The English, with an identity problem to die for

As a little Bank Holiday sidebar, I nick part of Libby Purves’ meditation on Identity in the Times (£) today which laments a lack of the English variety and compares it mournfully  with the rosiest possible version of the Irish kind.  Being English, she actually thinks north and south are much the same – imagine!

Libby, a broadcaster and journalist of my slight acquaintance is also a keen yachtswoman. She put into Schull in west Cork for the Fastnet film festival and reflects on the experience . If the problem of the English is a lack of identity (and I’m not sure that it is), there are many who might say let’s have more of the same in Ireland where we often and rightly take a more dystopian view of old obsessions. Still, Libby has found material for a column when she’s been having a roaring time in west Cork. No better place and that’s nice.  Years ago when I was last there, the towns were plastered with signs saying “ Save the Swansea ferry,”  but so far, alas without success. “Always look on the bright side of life, ” as the Man didn’t say on the Cross?

“….so, it was often Irishness itself that struck me: from a rueful, touching comedy in which a broke Ulster father organises a birthday treat for his thrilled seven-year-old by pretending they are hiding from “Queen Elizabeth’s army and the KGB” as they pick apples, to Stephen James Smith’s poem My Ireland over visuals ranging from scenic grandeur to graffiti. Ireland has an enviable ease in its identity, which (mere quarter-Irish myself) I always notice here. For all its divisions — north and south, Catholic and Protestant, rich and poor, city and farm, grand soul and daft eejit — there is an overarching sense of what it is to be Irish, and that it is just fine.

Perhaps it is easier if you are few — just over four and a half million in the Irish Republic, fewer than two million more up North. Yet there are tens of thousands across the globe who still feel Irish: indeed, the republic has a minister of state for diaspora. It’s in the bone and
blood, in sentimentality and dry jokes, craic and exasperated sporting partisanship, rueful historical awareness and sly self-knowledge.

Being mainly English, I envy it. For while Scotland and Wales can sing out their identity, with or without politics, Englishness is too often seen as an embarrassment. We have tradition and cultural riches, from Shakespeare to Victoria Wood, and being yoked to three others we can at a pinch mutter “proud to be British”. Sub-regions like Yorkshire or centres such as Manchester (as nobly demonstrated last week) express local patriotism. But general Englishness? Suggesting it creates awkwardness: a lurking sense of shame, potential racism, hubris, xenophobia, hard-Brexitry. The left-liberal cadre has prissily discarded the distinctive Englishness of its roots: say that you like morris dancing, that change-ringing is an art or Kipling underrated, and they irrationally assume that you’re on the fascist fringe. The last time I heard full-throated happy pride in Englishness as such was in a show by the likeable comedian Shappi Khorsandi. As an Iranian former child refugee she loves all of it, and is merrily proud to adopt Englishness.

This awkward flinch is utterly unlike the Irish attitude, which cheerfully accepts absurd cultural foibles as well as artistic treasures, can laugh at Riverdance even while cherishing it. That ease makes them more able to move on from bad stuff: while Englishness agonises over its forebears’ iniquities, middle-Ireland can both acknowledge and move on from the horrors of clerical domination and abuse. Only 25 years after ending the last of the
anti-contraception laws, the republic has legitimised gay marriage and this week looks set to elect a gay, half-Indian prime minister. As for recession, I remember a witty column in an Irish paper when the Celtic tiger collapsed: the author mused that the BMW-and-boom culture never suited the Irish anyway, since their proper talent was mocking flash eejits from the sidelines.”

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  • ted hagan

    Personally, as a middle-class Protestant brought up in Northern Ireland I’ve never had that confidence of identity that Libby talks about. I remember a six-week visit to the south of England as a nine-year-old (pre-Troubles) where I had to explain I was ‘Northern Irish’ (such a mouthful) and explain to puzzled inquisitors where Northern Ireland was, and ‘was I Scottish?’. Nowadays I just say proudly proclaim I’m Irish, though, despite years working in Dublin, I’m still not totally convinced.of myself.

