England has been called many names: land of hope and glory, sceptred isle, police state, bitch. None of these is accurate or true. How could it be? England isn’t concrete. Yes, England the place has solid things in it – tarmac, bricks, baked beans. But ‘England’ as a kind of collective, lived experience is a dream. It exists only in the imagination. England is your England, whatever you want to believe it is.
That’s not to say England is a myth. Rather, a swirling mass of myths: proverbs and prejudices which settle in the minds of the populace. But any deluded dreams of patriotism and national unity are enacted in the minds of fewer and fewer people in the 21st century. Most English people would struggle to define any feelings of pride they have about the homeland.
George Orwell, who wrote extensively about England and the English, spent five years as a military policeman in Burma. It was this distance and time-lapse that gave him a crucial bird’s eye view of Blighty and the peculiar habits of the English. Orwell described England as a sleep-walking nation of flower-loving gentlefolk, a large family with the wrong people in charge.
It’s true that England often resembles a giant village where the gossip spreads easily and the talk down the pub is the same wherever you go. Some foreigners still think the English are well-educated, civilized and polite. In England, they imagine, Shakespeare is read aloud at the dinner table under a wall-mounted picture of the Queen. They know nothing of school bullying, yobs, knife-gangs and people who are proud to be thick.
So, being English, as I am, is there anything to be proud of? Of course there is – our brilliant sense of humour. The quintessential English phrase is “Come off it, mate, who do you think you are?” The English just can’t take themselves seriously. English writing and conversation is suffused with irony, in-jokes and leg-pulling. No one is too high and mighty for a comic pot-shot.
England is a country of amateur comedians. While other nations were having revolutions or toppling the monarchy, the English were down the pub having a laugh.