Exploring Englishness, Part 5: The English and 'Abroad'
(This is the fifth in a series of articles in which we attempt to pin down and dissect various aspects of the English character.)
"Abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends," barks a peppery aristocrat in one of Nancy Mitford's novels. This often-quoted line has been taken to be representative of certain English attitudes towards 'Abroad'. Its distillation of them is perhaps unfairly comic, but it amuses because it was based on real attitudes. These have softened somewhat since the line was first penned during World War II, but there are still traces of them here and there, underlying, most obviously, one distinctive brand of Euroscepticism. However, there is also no doubt that English attitudes towards 'Abroad' are a good deal more complex than Mitford's bon mot would make it appear.
Why do the English appear to have an ambivalent attitude towards foreigners, mainly Continental Europeans? (Attitudes towards the rest of the world, for reasons which I shall explain later, seem to be rather more positive). Although this is not an excuse, the answer seems to lie rather obviously in history and geography. To begin with, being the largest national group on an island off Europe gave the English a distinctive island mentality, similar to that which can be found in many island societies all over the world; self-sufficiency, distrust of and/or disinterest in outsiders, and a more socially self-contained world than that found on the Continent, where it seems always to have been more common to have bosom friends from other countries. (As with most generalisations about Englishness, however, we must insert a caveat here; perhaps the best English film ever made, Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, sketches a portrait of a close friendship between an English and a German officer across the lines of two World Wars).
Unlike Continental peoples, the English have enjoyed a remarkably peaceful history. The only major domestic conflagration, that of the 17th century, and the Protectorate which followed it, seem to have left a bad taste in the mouths of nearly everyone concerned, with the result that civil war has been viewed with horror ever since. We are, by and large, not a revolutionary lot, even when the common people are made to suffer in a way that in other countries would provoke armed insurrection (for example, during our early industrial age). Armed rebellion has only ever broken out in relatively small patches here and there, and never succeeded in catching on enough to cause a full-scale revolt. Politically speaking, for centuries the English associated Europe with upheaval.
The Napoleonic wars (which, as the historian Linda Colley has shown, were a general unifying influence, rallying the Scots and Welsh as well as the English to produce the first conscious stirrings of Britishness) raised the spectre of foreign domination. The same fears were to resurface repeatedly, even during the apparently tranquil Victorian age, as France and Germany began acquiring colonies. (It could be argued that the acquisition of empire, on the few occasions when it was consciously directed by the central government --deliberate rather than 'absent-minded'--was an over-reactive defensive mechanism). World War I reinforced Europhobia on a number of levels. The ravings of the Kaiser seemed, to an alarmed polity in England, conclusive proof that European power elites were demented and unbalanced. The violent revolutionary act which launched the conflagration reinforced the impression of Europe as a hotbed of political instability and violence, while the web of alliances which brought England into the conflict encouraged the idea that it would be safer in future to pursue a policy of isolationism. The actual experience of fighting the war made the English very uneasy about Europe, not only because the war itself was horrendous, but also because of geography. The front was in mainland Europe, so that, unlike the other major participants in the conflict, English soldiers had to cross water to get to it. The foreignness of the battlefields was thus powerfully underscored; they could not view the conflict as taking place on a common home ground, as some Europeans seem to have seen it. Blighty, by contrast with France, was quiet, far from the carnage, and a place of rest and relaxation in a way that France with its churned-up earth and blighted forests could not be. This was just another dichotomy between the two nations to add to a growing English list of oppositions. The point is not to evaluate to what extent these attitudes were, or are, based in reality --the French also developed a list of their own, flattering to themselves and unflattering to us-- but what they tell us about English attitudes.) Finally, the experience of World War II came as a shock from which we have apparently not yet recovered. The fact that England's very survival was touch-and-go for a while during World War II was especially disturbing to a country that had not been successfully invaded since 1066; during the Second World War the hermetic peace of the little English world was nearly destroyed. There is also, of course, the fact that we still feel that it was one of those great, rare occasions in history when we were unquestionably in the right, though there is increasing acknowledgement that there were aspects of the war, most notably the aerial bombardment of Germany in 1944-45, in which we behaved vengefully and inhumanely. Overall, the English don't have much incentive to forget the war.
It is true, of course, that the Continent has also brought us things that we have viewed with equanimity and even pleasure: the accession of the Dutch William and Mary, for example, after the Civil War. The Continent has also thrust into our arms many gifted refugees over the centuries, who have contributed hugely to our economy and culture. The thing is, however, that our ability to assimilate new things and people, almost as if by some weird alchemy, means that the true origins of beneficial Continental influences are very soon forgotten. This is not, I think, a calculated attempt at cultural takeover or deliberate erasure, but rather a manifestation of a certain vagueness or absentmindedness in English habits of thought, as well as the strange power of English culture to, as it were, engulf new things silently.