  • the rich get richer

    In fairness England needs more Wat Tylers

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Tyler

    Just to make it more interesting . They would have to stay Alive for longer though .

    Cromwell was an interesting Chap but gets a bad review from the Catholic Irish probably at the behest of the Irish catholic clergy . Can you imagine a jumped up republican treating the Irish just as bad as English / British royalty….Who did the jumped up fooker think he was…..he should have known his place….

    Anyway , Wat Tyler what an opportunity lost for someone of interest to chat about .

    Bring back Wat Tyler……………..

  • MainlandUlsterman

    She’s certainly deluded about Irishness – she makes it seem very uncomplicated and unconflicted. But she has a point about Englishness.

  • Old Mortality

    Were your interlocutors children or adults? My own experience has been that awareness of the distinction among dwellers in England is positively correlated with their level of general education. Typically in the southeast, I think, there is a vagueness about almost anywhere else in the UK, mitigated only by reliance on whether a town in question has a football team in the English leagues.

  • DrMark

    I have found that people know my home town for two reasons when I fess up my domicile when in England
    Firstly for the awful carnage that happened here during the trouble and secondly that it is often marked on the national BBC weather map!

  • Alec McAulay

    Libby Purves had a radio programme called ‘Midweek’ on the BBC for many years. It was unlistenable to, literally unbearable – smug, dull, smug, silly and smug.

    It, together with ‘Today’, cured me of listening to Radio 4. Exposure to her and her fellow news professionals on that channel eventually led me to realise just how pernicious personality journalism is. It was a better world when news reports were from our correspondent, when no one with any sense was interested in the thoughts, beliefs or prejudices some chap who could knock off 500 words on any old thing, when we had no idea what journalists looked like, sounded like…

    Nick Robinson! Laura Kuenssberg! John Humphries! John Simpson! Jon Snow! The drones who review tomorrow’s newspapers on the news channels! These people could empty the saloon bar of any decent pub in the land in five minutes.

    A great blessing of the internet is that it has enabled anyone with an ego to parade their opinions. Although all these emissions added together are effectively worthless, they do serve to demonstrate that the public can generate its own follies. Journalists have no special qualities in this field; anyone can do the opinion stuff, all that’s needed is a word processor, a sufficiency of glibness and a good editor – I mean, look at Rod Liddle!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’m with you on Rod Liddle and Libby Purves – you’ll be gutted to hear Midweek is still going. I’m not a fan. However, I get what she tries to do with it – she focusses deliberately on upbeat stories of performance and adventure and it is for some people an antidote to the negativity and conflict of much broadcasting. It’s not my cup of tea, being a miserablist, a cynic and a curmodgeon. Every time I hear of some posh explorer on there who’s crossed a desert, I kind of wish they had been eaten by their camels.

    However, I can’t disagree more on Radio 4 in general. If you know what to avoid, it has some real riches and it doesn’t talk down to its audience. Start The Week, In Our Time, The News Quiz, More Or Less, All In The Mind, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, The Infinite Monkey Cage, Thinking Allowed, Word of Mouth, I could go on … The BBC generally is the single best thing about the UK I reckon and Radio 4 is the best thing about it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I used to occasionally go along with the “Irish” thing if an outsider called me that, just to avoid the tedious unravelling of their ignorance on N Ireland and not to rain on their parade. But I must say though, I haven’t done that for a long time – being middle aged now I no longer see the need to limbo under the bar of other people’s ignorance lest I offend them.

    My standard answer to someone saying ‘Is that an Irish accent?’, which is fairly frequent, is ‘*Northern* Irish, I’m originally from Belfast.” It puts things in my terms without coming across as prickly or putting them down. Usually things just move on amicably from there. If they are interested in N Ireland, they will ask about it; if they haven’t got beyond ‘Ireland’ as a generic place, then they might proffer some story about a relative in Wexford or something and I’ll smile and say something inane, then we move on.

  • Cal Cryton

    Sorry but what’s the name of the island that you were born on and grew up on?

    Do people of British ancestry born in Canada call themselves British?

  • Cal Cryton

    You were born in Ireland, and not born in Great Britain. Hence that makes you Irish, not British. Quite straight forward really.

