Sunday, October 03, 2010

Louis de Bernieres on nationality

A couple of days ago I went to see Louis de Bernieres speaking at the start of our local literature festival (or literacy festival, as the local dignitary who did the official opening insisted, in illiterate fashion, on calling it). Louis has always been a favourite of mine, since the days when I was a stock librarian and at the same book selection meeting I picked up his first novel, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, the first translation of Haruki Murakami into English, A Wild Sheep Chase and Vladimir Voinovich's The Fur Hat. The best book selection meeting I ever attended.

Anyway, Louis was good value, though perhaps not as jolly as the last time I saw him speak, about ten years ago in Peterborough. He veers close to grumpy old man territory at times. But I was interested in what he said about nationality and nationalism and patriotism. He always felt British when he was younger, he said, as he saw little distinction between English people and Scots and Welsh. We've all been tempered by the same experiences. Now, however, he is increasingly feeling that the Scots and the Welsh are leaving the English behind. The Scots, in particular, he said somewhat tartly, 'seem to want to live off us, but not with us.'. That's perhaps overstating the case, but nonetheless there is something in it.

I am Scottish but I've lived in England a long time. Indeed, on the August Bank Holiday just past, I reached the moment where I've lived in England longer than I ever lived in Scotland. I still feel strongly Scottish, but I do not feel any different from English people. I was in Scotland a few weeks ago for the first time in a while and, listening in to some of the conversations around me, I was staggered by how often "the English" or "England" came up in conversation. I'm not just talking now and again - virtually every conversation I heard between Scottish people seemed to end up with a discussion of "the English". Why?

Scotland got devolution more than ten years ago. It has its own Parliament (a distinctly underwhelming building, I have to say, it looks like a glorified school assembly hall) and manages much of its own affairs. It also does extremely well in terms of finances, through the Barnett Formula, which means more is spent per head of Scottish population than on English or Welsh. It has its own vibrant culture (and compare that to the puny cultural identity that the English hang on to, terrified of their own customs and cultures). And yet they (we) can only define themselves in terms of not-Englishness. Devolution was meant to remove the chip on the shoulder. All it seems to have done is broadened and strengthened the shoulder, so an even bigger chip can be borne on it.

9 comments:

Georgia said...

"... the puny cultural identity that the English hang on to, terrified of their own customs and cultures"

What does this mean?

(Remember, I'm in the U.S.)

~ Georgia

Mark Perkins said...

Sean Connery is the extent of my knowledge about Scottish Parliament. I should be embarrassed.

Anonymous said...

Englishman says.

quote.and compare that to the puny cultural identity that the English hang on to, terrified of their own customs and cultures.unquote.

This has been the result of decades, perhaps even centuries of the English being educated into the British identity at the expense of their own. Whereas the Scots, Welsh and Irish have been actively encouraged to celebrate their (mythical) Celtic identity, the English and their culture has been discouraged. This is true even more, today, in the climate of 'political correctness', (which should be more accurately referred to as 'Cultural Marxism') where any expression of Englishness is juxtaposed with racism and must be stamped out at all costs.

However, blood ties are thicker than politics and the times they are a' changing. The English are beginning to assert their right to their identity and its expression, which must send a frisson of fear through the corridors of power and its social engineers. Which will probably result in even more derogatory attacks on the English, their myths and legends, their heroes and their culture.

If so, then they are going to lose. Badly.

Tom Conoboy said...

Hmm, this post is generating a lot of traffic.

Georgia, what I mean is that, at present, the English do not have a strong sense of cultural identity, which I think is a tremendous shame.

Where I come from, in Scotland, we celebrate our culture. Scottish traditional music is very popular, and is exported around the world. Bands like Silly Wizard back in the seventies, and the Battlefield Band for who knows how long, through to new bands like Burach, are very popular.

In England, however, traditional music has been in the doldrums for many years. Any professed interest in English traditions like Morris Dancing is as severe a social solecism as it's possible to make. (I have friends who still simply refuse to believe that I've done Molly Dancing, a type of Morris dancing, because they just wouldn't believe that any normal person would do it.) There's almost a fear about expressing English culture.

I have to say it is changing. English folk music is seeing a resurgence, largely due to the estimable Eliza Carthy, and to Spiers and Boden, who play English traditional music in English styles. I love the English fiddle style, for example, so gritty and edgy. But they still have a long way to go before English people truly start to display pride in their own traditions.

