Nor shall my sword sleep in my hands…

England is not just beer and fish and chips and God Save The Queen it?

England is not just beer and fish and chips and God Save The Queen t-shirts…is it?

In Brazil I’m known as a ‘Brit’, but I don’t know what the term means. I have a British passport, and yet I’m as English as a wet Sunday in Wakefield. If I was Welsh, Irish or Scottish, there is no way I would refer to myself as ‘British’. I would be proud of my nationality and make sure everybody knew I was not to be lumped together with the dreaded English! But, like it or not, I am not from any of those other, satellite countries, I am from England’s green and pleasant land.

Why do I always feel ill when England play football?

Why do I always feel ill when England play football?

So, if I defiantly refer to myself as English, what do I mean by that? What is special about me? How is an English person identifiable? At the risk of unearthing a Pandora’s Box of stereotypes, I would like to suggest that the English do have certain characteristics that set them apart. This week I gave a talk about ‘Englishness’ to a group of Brazilian undergraduates, so I had to make an effort to find something tangible about the English that I could explain to them.

So, here is a list of characteristics and quirks I jotted down on the back of a buff envelope on the bus last Tuesday:

'What an extraordinary use of a four-letter word - musn't let my servants see this'

‘What an extraordinary use of a four-letter word – mustn’t let Aunt Dolly see this’

Sense of Humour: anathema to the English sensibility are people who take themselves seriously. That’s because we have an acutely-developed sense of irony and human folly. Showing off is sneered at mercilessly: ‘Who do you think you are?’ Self-deprecation is the English charm. That and satire, parody and general mischief-making. You should never be able to tell when an Englishman is being serious.

Writing: this is where irony pervades, from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to newspaper columnists and song lyrics. Through irony, the English reader, sitting on the Clapham omnibus, is able to smile at the intended victim and at herself. Irony is the distance we need from other people and their ridiculous behaviour; but it also mirrors our own pretentions and weaknesses.

Politics, the church, what they teach you at's all bull, says John

English institutions are a joke, says John

Music: ‘quiet desperation is the English way’ sang Pink Floyd (nicked from Thoreau, I’ll have you know), but my touchstone for English rock is John Lennon’s A Day in the Life, a gloriously random, satirical swipe at English institutions which could have been spoken by a Shakespearean fool. Why are the English good at pop and rock? Because the good ones see through the bull. Take another look at the anarchic God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols. A fascist regime?

Acting: former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sir Peter Hall, famously quipped that the English were a nation of philistines who happened to be good at the arts. Mention the words ‘theatre’ or ‘opera’ down the pub and seconds later you will be nursing your pint alone and red-faced. But the English are born actors because they need masks to hide behind. England is a stage and everybody is having you on – that way the messy, emotional baggage can stay safely in the locker.

Get all that gentlemanly anger out of your system: English cricket

How to get all that gentlemanly anger out of your system: English cricket

Sport: forget football and rugby, the true English sport is cricket. All those school beatings and repressed sexuality come surging out on the village green where sado-masochism rules: the bowler wants to maim the batsman, and the batsman has to be deranged to face a 100 mile-an-hour missile whooshing towards his unmentionables. Besides, only the English could devise a game that lasts until the middle of next week.

Trainspotting? English people need hobbies for long dark winters

Trainspotting? English people need hobbies for long dark winters

Hobbies: of course the English have hobbies – what else are we going to do cooped up in the house for 9 months? Train set builders, matchstick guitar makers, beer brewers, you name it. Most of us collect and hoard stuff to pore over through those long dark nights, filling little libraries with jumble-sale LPs and Narnia books.

DIY: an Englishman is a chimpanzee with a screwdriver. Pay somebody to fix my dripping tap? – you must be joking! Rewiring, plumbing, laying floors – us blokes are too proud to let you think we can’t sort it ourselves. The result? Most English ‘homes’ are jerry-built death traps.

Politics: conservative with a small ‘c’ it’s true, though the English despise authority and have a rebellious spirit: inside every timid gill-sipper is an angry young man barking to get out. Oddly, the most popular institution in England is a pure socialist invention: the NHS.

'Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot-water bottles' (or a secret copy of Fanny Hill)

‘Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot-water bottles’ (or a secret copy of Fanny Hill)

Religion: the Anglican church, with all those robes and closet Catholics, is for wusses – the true English religion has always been hard-nosed nonconformism. With their wilful work-ethic, tasteless food, matronly black looks and a horror of the human body, the Puritans have spread guilt and shame far and wide in the ‘Sceptred Isle’. Many were those poor creatures who topped themselves rather than face the vicar’s wrath once their grubby copy of Fanny Hill had been discovered under the mattress.

This is where the list runs out, folks, though I cannot end this portrait without mentioning the secret that dare not speak its name: the English are obsessively tight-fisted and can spot a ‘rip-off’ a mile away. When an English person walks into a supermarket they make a beeline for the ‘Special Offers‘, even if it means eating a dinner of mini pork pies mixed with chicken korma and week-old sherry trifle.

