In the poem at the end of this post I seek to explore how collective, national identity impacts individual identity.
The Brits are a conquered people and a conquering people. We have experienced both sides of the coin and this has left us with fragile ideas of our own sense of importance and national identity.
Albion was founded upon squatters and as such has always kept lodgings for rebels. Punk Rock anyone? Guido Fawkes? Monty Python? The battle of the bean field’s, The Magna Carta, Robin Hood, The Monster Raving Looney Party!
Of course, it all makes sense when you consider that anarchism is the natural counterpoint to hierarchy, monarchy and class systems.
The Anglo Saxons were opportunists, taking advantage of a weakened Roman empire. When their boats first moored on the shores of Great Britannia, the population, had become accustomed to warm baths, underfloor heating, top-notch irrigation and sewerage systems, straight roads and attractive mosaic tiled furnishings. They were thoroughly appalled by the barbarian invaders lack of class. They pleaded for Rome to help them fend off the Saxon attack but in vain. Rome was being sacked by barbarians and there were no resources to spare for peripheral provinces. Infrastructure soon crumbled and it wasn’t long before we went back to living in wattle and daub huts and fending off Viking marauders with pitchforks. We grew a kind of grudging, underclass pride which the Norman invasion of 1066 would further entrench. The Norman’s stark, utilitarian castles and Latinised language were an affront to any self-respecting Anglo, Saxon or Jute. They may have hated one another but they hated the aloof aggression of these noble Norse men even more. Who did they think they were? Centuries later French was still the language of the courts. Indeed, in many ways English is the result of two languages growing up side by side. The language of law, literature and science draws from the romance languages of Latin and French, whereas the earthy words of daily life are rooted in ald Anglo Saxon. Even in ordinary conversation, language was and still is to some degree used to demarcate class.
Compare the vocabulary list below and consider which words would be applied in which contexts and by who.
|Anglo-Saxon origin words||Old French origin words||notes|
|sex (from Latin “sexus”)||gender|
|uphold, undergird, upstay||support|
|help, bestand, bestead||aid, abet, assist|
|folk, lede (leod)||people|
|wish, will, yearning, longing||desire|
|drink (noun + verb)||beverage, imbibe|
|wholesome, healthy, healthful||salutary, salubrious|
|to rue||to lament, to regret|
|outspoken, straightforward||honest, frank|
As a nation, we are still suspicious of what might be perceived as learned vocabulary. Though the French versions are often used in academics their Anglo-Saxon counterparts prevail in daily conversation as they convey the modesty Brits love to be known for. In the name of good taste and propriety such markers of class are as nuanced and impenetrable as possible. This of course, also makes them conveniently exclusive.
Although the class system is still very much alive and kicking only the middle classes seem to be really troubled by the fact. The elite and the working class share many things in common, one of those things being mistrust of the middle classes. Interestingly, the two social groups who most overwhelmingly voted “leave” in the referendum were the working class and the elite. Obviously, only one of those groups will suffer the consequences. Such is the contrainess of our culture.
Indeed, our little island ark is made up of contradictions. Beneath the cool, reserved British exterior beats a surprisingly sentimental heart. We might have kickstarted the cogs of industrialisation but we simultaneously nurtured the romantic poets who personified our maverick identity in antiquated, pastoral detail. The Pre-Raphaelite artists consolidated this in scenes depicting a bygone golden age defined by chivalry, bravery and tragic love.
Elusive Arthurian mythology percolates every layer of British identity. There is a deep un-articulated yearning for the return of a King that will unite the warring Anglo-Saxon tribes against a common enemy. This enemy is usually an invading “outsider”. In terms of Brexit, this meant immigrants. Years of austerity, with welfare and public service cuts left many disenfranchised and disillusioned. It is all too easy for the loss of individual identity to merge with the loss of national identity. National pride can reinstate individual pride particularly if a common enemy can be identified. Without purpose and meaningful work, young men need a reason to keeping fighting, a raison d’etre, even perhaps, a reason to die; In short, they need a war. Certain leaders are more than ready to siphon that misdirected energy to fuel their own political trajectories. They will use those young men as pawns for their war and steal the glory afterward.
In global terms, with Brexit approaching, England is perhaps becoming the underdog we’ve always loved to root for. There is certainly a cultural tendency to back a scrappy underdog that will, must, triumph in the end. In this, there exists a heady mix of pluck, tenacity, delusion, self annihilation and stagnant sentimentality which mourned the loss of an English ideal while ironically, and tragically creating the conditions which accelerated its demise.
The poem published at the end of this post includes references to other English poems such as Elliot’s Wasteland and Keat’s Ode to Autumn as well as The Lark Ascending by English composer Vaughn Williams, which was written on the brink of WWI. Sadly, with some degree of poetic significance, the once prevalent Skylark is now in dramatic decline. All change contains a piece of loss in it and with all death comes grieving. Perhaps we should forsake our notorious stiff upper lip, have a good Anglo Saxon sob, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and start again. It’s not like we haven’t had to do that before.
Brexit (Elegy of an Elegy)
The lark ascends above a wasteland, a no man’s land
bound in red tape, borders and walls that keep the inhabitants encased
in gilded cells, the dimming light and lull of smoked out bees,
distil in the mists and fruitfulness of one long gone Indian Summer.
The white noise hum seeks nectar and the windfall of what once was
if it ever was. All generations scatter wild poppy seeds on the ashes of now.
The chill of winter clings
to film wrapped sentimentality.
We are extincting in our ark made for one.
One indefinable, affable, proud, modest, mocking, solemn, self-depreciated
whittled white-haired archetype of Englishness.
An Arthurian King wounded, wandering the battlefields since 1066
still trying to find his way home.