The incipient break-up of the UK is forcing people who have to fill over-long news programmes to ask what it means to be English. For me, a person’s national identity is a topic like their sex life or religion – significant but disturbing when that person is prone to over-sharing. Nonetheless, I am reasonably confident that my attitude to my Englishness is quite healthy, so let me share it.
Specifically, it has little to do with my Anglo-Saxon ancestry.
Once, backstage at an Irish talk show, I was chatting to the band. It was obvious from her accent that the singer was a compatriot, so, by way of conversation, I said, ‘Oh, you’re English.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘Jamaican.’ Not, ‘I grew up in England
but . . . ’ She just shut the conversation down.
I don’t think my remark was naive, like assuming a person in a Ramones t-shirt is necessarily a fan of the Ramones. It is reasonable to think that someone who is clearly from England is English. I was not dismissing her family or heritage, just making a connection, and felt she’d rather trashed it.
Very likely she had personal reasons to hate England. But, over the years, I’ve spoken to English friends of various ethnic backgrounds, including my own, who also have trouble with the word. They are okay with ‘British’, a word much more tainted with empire, but one they feel is administrative, and ethnically neutral.
So, since there seems to be some confusion, let me help anyone wrestling with this. If you were raised somewhere or have lived there long enough for it to rub off on you, it’s part of your identity. If you’re so awkward that you’re in an existential quandary about it, you’re probably English.
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