  • ted hagan

    Nothing is straightforward in Ireland, or hadn’t you noticed?

  • ted hagan

    Canada isn’t part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland, for good or ill, is. Try again.

  • ted hagan

    So in your opinion all opinions are worthless?

  • Cal Cryton

    But last i checked NI is not part of GB, correct? That would be the “British” part. Canada has the Queen as head of state.

  • Cal Cryton

    Under the law you were born on the island of Ireland and you’re automatically entitled to an Irish passport, so i think that’s as straight-forward as you can get.

  • ted hagan

    I don’t e know what you’re talking about exactly and yes I know all about irish passports, since I have one. You’re making assumptions here. The discussion is about identities. Try reading the original article. You’ve gone off on some political tangent.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It’s my birthright to be accepted as British – which even SF has agreed – so please don’t try questioning it, you’ll get nowhere. It’s not your call.

  • ted hagan

    You really don’t understand.Northern Ireland is part of the UK.
    Canada isn’t.

  • hollandia

    Can’t disagree with any of that. Except…. The Archers…
    I’m a huge fan of Radio 4’s comedy output, and I particularly like the Infinite Monkey Cage and Clue. That said, I’m sure the UK has more to offer than Radio4 being its best, as good as it is.

  • hollandia

    England has a very strong folk scene, which goes someway to keeping its national identity. The Difficulty is that it is somewhat disparate, being strong on the periphery – Northumbria and the West Country, with little pockets here and there dotted throughout the rest. The television (mostly) has sort of centralised the idea of being English around the big urban areas.

  • Cal Cryton

    You have an Irish passport and were born in Ireland, so why don’t you feel Irish?

  • runnymede

    Brian, this article is really cringeworthy. It’s just reflecting the attitudes of a small minority of middle class left wing people in the media and similar industries. The overwhelming majority of English people do not find Englishness at all embarrassing, quite the opposite. Despite being endlessly told they should by patronising posh gits in the BBC and elsewhere.

  • Brian Walker

    Now there’s a dystopian view to die for- a perfect example of what he attacks, without the slightest sense of irony!

  • ted hagan

    Identity is the topic. I’ve explained my position. I believe there are many with the same conflicting views. Many Protestants in the post-1921 Republic; I believe, felt a sense of being outsiders in the new Republic, though they suffered little discrimination, but to be Irish was to be Catholic and Gael.
    Things have changed for the better, I hasten to add.

  • Brian Walker

    Declaration of interest.. I was once it’s commissioning editor for current affairs. So thank you.

  • ted hagan

    I don’t think you ready the article very thoroughly, Purves remarks that “‘the left-liberal cadre has prissily discarded the distinctive Englishness of its roots: say that you like morris dancing, that change-ringing is an art or Kipling underrated, and they irrationally assume that you’re on the fascist fringe”.
    You sound like a predictable, right-wing BBC-hater looking for any excuse to have go…

  • runnymede

    Oh occasionally they wonder whether their worldview might not be completely bombproof…but the very use of that list of items suggests they still don’t have a clue.

  • Trasna

    Irishness is uncomplicated and unconflicted for us southerners. Can’t see why you would have a difficulty with that.

  • Brian Walker

    The subject of English identity is a well known theme in politics partlly stimulated by Scottish devolution. It’s seen in the campaign, now overshadowed by Brexit, for English votes for English laws, which sees the vast English majority as somehow losing out. It’s often mixed up in the north-south divide and chronic class antagonism like those on display above

  • Brian Walker

    Agreed!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Well, thank you 🙂 There’s a dream job. If only I wasn’t lazy and incompetent, I’d have fancied it myself. I always follow the Groucho Marx dictum of not wanting to be in any club that would have someone like me as a member.

  • nilehenri

    i saw many post-1921 unionist postcards (from all four provinces i add) where irishness and unionism were compatible. i think if you move on to the fifities and sixties a conflated sense of self worth, similarities and interests in industry and english nationalism led to the encouragement of the use of british, even though, physically speaking we are not, and never have been part of ‘great’ britain.

