Defining British

Film, London, Observatory

Let’s get a few things clear; I don’t like national definitions because by nature they fall into cliche. For decades our idea of an American was a loud bloke in a ten-gallow hat. Now Americans think we’re all like Russell Brand. My US book jackets all feature a Union Jack, a bowler hat (ever seen one of those on someone’s head? Then you’re over sixty) and Big Ben. And stereotypes are always out of date.

When I think of the British I see an eclectic group of people, Anglo, Indian, African, European – I can’t make sense of the image of a man in a bowler hat.

So when it came to redesigning the British passport, artists had a chance to show who we now are – and what have they come up with? Meteorological symbols, thatched cottages and seabirds. Design guru Stephen Bayley says ‘”If you take the passport as being a national advertisement, the official view of Britain is that it’s an island with bad weather populated by seagulls.’

But what could you use that doesn’t date? Famously, British Airways ditched their Union Jack striped tailfins and replaced them with more ethnic designs which were disastrously received. Universally hated, they were deemed a safety hazard, because having so many different designs on a fleet could have led to mis-identification in the skies.

So, what is an enduring national identity? Surely, people’s faces – but perhaps people expect to see Buckingham Palace and rows of crofters’ cottages. I’d suggest a litter-strewn Starbucks outlet, drunken teens in Nottingham and a pair of bedraggled, miserable hikers on a rain-blasted moor in Scotland, but that’s just me being cynical.

7 comments on “Defining British”

  1. Alan Morgan says:

    Naughty, naughty, naughty! You filthy old soomka! Bowler titfers just the very bliss and heaven for me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Are those oak leaves in the upper left? Oak leaves are fine. If you added the thistle and daffodil or leek you’d have most of Great Britain, but I’ll bet they didn’t go that route (pronounced like the lowest part of that mighty tree, please) because there would be questions of (in a whisper) Northern Ireland. Could have used military units or ships, but that looks threatening, or just left the page blank or with a dim neutral pattern behind the text. Can’t find my passport at this moment so I don’t know what Canada does on the equivalent page.

  3. Vickie Farrar says:

    The U.S. passport has images of a furling U.S. flag, an eagle and what appears to be a sheaf of wheat. As an American, I would like to set the record straight (as least as far as my viewpoint) that I have NEVER felt a bowler hat was a symbol of Britain. My first awareness of Britain was via The Beatles. As years have passed, red double decker buses, disappearing (or disappeared) red phone kiosks and the black taxis have come to symbolize England to me. Put THAT on your passports…. (well, maybe minus The Beatles, as their numbers have sadly halved)

  4. Vickie Farrar says:

    p.s. on the dust jacket of Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (thank you, Mr. Fowler, for mentioning it as a worthy tome…it took AGES to get it through, but did finally arrive — and in the British edition!), there are many little items felt to be symbolic of London, including a black taxi and a red phone kiosk. I rest 2/3 of MY case….

  5. I’m not over sixty and I remember seeing people go to work wearing a bowler hat, in England.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    We always knew that the bowler hat/tightly furled umbrella/ striped pants and copy of Times were just symbolic of a certain English occupation “something in the City”. I always wondered about those umbrellas: if it rained so much in London why were the umbrellas always furled? They never seemed to be used for anything except hailing cabs. I think we fitted those people into P.G. Wodehouse’s world, which we knew to be fantasy. There are fantasy Frenchmen and fantasy Americans as well as fantasy Canadians. It’s the authors’ fault, you know.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Finally found my passport. Canadian ones have a discrete maple leaf pattern behind the text. There is twice the amount of text as most other countries because it has to be in French and English. I wonder if Belgium’s has it in all three languages, likewise Switzerland. It doesn’t make sense, though, because that’s the page addressed to foreign officials. Why not just have it in whatever is the current “language of diplomacy”?

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