In an Aeon essay on the (surprisingly early) deforestation of England, Hugh Thomson writes this about our national identity:
The myth panders to our need for a sense of loss. There is an undercurrent of regret running through our history. A nostalgia for what could have been: the unicorn disappearing into the trees; the loss of Roman Britain; the loss of Albion; the loss of Empire. We are forever constructing prelapsarian narratives in which a golden sunlit time — the Pax Romana, the Elizabethan golden age, that Edwardian summer before the First World War, a brief moment in the mid-1960s with the Beatles — prefigure anarchy and decay. Or the cutting down of the forest.
One only need look at the near-ecstatic reception given to Danny Boyle’s Olympic rendition of our ‘green and pleasant land’, complete with shire culture and hobbit mounds, to see how easily history elides with mythology. Britons are supremely comfortable with that blurring — with a mythic dimension that adds gravitas to our self-understanding, and that imbues the land with a kind of enchantment, a magical aspect that is echoed in our narratives of how we came to be a nation, but is as illusory as the Arthurian lake from which the Lady’s hand emerges to grasp the sword.
This is a marvellous articulation of the ‘auto-stereotype’ of Deep England that Paul Watson coined earlier this year and which I wrote about in March.
The rest of Thomson’s essay is fascinating and you should read the whole thing. British woodlands were chopped down much earlier than we suppose.
Photo: The South Downs, by yrstrly. Available as a Creative Commons licensed image on Flickr, here.
On Monday morning, the Foreign Secretary Rt. Hon. Boris Johnson MP was asked on BBC radio what the British Government’s vision of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would look like, should the UK leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union. In a garbled answer about the power of technology to facilitate frictionless trade, he put forward this analogy:
There is no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever.
He was presumbaly referring to London’s Congestion Charge. Journalists and social media users spent the rest of the morning mocking this wholly inappropriate analogy with the centuries old troubles in Ireland.
All this made me think about one of my favourite books, The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesteron. In that story, written in 1904 but set in 1984, a whimsical king named Auberon Quin (appointed by lottery, the population having long since given up on both democracy and hereditary monarchy) decrees that each London Borough becomes its own city state. He sets about creating coats of arms and other heraldic items for each. Continue reading “Hard Borders in London and the Napoleon of Notting Hill”
I had meant to write a post about the Olympics opening ceremony, and what it says about Britain. That was two weeks ago. During which time, we have had pretty much the entire Olympics, and seen some fantastic performances from British athletes. There has been a predictable debate all over the media, blogs, and Twitter, about the nature of Britishness and multiculturalism. Although such subjects are a staple of this blog, I do rather feel as if most of the things I believe have been said by others elsewhere! I consider this to be a good thing – it means there is a growing consensus in favour of the kind of diversity I believe in.
There is still work to be done however. In particular, I am not sure how in-depth the conversation about to Multiculturalism has been. On super Saturday, when Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all won gold medals, there was a lot of *literally* skin-deep chat. “Ennis is mixed race. Rutherford is ginger. Farah is black. Look at our diversity! Up yours, BNP!” This feels shallow. What I did not see much of, was a discussion of how their diverse backgrounds had contributed to the success of the athletes. At its best, celebrating multiculturalism is not just about identifying difference. It is about showing how those different traits, faiths, and cultural practices, all contribute to ‘make the man’ (or woman). It is not enough to simply point out that Farah is a Muslim; one has to ask whether his faith has contributed to his astonishing success. And if it has – how? Likewise with Greg Rutherford’s upbringing, or Jessica Ennis experience.
Continue reading “Thoughts on the Olympics I: Diversity and Multiculturalism”