cotswold_morris_dancersBelow is my Birmingham Post ‘lite’ colomn for this month. If you want to read my latest Post column on Britishness (November 2008), then click here

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?

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4 thoughts on “Being British: is this really the best we can do…???

  1. I wrote this a while ago to put as a comment. I was going to put it on my own site, but it is nicer here…

    Theological:
    Why the issue with St George, as opposed to St Andrew, St David or St Patrick? There is no record of St George ever setting foot on this island. Granted, neither did St Andrew, but he was an apostle and thus higher up the holy hierarchy. The British are known for their reserve and little rules. I mean, if you spill a pint, you get another. If you buy the wrong item, you can take it back for a refund. If you mistakenly take a greek speaking roman soldier who kills a large reptile in either Libya or Lydda (Thanks Wikipedia) and later realise you made a mistake, who do you take it to? Who knows, in three centuries time maybe our descendants will be celebrating the holy day of St John Sentamu?

    Logistical:
    The British are a bit embarrassed of St George. He killed a dragon. Its not very PC is it? I mean, nowadays the dragon would have been tranquilised, rehabilitated in a dragon sanctuary and anyone caught piercing a dragon would have been severely frowned upon. The pacified dragon would be released on a nice pacific island away from humans, and Morgan Freeman would have voiced the Oscar winning documentary ‘In the Footsteps of the Flying Lizards’

    Practical:
    Truthfully, the English/British are happier being undefined as a whole. The upper classes will continue to assume they rule as China and India quietly take over. The middle classes will continue handwringing about the state of the nation, the world and the local schooling situation. The working classes will continue to fight for the common man, whilst moving to the nicest suburbs as soon as they are able. नमस्ते (namaste) and 再见 (zay jean) for now.

  2. i think you only really feel British and proud of your birth country once you move abroad. The quirky things that we do, the little villages with strange sounding names like little Peaover. May Day and may pole dancing, guy fawkes night. The history, the architecture through time. Cemetaries that have dates in the 1600’s, villages that are still around today where they don’t allow macdonalds and starbucks . I think Britons are strangely the most unpatriotic but we have no reason to be. I live in the States and until recently i don’t think they have anything to be proud of yet patriotism is rife. To become a citizen you have to pass a test on american history. They don’t have a lot of history and not a lot of it is to be proud of eg exterminating an entire indigenous race, segregation, gun laws, crime rate, spoilt rich kids. There is no real history. Now i am not i England i am proud of the quirky things. We should be proud that England has stood the test of time, war after war. Invasion after invasion and produced a culture of people that is unique and why Brits are so welcomed in most countries. Our willingness to travel and see the world and not be ignorant. We get it pretty good in England apart from the weather, but i miss it terribly but couldn’t wait to get away when i was there. I am proud to be British and i make sure i educate people on the real Britain and stop them referring everything to Monty Python and Benny Hill. Our music has evolved and is rich and diverse and considering we are such a small country it is one of our biggest exports and some of the best music comes from the UK.

    I was born on St Georges day and went to St Georges School and still remember the huge stain glass window depicting george slaying the dragon – i’m not understanding what is offensive. I don’t believe in Thanks Giving and i know a lot of people don’t either – which is celebrating the start of taking land off of the Indians, but that doesn’t mean they don’t celebrate it – it is inherintly American. DOn’t lose BRitish culture because England is turning into America…

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