  • runnymede

    The supposed ‘identity crisis’ amongst the English is a baffling concept to anyone who lives outside SW1.

  • Alec McAulay

    To a first approximation, All Journalists’ Opinions Are Worthless.

    That is, what Neal Ascherson thinks about some things is worth reading … that’s it.

    What I mean is this: the journalists I see and hear, and the few I know, are either empty vessels or, like Gove, foolish enough to believe that because they have tossed off 500 words on something or other (education, the EU, the world …) they are qualified to actually run a department, write a book.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Quit digging – our right to be *accepted* as British was in the Good Friday Agreement. Your argument was finished 20 years ago and frankly should have been finished long before that.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I don’t, it is straightforward for lots of people, I’m just saying Irishness too has its complications, especially in Northern Ireland. Britishness and Englishness are not alone in the world as identities that aren’t straightforward. Many identities are multi-faceted, or more complex than they initially appear.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think the question is more, why do you have a problem with him deciding for himself what identity he feels and/or wants? You can’t force identities on people by diktat.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But there’s a semantic error here over the word ‘British’. British can refer to anyone in the UK – we are British citizens after all, and one of the main meanings of British is ‘of the UK’. The concept that words can have several meanings seems to be baffling some people. Though I suspect they are more pretending to be baffled, in order to make a petty insult against people of British identity in N Ireland, than genuinely not understanding the word.

  • nilehenri

    disagree. you can feel whatever you wish to feel, as can i. great britain was initially used as a measure of size (great as in big) not stature (great as in amazing).
    the queen seems like a nice lady all things considering but i have never felt an iota of emotion toward her, and i am not a rabid mouthed dissie. i’m a person who was born in the north, and am entirely comfortable with my irishness, and have no need for any other descriptive.
    i have no intention to insult anyone, i appreciate and understand your position, but i form no part of it, the oo and ‘unionist’ politics are baffling and counter-productive to me, and to the north. if indeed you all loved ulster so much you would be open to discussion as regards what’s best for it, instead of trying to jump over the cliff with the tories. that’s understanding enough for me.

  • Cal Cryton

    Protestants in the Republic certainly didn’t “suffer any discrimination”. They were dominant in banks, business and civil service. If anything, they were doing the discriminating.

  • ted hagan

    You seem to have an awful chip on your shoulder.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Well, I’m a Remainer so your last comment is misdirected. No one’s expecting you to become a unionist, just to accept our Britishness and not keep taking pops at it, as if it’s up for debate. It isn’t and you have to realise how disrespectful it is to treat it like it is.

  • Ricayboy

    This is true, up to a point. There are certainly many people who feel uncomfortable with the concept of English identity. But millions of ordinary English people are comfortable with it and are only uncomfortable with the way that it is so often neglected and shunned by ‘progressive types.’ If people want to belong to the lost tribe of Europe with no real cultural identity then that’s their choice. Personally I think we need to encourage English people to embrace their own distinct identity as a source of pride, belonging and self respect.

  • scepticacademic

    I think the debate about English identity on this thread suffers from a simplistic understanding of identity. In reality, identity can be complex/multi-layered and not defined along ‘either/or’ lines. Thus, strong local identities (which are very strong and persistent in parts – e.g. Yorkshire, Cornwall) can co-exist with a sense of English-ness, British-ness and sometimes even European-ness (God forbid such heresy). Another fact that’s overlooked is that many ‘English’ people have complex affiliations due to migration (international and sub-national) or ‘mixed marriage’ (excuse the Northern Irish-ism). In this context, many people may feel a sense of Englishness but they may all be experiencing a different version.

  • nilehenri

    not for me, nor for the majority of people that i know. can you give me examples of the complications and i’ll answer you?

  • nilehenri

    how you feel isn’t up for debate, but who runs the country most efficiently is. the cards aren’t falling in the ‘uinionist’s’ favour, and that is because of ‘their’ choices. you can’t blame ‘us’ for that.

  • Factorygirl

    Hair-splitting over nomenclature is something I’ve come to expect from Americans.