Could This Be The Secret Of ‘Englishness’?

Great Britain, London

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.

7 comments on “Could This Be The Secret Of ‘Englishness’?”

  1. J. Folgard says:

    Whatever is your final choice for the setting, I’m sure it will have a lot of appeal, and this elusive ‘Englishness’ will show through. Keep us posted on this project (including tangential musings), and I hope you’ll enjoy the process. I love ghost stories, generally short ones, so I’d really love to read your version in a longer form!

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I am also looking forward to this novel. I’m sure you will do it well; with lots of tangential observations and other good stuff and shocks to the system.
    Are you dipping in and reading in the genre? Sort of priming the PC – er, the pump, – er your Apple?
    Paul Doherty did a good ghost story some years back “The Haunting.”
    I have been researching the Civil War in Virgina, particularly the Battle of the Wilderness, off and on, and tinkering with a ghost myself. Have a file building, books pulled out, a nice twist midway through, and a working title so far: And Buried Him Where He Fell, the last line of a Walt Whitman poem.
    But you’ll be done, published and read by all and on to something(s)else before me. Have at it.

  3. Alan G says:

    As a Glasgewegian of Irish gypsy parents I have many, many, precise ways to describe Englishness.

    Heh – cultural stereotypes rule…

  4. Mike Cane says:

    >>>adopting the lingua franca of the workplace

    Of the *global corporate workplace*, you mean. Transnationality goes beyond that, to chains like McD’s, KFC, and the like. And global brands — which are more ascendant in the age of tech than perhaps in any other time. Interesting that I just saw a TV news report here that the disntintcly-London taxi might go away because its maker is in the edge of bankruptcy. Sandpapering away differences like that is what leads to things like the BNP. Even if it can denounced as a commercial facade — something Potter was famous for pointing out in his last interview — people find such familiarity comforting. God help us all though if future generations find global brands comforting!

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Part of the smoothing out in the workplace is the language of the computer, the terminology and the way things are phrased in communications. There are international branch offices and connections so it is not surprising that language would repattern itself somewhat, just as bandanna & bungalow came into Britain from the army. “Sorry” drifted into Canadian speech somewhat differently, but you’ll hear it all over here, too. Television style is different in England, especially on the news. I was surprised at the things people were warned about on a news story; not just excessive blood or violent language, but very bright lights (!). I remember a news reader from Barbados who read the way he had been taught with a pause between stories and very clear enunciation. It took a while for him to adjust to the quicker style in Canada. There is a reason for all of these things & I hope other countries don’t lose all their usual practices.

  6. glasgow1975 says:

    Ha beat me to it Alan G!

  7. jan says:

    U’m i’m not sure you haven’t got some of this this a bit arse about face. Surely in places like ELectric Avenue the old fashioned shops have survived because immigrant communities settled in the locality and needed shops specifically to serve their needs fish shops serving the fish from home, grocers and butchers specialising in serving the locals who happen to be from elsewhere. this has happened all over the shop in fact you can go back to an area once dominated by one community and find they have moved along to the next rung on the property ladder and another community has come along settled in the less desirable areas/littler houses, one bed flats and community housing and the community u remember is now happily out in the suburbs. I went back to Harlesden in north west London to find an Irish African and West Indian community had largely moved along to be replaced by Eastern europeans, Kurdish folk, Afghans. The original community i remembered was still about but not in such gr8 numbers they had shuffled off to the suburbs to raise their families in what they saw as better safer spots. This is a constant state of flux for cities i think although people don’t think too much on it its always been like this. Now because of a faster paced world of travel and opportunity things just move faster. KEEP AN EYE ON THE OFF LICENCES spot the beers thats a change gauge thats as good as any!!! Here is that a Geoffrey FLETCHER drawing i spot ? I found a lovely G Flectcher book i was gonna send u 4 Xmas the London DIckens Knew but someones gone and bought it whilst i was away. HOPE ALLS WELL jan

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