Being comfortable with both my Britishness and my Englishness – at the same time being proud of my Irish and Scottish ancestry – I have to admit that I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the whole St George’s Day thing. Avoiding the celebrations here in Birmingham and elsewhere in the Midlands, I did have the misfortune to stumble across one event that was being advertised, its centrepiece a medieval jousting competition. Also on the bill were Morris Dancers and a ‘Ye Olde England’ fayre (probably involving a hog roast and some mead served by buxom wenches no doubt). Add in the jingoistic waving of St George cross flags and the wearing of red and white curly wigs and I have nothing to ask but is this really the best that we can do? In the words of Ultravox’s 80s electro-pop classic ‘Vienna’: “this means nothing to me…”.
My views on this however are – I appreciate – somewhat irrelevant. Once the greetings card industry add a date to their calendar, there’s little chance that it’s going to be removed. Having said that, I do remember card shops launching ‘Grandparent’s Day’ a few years back although that – thankfully – seems to have fallen by the wayside.
This all got me thinking about what it is to be British, especially given the seemingly ever increasing emphasis that our political leaders and national tabloid editors attribute to it. From the musings of Gordon Brown about the feasibility of having a ‘British Day’ to British citizenship tests that measure – through multiple choice questions – just how ‘British’ you are, it can all get a bit much. Lacklustre and uninspired are just two of the words that I would personally choose to use as my mind is haunted by the recurring nightmare of St George’s Day celebrations.
Given the task of facilitating a team meeting at work this week, I decided that it would be good fun to get my colleagues to take the British citizenship test (or at least part of it). With a pass mark of around 75%, I asked my colleagues ten questions to test their Britishness. Ranging from ‘what do you do if you spill a drink over someone in a pub’ (offer to buy them another) to what the name of the document was that was signed at Runnymede in the 13th century (the Magna Carta), as the questions unfolded so did the puzzled looks.
As I read out the answers, there were a mixture of sighs, groans and exclamations as people realised that they actually knew more (a few) or less (most) than they thought. Most got around 60% that under exam conditions, would have meant they failed and by consequence, refused legal citizen status.
Thinking about this further, those taking the tests can – if their means allows – re-sit as many times as they like and so passing it first time is completely un-necessary. Which begs the question, does learning a series of key events or responses really make you feel any more British? Do Morris Dancers make me feel more ‘English’? Unfortunately (thankfully?) no…
Where then are we going with understanding ‘Britishness’ and is this really the best that we can do?
There’s got to be more to it than merely answering multiple choice questions by rote or God forbid if the dreaded ‘British Day’ gets the go ahead, standing in orderly queues all day followed by a night of binge drinking. Any suggestions?