebrew ones too, like ‘brouhaha’, but to these we add nicknames and phrases until they become standard, like ‘monstrous carbuncle’, ‘annus horribilis’, ‘They think it’s all over’, the Gherkin and the Phillishave. Linguistic tics come courtesy of old Monty Python sketches – ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and ‘The Fast Show’ – ‘Ooh, Sir’. The current visual style of many commercials echoes the washed-out Eastman Colour of old films. Samples from decades-old pop songs turn up as hooks in a multitude of modern tracks. Magazines (especially Private Eye and Viz) can’t be understood without a knowledge of this past.
Dig below the surface and the continuity gets more complex; a web of sporting events, ceremonies, rituals and coded behaviour that seem to signify ‘Englishness’, much of it annoying. David Cameron’s speeches are filled with the marketing man’s drizzle of appeasing nostalgia instead of any decisive energy. In pubs and on pavements, in buses and trains, the English constantly mutter ‘Sorry’, as they have since the overcrowding of the mid-20th century. it’s a triumph of environment and heredity. Overseas visitors acquire the habit within seconds of arrival, which is probably why London, a city where nearly every language in the world is spoken, feels so oddly homogenous.
To test out the theory, I went to Brixton’s Electric Avenue, where there’s a distinctly 1960s vibe. The shock is that in this predominantly working class neighbourhood you find more old-fashioned butchers and fish shops than in supposedly upscale parts of London like Islington and Marylebone. It’s like stepping into a childhood memory, with shop names like ‘Betty’s Salon’, and all around the language of your grandparents is in daily use.
Where there is a disjunct, in a business district built from scratch as a deliberate break from the past, you suddenly get something different, a kind of ironing-out of national tics created by the common language of the office floor, so that you could be in LA or Toronto or Bangkok. And paradoxically it’s this loss of identity that we’ve come to fear most. The BNP got it completely wrong, as usual. ‘Englishness’ as such is not removed by the creation of a polyglot society but by adopting the lingua franca of the workplace.