The Scots, Welsh and Irish all have, it is said, discernible identities. Characteristics that those claiming allegiance see as a common thread. Not the English. Too embarrassed by the legacy of empire to show too much of ourselves, I suppose.
When asked what they think our identity means, people are either serious to the point of the stodgy: upholders of democracy and the rule of law (like we have a monopoly on that, leaving asides whether it is true) or silly: tea drinkers and Morris Men. As an Englishman, I need a bit more than Tetley’s finest and hanky-waving lessons.
Someone said we have too much history to pick out one characteristic which probably emphasises one thing often said about the English. That we are arrogant. Which is true but no more true than everyone else frankly. And arrogance is up there with my least favourite traits in people, alongside bigotry and walking slowly: discrimination and dawdling, two crimes against humanity.
So what is there that we might cling to? Well, we have a lot of food-based references to start with (with which to start – smug grammarians, that might be a characteristic?): as English as fish and chips, scones and cream, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Or our much vaunted sense of humour. Mind you claiming ours is better than others is rather arrogant too. And I’m always having to explain my jokes so I probably fail that test.
Maybe it’s in the image: the Scots have their tweed and their kilts and what have you; the Welsh have their choirs and their daffodils; the Irish their shamrocks and green everythings. Us? John Bull and Winston Churchill which is all a touch bellicose in truth. We are a warlike people, let’s face it. We’re always going off somewhere to start or finish a war, even (especially) when we have no right or reason to.
We need something better, people and I think I’ve found it. We need a role model, someone who embodies the essence of Englishness: our love of simple food; our diffidence and lack of certainty about ourselves and our place in the world; our loyalty and simple-minded belief that all can be all right with the world with a little effort; our ability to make people laugh at us and with us at the same time.
In the end this character, a chubby, slightly anxious, philosophical chap (‘sometimes I sit and think’) was the obvious candidate.
This revelation came to me, as so much does, on a walk with friends, in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex. I’ve populated this post with some of the pictures I took. Like this one of my companions, Dog, of course included. In the end I didn’t have to think very hard (‘and sometimes I just sit’)
AA Milne wrote about Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh hereabouts, deep in the Sussex countryside. We stopped at this memorial stone high on the escarpment, in a small grove of trees.
‘… so captured the magic… and gave it to the world’
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most archetypical of Englishmen, the perfect role model for our mad manic 21st Century.
WINNIE THE POOH
If only we could be a little more Pooh, then everyone would understand what it means to be English. As long as there was honey for tea.