English Icons: Cliche and innaccuracy

english flagsThe Icons of England initiative looks like yet another attempt to define the undefinable, reducing culture to a set of simplistic cliches. The nominated symbols are a bizarre set, not least because many of them trivially do not qualify. The man who gave his name to the King James Bible was Jame VI of Scotland before he took on the English throne, so it is hard to see how his initiative is quintessentially English. The Spitfire won us the Battle of Britain, and seems to me a British rather than English icon. Likewise with the mini. The FA Cup takes in Welsh teams, and Stonehenge is made from Welsh stone. The Routemaster Bus has (a) just been abolished and (b) surely an icon of London, not England.
I think we have difficulty in defining Englishness precisely because it has for so long acted as a dominant culture. The English are the dominant group in the wider nation of Britain. The history of the country has percieved no cultural antagonist to guard against, and therefore there has been no need to exclude its smaller partners from sharing in the creation of ‘Britain’. Thus anything that we might hold up as an achievement for the English will invariably have hadsome Scottish, Welsh, Irish or Colonial input along the way (e.g. King James Bible, Spitfires) that makes ‘British’ an obviously more accurate description. Perversely, England’s history as the dominant part of Britain means that it cannot claim any icon or innovation as exclusively its own. If we search for icons local to a particular area, we find it difficult to prise ownership of the icons away from the locality (e.g. Routemaster Buses, Angel of the North).
Almost by definition, anything that is specific enough to be English and not British, but general enough to apply to the whole country and not a locality, is going to be an odd beast: The hymn ‘Jerusalem’ might fit the criteria we are looking for, although the flag waving patriotism associated with it alienates as many people as it inspires. It also suggests that we should make our green pleasant land more like an ancient city in the Middle-East, which should, I think, rule it out.
In the delightful Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson gives this observation:

To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.

Here in Edinburgh, I do not perceive any less enthusiam for a drink which is an infusion of leaves from a plant grown in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Kenya… in fact, anywhere but England. Even the trusty old cuppa is more a British than English icon.
The post meridiem counterpart to the cup-of-tea is, of course, the pint-of-beer in a traditional pub. And once again, we find these icons too pervasive throughout the union to be simply ‘English’. In Notes From A Small Island Bryson also points out the physical proximity of France to our shores, something that the British tend to ignore. But visiting a pub in Inverness presents much the same experience as walking into a pub in Dartmouth, both very different to visiting a bar in Cerbourg. Again, ‘The Pub’ is British, not English.
The same logic holds true for fish n’ chip shops. We need not discuss curry.
Once more, the flaw is in the very design of the quest. ‘English’ is not in the same genus as ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. By seeking actual things made and found in England we are looking in the wrong place for an English icon. We forget that since England has been a political force for centuries, the English language has persisted and grown in influence. It is the language, not the borders, that we should celebrate. In this sense, our net for English icons may be cast much wider. My nominations: The Gettysburg Address, Waltzing Matilda, The Simpsons… and The Indian Parliament.
Anyone else?

4 Replies to “English Icons: Cliche and innaccuracy”

  1. I think all attemps to define a group, be it English, Scottish or Welsh is going to fail before it starts. I’ll leave the Irish out of this as they are experts on the subject.
    I consider myself Scottish, but what the hell does that mean? It certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the opinions or attitudes of most Scots. It is simply a fact, here I was born.
    Yet I was a folk club afficinado, and so I can appreciate the common sufferring, the common desire for something better. What we have now, oh cynical heart, is that better time.
    And a Scottish scholar who thinks we should be wound up as past out sell by date.
    I am, off and on, someone who thinks we should be a lot better than the reality. We are served by politicians who are largely unable to move beyond their self inflicted kailyard. I think, maybe that independence would be good for us, yet I think it wouold take ages to get shot of the self serving political and administrative elite.
    So. It is next to impossible to define Scottishness, which has had a long history, why should it be in any way reasonable to try to define Englishness, which is a new concept and probably equally indefineable?
    In my opinion there is a national identity, but it is a weak force.

  2. I disagree with your definition of what an English icon should be. The fact that something has a history or influence from somewhere other than england does not speak to the issue of whether in the minds of large numbers of people, it is something they associate with “englishness” (assuming you believe in such a thing). The logic of an English icon is to draw attention to things associated with Englishness and thus presumably create a sense of national identity and pride (however contrived and divisive such an exercise might be), not to provide a full and complete history of the origins of such things. Surely you must know this perfectly well.
    That King James was King of Scotland first is irrelevant to the fact that he was a King of England that did all that bible business. I think it’s a shame that your idea of what should constitute an english icon is so xenophobic and purist, and, if I may say so, backwards and disingenuous. Culture is chaotic, and who cares where tea comes from, when we are considering its status as a very popular drink in england, that isn’t so popular elsewhere in the world. What makes something an icon is about what’s important or associated to england or english people, not about where it came from. That would be like saying English people aren’t allowed en masse to go a bundle on anything that didn’t originate solely and purely within its borders. Which I think is not very realistic, because they plainly do.
    And as for the routemaster bus, what’s important about that is that it’s a symbol recognised around the world as something found only in england, like buckingham palace, only better known, or big ben. I notice your objection to stonehenge is not that it is found only on salisbury plain, so why object to things on the grounds that they’re only in london? What’s that about?
    I think you might be the only one looking for actual things made and found in England, though I agree that quest would be pointless and meaningless. It’s a straw man. What would be more interesting would be to respect the associations that english and non-english people have with england and the english, no matter what their history, influences or origin. Respect reality, then we can learn from it.

  3. Clarice, you need to re-read the post: I’m not commenting on what my definition of an English icon is at all.
    I think my point is precisely that to try and reduce a complex nationality to a bunch of things is indeed “xenophobic and purist”. Hence my whole-hearted rejection of the entire concept in favour of something that I consider to be more culturally significant… language.

  4. I think your argument is founded on a common piece of left wing sophistry. Just because something has been “reduced” it does not become devalued, it simply becomes a symbol of the broader concept it represents. The brain works on symbols, not full blown concepts (otherwise it would run out of processing space and thought would become impossible) so whilst a cup of tea or a chicken tikka massala may not be “English”, as in invented in England, they can still sybolise a commonly understood culture which is associated with living in england.
    To take the curry analogy a step further. The concept of curry as eaten in this country is neither authentically english, nor asian, but an amalgamation of two cutures (indian cuisine and english night on the piss) the point is the whole is more than the sum of the parts and the end result is a new cutural symbol which is neither english nor asian whist being influenced by both. This is evidence of cultural interpentration, a product of gloabisation, not evidence of “xenophobia & purism”. I used to lunch regularly with an asian collegue and it was generally a source of some amusement (to him and me) that whilst I would eat the “spiciest thing on the menu” he would always go for the traditionally bland british fry up. Incidentally her had extremely strong views on the PC brigades dictat that he fall under the unbrella term “black and asian” but that’s a whole other post.
    The point I am making is that the meaning behind a symbol is personally constructed (to you an Arsenal shirt probably has enormous personal significance, but to someone who is not into football, or is a spurs fan it would have no or a completely different meaning) BUT certain symbols acquire a common usage and becomes the collective glue which holds a cuture together, linking past and present and symbolising shared values and beliefs. Think of it like this, for most of the time local rivalry is keenly felt in football, but during the world cup it all but disappears, so spurs fans will drink with gooners, united by the higher symbol of the national side.

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