Bearing all this in mind, you can surely forgive me for not being patriotic. But when the Three Lions sing the national anthem on the football field the hairs on the back of my neck refuse to stay down. The strangest thing is I always feel proud to see 3 or 4 black players in the England team. Why?

Being English doesn't mean being white

Being English doesn’t mean being white

I think it must be that I want the world to recognise that England has always been a country of invasion and immigration, from the Jutes and Guilherme the Conqueror to the Windrush Caribbeans and the parents of Amir Khan. England was never a land of quaint villages and polite white nobodies; all such images are, by definition, imaginary. In my experience, most English people have a dynamic, but healthy, love/hate relationship with the place. The London-based Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson once wrote a poem called Inglan is a Bitch. I think I know what he means.



Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Football, Music, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Nor shall my sword sleep in my hands…

  1. David

    By George, he’s got it !!

  2. Well, David, what can I say? I’m all right Jack, but not sure about the Union anymore…

  3. Coincidently, translating Addison. He’s got something to say about the English: “for my own part I look upon it as a peculiar blessing that I was born an Englishman. Among many other reasons, I think myself very happy in my country, as the language of it is wonderfully adapted to a man who is sparing of his words, and an enemy to loquacity.” Cool, right?

  4. Rosalia – I love Addison, Steele, Goldsmith and all those 18th century hacks. Their essays can still be read today with pleasure, if you love the English language. It’s true, English is an enormously flexible language, partly because we were magpies, taking tons of words from every language – Latin, French, German and the rest. Was I lucky to be born English? Yes, in the sense that I can read first hand that rich variety of literature that has been left behind.

  5. Eduardo

    Excelent Martin, great portrait of the English way of life.

  6. Alan

    You`re known as a “Brit” ? I find that strange as most Brazilians very rarely use the terms “Britânico” or “Grã Bretanha” but rather “Inglaterra” and “Inglês”; I’m called “inglês” frequently even though I’ve explained patiently several times! And I always refer to myself as “British” here, I’m proud of my nationality and besides, the Welsh are the original British before you Germans came along 😉

    • Trust a Welshman to stick his leek in and get his Dylan Thomas in a twist!
      Sounds like you’re a bit confused, Nev. What are you proud of exactly – being British?
      How does that feel, I wonder?
      None of my students know anything about the Welsh (or the UK) and think British is the same as English. Scotland and Ireland are also lumped together, so thought I’d single out the ‘Sassenachs’ for closer inspection.
      Besides, you can hardly call yourself a Welshman (or a Brit) after living in Porto Alegre for donkey’s years. You are Brazelsh, maybe? Or Gauchish?
      You may be a freak, but I still love you, man 😉

  7. I don’t see anything about English gentlemen or swearing by your honour as an Englishman. Is that just in the films, then?

  8. Just in the films, Eric. Gentlemanly conduct is not non-existent in England, but gentlemen as a breed have become thin on the ground. Of course, I try to be one myself 😉

  9. Finally got to read your ‘Nor shall my sword…’. Thank you so much, once again, Martin, for being our ‘articulate Englishman’. I really enjoy reading your blog and mulling over the points and questions you raise and your general observations. Of course, as a foreigner like yourself, it attracts me instantaneously to see what another Englishman is writing about. Reflective questions about what it is to be English are perhaps more relevant for us who are living outside our homeland and also, of course, of interest to foreigners (to us) to read about how we see ourselves. It’s good to begin to break the myth of how so many Brazilians understand ‘Englishness’. They all imagine we speak ‘The Queen’s English’ , rarely smile, are overly formal and take everything very seriously – how is it they can think that? Most people who do, don’t actually know any English people apart from the odd floating Tefl teacher. I loved your line, “But the English are born actors because they need masks to hide behind. England is a stage and everybody is having you on – that way the messy, emotional baggage can stay safely in the locker.” . As you so beautifully expressed in the last sarau, I think it is our irony which is our strongest characteristic – you are so right – it is everywhere – that amazing ability to laugh at ourselves. I can hear ‘me muther’s’ words ringing in my ears, “For goodness sake, learn to laugh at yourself!”. There is a spirit in English people which I truly love. It’s as though we’re all sharing the same joke but we don’t need to actually explain it. Happily, much as I love my adopted home, I shall enjoy wallowing in Englishness for a few precious weeks and feel it once again pulsing vibrantly through my veins. When I drink my first pint, I shall raise my glass to you, Martin. Cheers!

  10. Philip – I am sure I do not deserve your praise, though it warms me to think you found something in there to make you chuckle.
    I loved your line: “It’s as though we’re all sharing the same joke but we don’t need to actually explain it.”
    I couldn’t have put it better myself.
    I’m already envious of you supping that pint, you lucky so and so!

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