Friday 19 July 2019

Englishness (yawn)

Yes, it's a dreary subject (though not quite as dreary as 'Britishness'), and one about which too much has been written lately, nearly all of it based on certain received opinions. These are that there is nothing special or unique about Englishness, that it is a constructed notion of relatively recent origin, and that it has no real substance because we are so obviously a 'mongrel nation', the product of wave after wave of migration, conquest, settlement and intermarriage. But how true is any of that?
  I've been dipping into – or trying to dip into, but finding myself reading the whole thing – English Voices, a volume of 'Lives, Landscapes, Laments' by Ferdinand Mount. It's a collection mostly of short biographical essays and book reviews – all of them extraordinarily insightful and beautifully written – and it begins with an Introduction in which Mount demonstrates that 'the English have always had a fierce sense of themselves' and that outside observers – who invariably see more of the realities than the natives – have always been 'fascinated by the quiddities of the English'. He traces this all the way from Tacitus (who noted the English preference for living separately, with a little land around them, rather than crowded together in cities, like the Romans) to the 20th-century historians of foreign origin – Isaiah Berlin, Lewis Namier,  Geoffrey Elton – who saw clearly what was distinctive and cherishable about Englishness.
  The English people's deep-seated sense of itself and its specialness, Mount points out, is based on taking pride 'not in its ancient bloodlines but on its ancient liberties'  (so being a 'mongrel nation' was neither here nor there). The English, having always embraced the idea of monogenesis (one creation) rather than polygenesis (separate creation of different races), have never gone for 'scientific' racism – as against xenophobia – and racism has never taken root in England as it has in so many Continental countries.
 Our ancient liberties and our specialness, Mount argues, are rooted in English common law and the English language. And the two are closely related, as English law has always been written in the vernacular, rather than the Latin that was used all over Europe. The continuity of use of the English language, in its various forms – and the wealth of words flowing into it from all those migrants and occupiers – gave it the unique richness, flexibility and resilience that equipped it to be a world language on an unprecedented scale. When, in Norman times, it went into abeyance for a couple of centuries, it only bounced back renewed, reinvigorated and ready to develop into modern English as we know it. The extraordinary richness of the language also, Mount argues, fostered a highly developed individuality and a fascination with the quirks that make one person different from another – hence the English genius for biography, a form of writing that is looked down on across the Channel.
   Though I'm sure it is far from Mount's intentions, I cannot help but note that all the above adds up to a pretty good summing-up of the deeper-seated reasons why we were never going to make a fit with the European Union...


  1. This is a very interesting post. While the English people may have developed a highly definitive culture, and I think they most certainly have, they have also "Anglicized" many other cultures as "the sun never set" on their Empire.

    People may criticize that and it's not fashionable to say it, but your nation actually has played a crucial role in civilizing other nations.

    If people call this "immoral" or "imperialistic" then they need to ask themselves which countries are experiencing a massive influx of immigrants and which countries are experience an equally massive exodus of their citizens.

  2. I quite agree. You can also compare the state of most former British colonies with that of former colonies of other countries. We had a good empire, as empires go...