The English have often regarded foreign countries outside Europe with rather more positive feelings. This has to do partly with the imperial experience (which, by the by, was truly British). The imperial phenomenon known as "going native" shows that there have always been English people willing to adapt to dramatically different cultures with extraordinary enthusiasm and completeness. Of course, Empire had a hideous side, as any student of British imperial history will know; the racial prejudices, the atrocious and bloody-minded actions of the administrator on the spot, the general sense of superiority common to most white middle-class Westerners at the time, and rapacious economic exploitation. Empire also required English people to become engaged in the outside world, and sometimes with a genuine feeling for humanitarian betterment. (Searching for consistency is the first mistake that most people make when looking at imperial history.) Furthermore, the number of people who are in England because of the Empire's legacy in some form or another (immigrants from former colonies, their children and grand-children, and of course those of mixed race) means that there are people with ties to the Commonwealth are all around us. Their presence and influence cannot help but strengthen psychological ties with the former Empire (consider, for example, how much less alien India now seems to us, because of our exposure to Asian cultures at home).
In spite of the island mentality, the English have always been cultural magpies, sincerely admiring of foreign cultural achievements and eager imitators and assimilators of them. We have always been adding new layers to our culture. It has often been noted, most notably by Peter Ackroyd, that there are times when our greatest creative gifts seem to lie not in outright invention but in adoption, synthesis and reinvention of outside influences, often reflected back as if through a fun-house mirror. Black American culture, in particular, was a source of great inspiration to our musicians throughout the twentieth century, and it is worth remarking on the affection and reverence in which many African-American artists have been held in England by musicians, critics and fans alike. This affection so overwhelmed one of the Four Tops when confronted by it at Heathrow Airport that he burst into tears. The greatest and most obvious example of the mixing of English with African-American influences is of course the development of English rock'n'roll in large English cities during the sixties, by a plethora of bands such as the Beatles and the Kinks. They streamlined the rock beat, added quirky instrumentation, and made rock deal with subjects far removed from its original preoccupations: DIY, lazy Sunday afternoons, kites, well-respected men, Waterloo sunsets, sellers of dubious cure-alls, even mining. Rock was imbued with a peculiarly English type of energy, sexiness, and eccentricity, drawing on native folk and music-hall traditions to help create a new sound as heady, in its own way, as the old one. In the English folk revival, much the same interaction between English culture and Black American culture occurred in microcosm; the apparently quintessentially English melodic, thumpy style of guitar accompaniment for folk songs evolved by Martin Carthy, one of the leading figures of the folk movement, owes a debt to the great American bluesman Big Bill Broonzy's percussive playing, a debt which Carthy himself has always been proud to acknowledge. Skiffle, commonly mistaken for one of the most English forms of English working-class music, was also imported from the States.
There are many other examples of cultural borrowings and reinvention of this sort, of course; the influence of the French New Wave on the kitchen-sink films of the sixties is obvious, but the films remain uniquely English. We are now even starting to produce distinctively English-sounding rappers, rapping about distinctively English subjects. This dynamic has been going on for centuries. The literary form which lends itself most readily to the English gift of social observation, the novel, was invented originally by Cervantes in Spain. The Gothic form of architecture, with its characteristic spires and steeples, was imported from France to England, where highly creative liberties were taken with it. In practically every field, the native instinct for play and whimsy, and the urge to evoke the telling details of a particular English social milieu, have asserted themselves, making even the most foreign of foreign imports acquire a distinctly English flavour. If there is a psychological core to Englishness, it may in fact be this spirit of play, a reluctance to be altogether in earnest, combined with an ability to think unconventionally.
The result of all this cultural mixing means that Englishness is not a monolithic entity. Although the various cultural expressions of it share certain similarities, the thread that winds through them is, like our constitution, notoriously elusive and may, perhaps, never be satisfactorily delineated. (Given the room we have always allowed ourselves for irrational and intuitive thought, it is perhaps possible that it can never be pinned down, at least not in any rational, linear way.) Englishness is a cultural identity with many regional and class permutations.
Although our history and culture may be extremely complex, it does not follow that our way of living in the world need be. There is nothing wrong with existing happily within England and English culture, venturing outside from time to time to sniff the air and see what the neighbours are up to, and whether they need a hand with something in the garden. --Isabel Taylor