‘My mother was half-English and I am half-English too,” sings Billy Bragg on England, Half English. He has more idea about what he is than I do. My father was American, my grandad Cherokee, my mother adopted, so really I don’t know. She had olive skin and black hair. Jewish? Italian? English? It didn’t matter, anyway. Everyone always said how much I looked like my grandma. People see what they want to see. Or perhaps I really did look like her, though we had no genetic connection. Perhaps love runs thicker than blood. That’s what I felt. Lately, though, I feel very English, if such a feeling exists. That’s right: English, not British. I see England speaking of itself once more and I am not surprised. Old and new Englishness abounds and it is not connected with racism or with Ukip
. But it will be if it cannot be heard. On the day the verdicts of the Lawrence trial came in, the BBC, in trying to explore “race relations” (a term way past its sell-by date in every sense), referred to last summer’s riots as “the English riots”. Did my heart swell with new-found patriotism? Not exactly. But the Scots, Welsh and Irish did not riot. Then people online started talking about the English Defence League’s reaction to the Lawrence verdict. What was highlighted on many of the threads was the obvious disarray and ignorance of the EDL. We have been told it is in decline, yet I would not be so complacent about that when suspect groupings such as Casuals United are going strong. The last time I wrote about how the EDL were aping the language of inclusivity
, I was automatically accused of being racist, as if to look at such material is to endorse it. But seeing, for instance, Ted Hughes’s poetry co-opted by the EDL is indeed unsettling. This attempted rebranding of the far-right has not been a success, but it is early to dismiss it as a total failure. This is why it matters that we talk about Englishness, and now even more so in our post-European “isolation”. Again, there have been parallel worlds: one in which we are all assumed to be pro-European EasyJetters, the other where the majority are uneasy about what “Europe” means. It is hardly small-minded to worry about democratic accountability or to simply observe; those of us with family in Ireland watched the European money flow into that country, and then flow out again. The anti-Europeanism that upsets the bien pensants
is pragmatic. But if we pull back from Europe, will we look further inwards? Devolution means a shoring up of some identities, while others are in flux. The kind of nationalism that Billy Bragg talks of is a patriotism of radical Englishness, of class solidarity and anti-racism. This speaks to me. When I was very young and travelling in India, I had arranged to meet a friend in a huge city and she found me simply by going to the cheapest flop houses and looking through their books. When she saw a name with “English” and not “UK” beside it in the nationality box she knew it was me, for even then I could not bear the term United Kingdom. She laughed at me a lot, because her father knew something about Englishness: he was EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class. If my clinging to Englishness was making a statement about class, then I came home to a place where Britishness had become the default for anyone who wanted to say something, or perhaps nothing, about race. Thus, many people identify themselves as Black-British rather than, say, Sikh-Scots. This hybrid works if the centre can hold. But the centre has shifted. Englishness is not the preserve of the right. The cultural canaries sing. Thus Jez Butterworth writes Jerusalem and PJ Harvey has been singing of her connection to the white chalk of Dorset and now to the blood and bones of England itself. “I live and die through England, it leaves a sadness.” Her England is of the past and the future; the dead of the Empire’s wars are not denied. Then, of course, Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu, AKA Tinie Tempah, does Englishness in a totally different way. “Yeah, they say hello, they say ola and they say bonjour” leads to the very funny “I’ve been to Southampton but I’ve never been to Scunthorpe.” The scuppering of Englishness as any kind of ethnically pure or white identity is happening: listen to the way kids talk. The problems come when Britishness, or Europeanism, feels enforced rather than organic. This is often what people are really complaining about when they say multi-culturalism has “failed”. This loss is replaced by Englishness as nostalgia. Orwell, always the reference point, got most things right. But he described the essential qualities of Englishness as “gentleness” and “privateness”. He clearly hadn’t seen Big Brother. Some say anxiety about Englishness can lead us only backwards; others say look to it for its anti-establishment credentials. And I would. It could be more than anti-Catholicism and morris dancing. We could have greater expectations. My loyalty is to no flag and no king, and I fully understand why many prefer the term British. But where I live, where I hear so many tongues and see so many faces, where many worlds collide, where I may be a citizen and as awkward as I like, is actually England.