Around 500 AD, the Britons were minding their business, lumbering about, daubed with woad, bashing each other with clubs. The Romans had come and gone. Five hundred years they had been here, and the residual effect of their culture and civilisation was zero. The natives had reverted to type. There were no towns, no roads, no government, no architecture, no schools, no coinage, no central heating – nothing.
If the Angles and Saxons had turned up expecting a big battle, they must have been somewhat disappointed. They were confronted not by an army, but by a mish-mash of scattered and fragmented tribes who were to use a variety of guerrilla tactics against them for years to come.
I was contemplating this reading of historical data in a local Wetherspoons one evening over a pint of Old Rosie cider. Our history discussion group had dispersed, and I called into the pub on the way home and sat alone, surrounded by modern day “Brits”. Here, it was not difficult to imagine that the tribal customs and behaviour patterns had not much changed since the 6th Century, until it occurred to me that these were not actually Britons. The Britons, apparently, all live in Anglesey, St. David’s Head or, er, Brittany, whither they were obliged to retire in the face of overwhelming force.
Meanwhile, all those of us who consider ourselves to be born and bred Britons, as distinct from the peculiar “continental” stock should think again about our genetic and cultural provenance. We are actually mongrels, the progeny of invading and migrating races from continental Europe – the Romans and their conscripted legions of assorted tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Normans. The notion of genetic racial purity as applied to the present day population has no credibility in the face of historical fact. Yet, our need to have a unique national identity is so overwhelming that we have created what is actually a brand – British. It competes for popularity with other brands, of course, one of the most curious being the Celtic brand, whose cultural and racial origins are notoriously difficult to establish. This has not, however, been detrimental to the successful establishment of the Celtic brand as a world-wide marketing phenomenon.
Which brings me back to Wetherspoons, that paragon of English beer culture, established by a New Zealander in that most cosmopolitan of cities, London. It was a Wednesday evening in Manchester, but the place was full. Perhaps the freezing weather outside had driven them through the doors or, maybe, it was the very reasonable prices. It was like years ago, when young and old could be found in the same pub, before they “themed” them. Old people sat talking over their drinks, going nowhere except home when their allowance ran out. Young people were tanking up prior to moving on somewhere more exotic. Two young men (Polish?) ordered food from a (Spanish?) waitress while, over my head, there came a genuine inter-generational cultural exchange.
“It was just like the ’68 final, Gary. They came back in the last two minutes.”
“I knew they would though. They always come good like that, Michael.”
“Ay, it was just like the ’68 final. You don’t remember the ’68 final, do you Gary?”
“Bloody ‘ell, I’m only 36, Michael. How old do you think I am?”
“I can remember who won the ’47 final.”
“Yeah, well there’s a difference between remembering, and reading history books. We can all read history books, Michael.”
We can, indeed.