“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” So wrote George Orwell in the opening line of his essay, England Your England. It was 1940, the year of the Blitz, Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. Britain stood alone as the German army swept through Europe, claiming vast swathes of land for the triumphant Third Reich.
“They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them,” he continues. “They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.”
The essay is famous for a number of reasons. First, it attempts to sum up Englishness as a quality. There’s one often-quoted paragraph which is particularly evocative: “The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning—all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.”
It’s somewhat dated now. Lancashire mill workers, what few remain, are more likely wearing trainers than clogs, and the old maids will be waiting for their favourite daytime TV quiz show rather than hiking to Holy Communion. The Soho pubs are full of gays and unemployment queues are virtual rather than physical. Nevertheless, as an evocation of Englishness it carries a certain resonance. The lorries are still rattling to-and-fro on the Great North Road and the autumn mornings are still misty.
What Orwell’s reaching for is the notion of patriotism. That’s the second reason for the essay. In the face of the overwhelming danger of the age, he’s trying to find something that will unite his audience. Specifically, as a left-wing writer, a socialist, he’s looking for an idea of patriotism that will draw the normally scornful left into its orbit. As he says: “Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.”
But the English are self-contradictory. Working-class people are patriotic and class-conscious at the same time. The English left, meanwhile, are supportive of other people’s patriotism, while dismissive of their own. Left-wing activists will take to the streets in support of Kurdish independence and Palestinian rights while simultaneously attacking anyone carrying an English flag. The far-right English Defence League (EDL), meanwhile, are happy to take on the patriotic mantle as an appeal to the working class.
This results in a confused view of what the left represents while leaving the right-wing to define the limits of English identity. The Scots, the Irish and the Welsh have no such problem. All three nations are very patriotic while also able to embrace socialism, internationalism and radical politics. So why can’t the English?
There are many things that are characteristically English and also left-wing. Trade Unionism, for example. It comes out of the British Isles, which was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Britain was the first country to lose its peasants, who were driven off the land during the Enclosures. They ended up in the cities, forced to sell their labor. They became a new class, the industrial working class (“the proletariat” in Marxist terms) employed as laborers in the new factories that were springing up all over the country. It was their attempts to improve wages and conditions in the workplace that gave rise to the first industrial unions, an idea which has since spread throughout the world.
Class consciousness is also an English characteristic. Nothing arouses the English worker’s sense of outrage more than the sound of a plummy, upper-class accent in his vicinity. There are generations of ingrained bitterness behind this reaction, the sense that they’re looked down upon by someone who considers himself their better. The very nature of the factory work that defined them gave rise to this historic sense of injustice. Factory workers were called “hands”: meaning they’d been reduced to a single appendage. Hands with no brains, they weren’t allowed to think for themselves. The owners were referred to as “masters,” a term they shared with slave owners in other parts of the world.
In some senses the early industrial laborer was worse off than a slave. Slaves were property, and therefore often relatively well-treated. People tend to look after what they own. Wage slaves, on the other hand, were cheap and disposable. There were plenty of other workers willing to take their place. This is why Trade Unions became so crucial. Without them the people suffered greatly. Average lifespan in the mid-19thcentury was around 40 years. It was with the advent of Trade Unions that worker’s conditions began to improve.
There’s nothing inherently unpatriotic about supporting worker’s rights. If your definition of a country is its people, then wanting to improve worker’s pay and conditions is a patriotic act. Again, by allowing the right-wing a monopoly on patriotism, the left is allowing them to define its terms. To the right-wing, patriotism is a matter of race. That’s what the far-right are doing when wrapping themselves in the English flag. They’re saying that only white people are truly English. It would take a left-wing, inclusive patriotism to oppose that.
There are several references to English food in Orwell’s essay—solid breakfasts and suet puddings—but this too has moved on since his time. Today the English breakfast is just as likely to be eaten at lunch as in the morning, while suet puddings, which used to spend hours steaming on the hob, are a two-minute microwave dish. The most characteristic food, after fish and chips and roast dinners (still English favorites) is Indian food, with two dishes actually invented in the UK. These are Chicken Tikka Masala, and Balti. Tikka is a classic Indian dish, but’s is eaten dry on the subcontinent. In the UK, however, it’s served with a creamy sauce, the Masala, which makes it more palatable to British tastes. The Balti was invented in the Balti Triangle in Birmingham in the West Midlands. It comes in the pan it was cooked in, which saves on the washing up. It’s eaten with a naan bread, which is used to mop up the delicious juices.
What this shows is how embedded the British-Asian communities are in modern English life. Likewise the Afro-Carribean communities, who’ve made their mark in music, sport and the arts. Just as Balti and Tikka Masala are British dishes, so a whole host of musical genres have emerged in the urban centers of the Black British communities. Jungle,Grime and Dubstep are just a few examples.
Another thing that Orwell gets wrong is his assessment of English artistry. We’re not as musical as the Germans, he says, nor as skilled in painting or sculpture as the French. We’re a literary nation, which makes us insular. Our literature is us speaking to ourselves. Orwell died before the rise of the United States as the principal world power following the Second World War, which made the English language paramount, and the English, as its nearest European proponents, the masters. Many people all over the world speak English these days, which makes English literature a world literature, certainly throughout the Commonwealth.
Orwell was referring to high culture, upper-class culture. What he failed to predict was the rise of working class culture, which has its own qualities. As he says: “The genuinely popular culture of England is something that goes on beneath the surface, unofficially and more or less frowned on by the authorities. One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical. They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.”
All of this is true, except that it’s no longer beneath the surface. Foul-mouthed comedians and bawdy jokes are still a mainstay of British culture while British style is also widely acknowledged. From Mods and Rockers to Skinheads, from Punk and Goth to New Romantic, British subcultures have gained worldwide attention. British comedy, British film and British TV have all taken their place on the world stage. Likewise, British music, dominant since the Beatles and the British invasion in the early-1960s, has had a global appeal.
Wikipedia defines Patriotism as: “the feeling of love, devotion, and sense of attachment to one's country.” I don’t see anything to be ashamed of in that. Love is never wrong. Devotion and a sense of attachment are profound feelings. Patriotism is closely bound up with a sense of place, with the Genius Loci of a country, its landscape and its environment. The weather in England is mild and damp, and the English character is a little like this too. By living in a landscape you become it. Green and misty, with low rolling hills, slow rolling rivers and an endless shoreline, Britain remains a beautiful land, unlike any other. It doesn’t matter where you were born, or where your family came from originally (mine are from Poland) the landscape will seep into your bones and soul. By living here you become a part of it. Being English means living in the country, while sharing in its cultural life, nothing more.
When visiting a country it’s always nice to meet the locals and have them show you around. They’ll invariably speak proudly of what makes their country great. Love of one’s country doesn’t mean dismissing other people’s love of theirs. By being proud of my own country I’m joining with people who are equally proud of theirs. I’ve become an international patriot. The enemy today isn’t patriotism, but the blank mass of amorphous corporatism that’s consuming the planet, making every city an identical version of every other, and reducing every landscape, every ecosystem, every population to a set of resources for our rulers to exploit and destroy.
—Hear CJ Stone talking about George Orwell’s essay on the BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b09388f4