The reasons for this are, as Louis de Bernieres mentioned in his talk, many. But in part it is because many of the symbols of Englishness - the flag of St George principally - have been appropriated by right wing fanatical fringe movements, and there is a reluctance to wave the flag for fear of being mistaken for them.

And I think it is the case that for two generations English people (more than British people) have been encouraged to feel guilt over the empire. I think that is a factor, though not perhaps a major one.

De Bernieres made the important distinction between patriotism and nationalism. The former is positive, but the latter can all too often become negative. I get vary wary of comments like those of the anonymous poster above, who talks of "asserting rights", which will cause "frissons of fear" and leave those who argue against it "losing. Badly." It is just this sort of thing that spills over into jingosim. It's unattractive, and while I am very keen that the English reassert their Englishness, I would not want it at the expense of any sort of shallow nationalistic posturing.

Mark Perkins said...

"De Bernieres made the important distinction between patriotism and nationalism. The former is positive, but the latter can all too often become negative. I get vary wary of comments like those of the anonymous poster above, who talks of 'asserting rights', which will cause 'frissons of fear' and leave those who argue against it 'losing. Badly.' It is just this sort of thing that spills over into jingosim. It's unattractive, and while I am very keen that the English reassert their Englishness, I would not want it at the expense of any sort of shallow nationalistic posturing."

Yes! All this yes!

I would say nationalism is almost always negative. It was the most destructive impulse of the past century and remains so today.

In the United States its very difficult to explain or even understand the difference between nationalism and patriotism. And unfortunately the Fox News crowd has been all too eager to incorporate the word "patriot" into their nationalist zeal.

I too wonder exactly what the anonymous poster imagines the expression of English identity to be.

I wonder, Tom, if you aren't underestimating the empire-guilt. In professional modern European history, "provincializing Europe" has been a major (the major?) impulse of the last thirty years. That involves a lot of "shame on us" hand-wringing. Obviously that's partly, even largely, a good thing. I don't think anyone believes that generosity was the primary end of the colonial drive, but I'm not sure the total unwillingness to credit any of the imperialists and colonialists with any good intentions whatsoever is particularly helpful.

Angry & English said...

England's problem is that we allow the Tom Conoboys' of this world to live and earn in our country whilst doing everything that they can to denegrate it. Go home, your country needs you, we do not.

Tom Conoboy said...

Oh dear, anonymous bully, I don't think you read what I wrote very carefully.

Tom Conoboy said...

Mark, I think you're probably right about the empire-guilt. I've been pondering over it for the past couple of days, and I don't think forcing a society to continually confront its past is healthy.

I read the other day that Germany has finally paid off its final reparations from the First World War. The FIRST war... Those ridiculously punitive reparations were, of course, one of the drivers of the economic collapse that befell Germany in the 30s, leading to you know who, and another whole brand of nationalism.

Georgia said...

My, y'all have given me plenty to look up, Molly Dancing, for one. I can only picture the clogging of our mountain folk, which then brings up an image of snake dancers.

The East Bay of California is very diverse in nationalities. Pursuing my English/Irish heritage is simply seen as my own personal education. I no longer feel like I have to say, "I'm English/Irish... whatever that means." ! So little was passed down from my people, that my family lost that culture. There was no literature. There was no music. But there was food, and I was grown before it occurred to me that what we ate and the way we ate it had anything to do with anyone before me. That's why I love the Bay, where I'm free to pursue the culture I want. A quarter of my daughter's classroom is Asian of some kind, including Indian. In Arkansas, it was just white people, black people, and "Mexicans." I'll have to find some of the English fiddle. I absolutely love the fiddle.

"In the United States its very difficult to explain or even understand the difference between nationalism and patriotism." Mark, this is true. Nationalism is not even a word I use. Perhaps we'd call them extremists or zealots. Nationalist is a word I associate with "he who shall not be named." :|

Anonymous, you have the angry voice of someone who's civil rights have been dismissed in favor of someone else's. That brings out the fight in a lot of people. It's part of the pendulum swing. It happens in education, parenting styles, the economy... I'd like to see you all happy, but the swing between extremes seems to be the natural way of things. But no good comes from telling people to go home. Has anyone ever just gone home? I'm glad no one told my great great great grandmother to go home. (Or at least, I'm glad she didn't listen.) I've always assumed that she was leaving poverty behind. And poverty and hunger strips an immigrant of her culture faster than anything else, which explains a lot of my ignorance.

The comments by Anonymous are actually very helpful, as that's the sort of thing I can't glean from Wikipedia :)

~ Thanks! Jawja