Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Brit Baiting for Beginners

Some time ago, I spent a number of very enjoyable years living and working in both London and Birmingham. Those were in the dark deary days before being Irish had the sexy cache among the Brits that we currently enjoy. (Hang in there, my Muslim friends, the tide will change for you too. Soon enough they'll stop thinking that everyone of you wants to wreck mindless and violent carnage and might even have Muslim theme bars - okay well maybe not the last but you know what I mean.)

Being obvious outsiders, my band of anarchist Celtic cousins and I developed several amusing hobbies which could broadly be categorised as "Brit Baiting". The first involved deliberately steering conversations around to a mention of "Great Britain" or the "British Empire". This was the perfect cue for one of our troupe to remark innocently how much of a weight / embarrassment / obstacle must the whole colonial thing be. Even the most mild mannered (and it has to be said the majority were) Brit would reflect more positively on the benefits of the Empire and how Britain was admired the world over. This was the opening we'd hoped for. We'd immediately launch into a litany of 'countries what hate the Brits'. "We Irish hate you, The French detest you, The German's despise you, The Italians disdain you, The Australians loath you, The Americans think that you are pathetic, the entire Indian continent abhor you for considering their great land mass as a 'sub-continent', the South Africans will never forgive you,....... You get the message? Of course, pretty soon our unloved British pal did also.

A variant on this theme was to steer seemingly harmless conversations around to things of cultural significance. (One astute Englishman observed that conversations with Paddies were harmless in the same sense that TNT if handled with care was generally regarded as safe.) Ogh how we'd laugh at the game, "name one thing that is culturally synonymous with your native land". We'd trot out Guinness, James Joyce, U2, the potato famine and St Brigid's crosses. Our Scots friends would offer Malt Whisky, Rabbie Burns, Simple minds, Presbyterianism and the Glasgow kiss. The most English thing our hosts could offer was the smell of cut grass, warm beer and the sound of a firm ball on ash. We'd point out that every nation with grass land could claim the first, Scotland invented the second and the Paddies had a game called hurling infinitely more skillful than cricket. Someone once ironically suggested Vindaloo, Crowded House and motor racing before we all laughed uncontrollably.

Now all this is by way of long rambling introduction to the observation that two British Ministers are seeking to "build on the growing tide of nationalism" by advocating a national day of celebration for Britain and more considered granting of citizenship. Immigrants would have, they suggest, make every effort to integrate and on a credit-based system would gain or lose marks for learning to speak the language or committing a criminal offence which would impact on the granting of citizenship. The MP's and the Fabian Institute suggest that they should look inward to what was important to the nation rather than constantly make allowances for groups who wanted to live in Britain but not be British. (Of course one only has to go on holiday to Spain to see the reverse in action!).

Now I have to confess, I have some sympathy with their plight. It has to be said that there has never been a more generous, welcoming and decent bunch of individuals as one finds among our nearest neighbours. They have opened their country without much restriction and found that generosity thrown back in their faces. They've tolerated how we blame them for everything - the famine (our reliance on one crop and our failure to grasp the concept of crop rotation), the decline in the Irish language (blame Peig), the M50 and political corruption. It's all the Brits' fault.

But I kind of think that it is by taking an outward perspective which defines our particular cultural context. If you were to ask me, the very essence of Englishness is being polite, abiding by the rules, queuing unnecessarily and "being concerned about what everyone else thinks about us". The very British sense of fair play would quickly force that nation to conclude that it was just not cricket to be penalising an immigrant for not knowing who was third in line to the throne when the majority of the natives couldn't tell you who was their Prime Minister. Brits are understated, reserved and composed. They are not given to sporadic and spontaneous celebration just because a day is marked as the national holiday. For god sake, they don't even have a sense of what the nation is. Scotland and Wales are clearly foreign countries but what about all that land north of the Watford Gap? Is that part of England?

Like ourselves, their flag has been hijacked by a bunch of evil racists and instead of delivering the sense of unity and peace, it has come to symbolise naked sectarianism. But we can tolerate ambiguity so much better than the Brits. Both countries have ceded large chunks of national sovereignty to the EU in reward for access to European markets. The Brits need to believe that Sterling is still the standard and the Queen's head will always be on their stamps. We believe that as long as we can turn it into smokes, all cash is king and we will happily prostitute our stamps to promote any sporting franchise. The Brits wouldn't be comfortable celebrating St George's Day for so, so many reasons. It sends a particular religious message, no-one knows anything about St George, they aren't very good at celebrating, and anyway "surely there is someone else in the world who might also want to have their national day and we don't want to cause offence".

With Brit Baiting, as in all sports, is not the winning which is important, it's the taking part. We would do well to reflect on how this well meaning nation wrestles with problems of integration and changing national identity. It might inform us sooner rather than later of the road we need to travel.

"The meek shall inherit the earth (if that's okay with everyone)"
This is why I love our UK friends so much and wish I could help them through their current navel-gazing exercise. I also wish we could watch and learn instead of laughing at how so much smarter we are.


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Anonymous Michael Nugent said...

I know it's an idealistic vision, but I'd love to see us evolve to a stage where our nationality and religious beliefs are part of our cultural identity, and where all of that is entirely separate from our civic identity as citizens of a state. I reckon it will take a while though...

11:38 p.m., June 06, 2007  
Blogger cearta said...

Cricket bats are made of willow, Paige; hurleys are made from ash.

8:17 a.m., June 07, 2007  
Blogger Paige A Harrison said...

Willow, ash, whatever. See that's what I hate about men, ye always get lost in the detail!

9:43 a.m., June 07, 2007  
Blogger Fence said...

Is it called Brit baiting because of the alliteration? Cause really, it is English baiting isn't it?

And every nation/people should engage in it, with every other nation, not just "them across the water" after all making fun of people, in a generally good-humoured way, is merely a form of bonding. Isn't it?

9:49 a.m., June 07, 2007  
Blogger Paige A Harrison said...

Michael, I agree. Although it is had to separate the nationality and the religious belief bit. Also, I'd imagine that as we all view other nations in a narrow stereotype, even if we do get to that point of distinction ourselves, it might be hard for others to see it.

Cearta, thank you for your technical correction and my apologies for snapping at your quite reasonable comment.

Fence, you are also correct my post would be more accurately entitled English Baiting. In some ways this is the essence of the English paradox. They want to define Britishness (probably because of their innate sense of inclusiveness) but others (Scots, Welsh) have a much more easily identifiable cultural identity. That leaves "English" less easily described and 'British' as potentially cutting across existing cultural constructs. Of course a potential solution (or indeed potential problem for us) is the establishment of a sense of what is European.

Before my sojourn to Blighty, I'd have lived by the belief that good natured teasing is healthy and is the sign of interaction. However, I've come to realise that English don't do slagging well. They are (sweeping generalisation alert) quite ernest and so take our thoughtless jibes too much to heart. They are too polite to pointout that they have been offended by our "I'm only slagging" routines.


1:25 p.m., June 07, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Nugent said...

Just to clarify, I've no problem with nationality-baiting or religion-baiting or State-baiting, it's just that I think they should be three different things.

We tend to mix them all up together, so our baiting becomes less sophisticated.

2:29 p.m., June 07, 2007  
Blogger John of Dublin said...

Good article Paige. One thing I love is the English countryside. We Irish often think we have a monopoly on on rural beauty in these islands. The English countryside is a joy to behold and coupled with lovely tidy stone villages and locally brews beers etc.

Even the disgraced Ray Burke was very fond of England, I believe he wanted to live there on retiring. Opon being challenged on this odd attitude from a Irish politician of "The Rebublican Party" he said something rather interesting for someone flirting with lawbreaking...."Yes, but the English are so civilised!"

12:49 a.m., June 10, 2007  
Blogger Omaniblog said...

Dear paige,
I've wanted to read this post for days but it was too long for the time I had when you put it up. I wish there was a blog devoted to only this subject. I suppose I would say that after living in Britain, in England for over 30 years.
If I was asked to name the three most defining characteristics of the English, what would I say?
I might say: their backbone, courage and tolerance.
You say
"the very essence of Englishness is being polite, abiding by the rules, queuing unnecessarily and "being concerned about what everyone else thinks about us"... Brits are understated, reserved and composed. They are not given to sporadic and spontaneous celebration just because a day is marked as the national holiday. For god sake, they don't even have a sense of what the nation is..."
I love the way you have such intelligent comment to make. I think the reason the English don't have the same sense of what a nation is might be to do with the experience of become a nation before anyone else. There was no national model for the English to follow. So they became a nation without any of the ideological trappings others needed in their quest for nationhood. You are so right to imply that they are not proud of their nationality in the same way that Irish people are. I came to respect them for that. Certainly I benefited from their tolerance of my Irishness during the IRA bombing campaign: I walked the streets of London without receiving a single bit of verbal abuse, despite my accent.
One enormous difference I didn't realise for ages is the sheer size of the English: there are so many of them. The Scots & Welsh are small fry in the big pond: 40m English, densely packed into urban centres - I often compare them to the Japanese because they live so cheek by jowl requiring sophisticated manners to enable social life to be tolerable.
I think you didn't spend enough time in Yorkshire, Newcastle and Birmingham. I bet you spent the vast majority of your time in the south east. Forgive me, if I've got this wrong. The people north of Watford are different: the south east is special. Up north, I think you'd have found a more robust response to your slagging. Geordies would have taken the piss out of you easily: they'd have got out out on to the streets without hardly a stitch on. The raw in England is to be found more up the country. I suspect Norman manners influenced the southerners, feudal obsession with hierarchy.
Irish people have difficulty thinking about and discussing the Empire, not surprisingly. By the way Guinness isn't half as well known round the world as Bailey's.
Let me join John of Dublin in lauding the English countryside, and the British countryside too. People over there had struggled for and won the right to access that land. Over here, Irish people respect the farmer's right to keep people off the land. British citizens have struggled hard and victoriously for their rights. I wish Irish people would do the same for their's, and stop being so lazy.

2:07 p.m., June 11, 2007  

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