A newspaper headline got me in a tiz last week. It stated that Yorkshire is the most ‘British’ region in the UK because, according to scientific mapping of DNA samples, it has the highest concentration of Anglo-Saxon genes. But, given that the native British were in situ before the Anglo-Saxons arrived (eventually to become what we now call the English), the headline is incorrect and Yorkshire, according to genetic distribution, should be described as the most English part of Britain.
The headline typifies the confusion that surrounds the definition of nationality for UK citizens. Even the government can’t cope with it, as we saw in its drafting of the Brexit referendum. The ‘British people’ were asked to make a stark choice, without consideration of the fact that they do not see themselves as a unified entity with common interests: the result has left us with endless analysis of who exactly voted for what and why. Is it really feasible to address a series of complex social, economic and political issues with a simple yes or no question? People tend to live in bubbles defined by their social circumstances: those who occupy the ‘unemployed residents of devastated former industrial town in the far provinces’ bubble will have a different experience and outlook from those in the ‘wealthy inhabitants of another part of the country’ bubble. It is, therefore, surprising that any degree of commonality or national identity exists at all. Perhaps, as in a bowl of soap-suds, bubbles jostle around, occasionally bursting and co-mingling, but mostly remain bound together. In the UK, however, society’s bubbles exist within even bigger ones – the several notional, national boundaries.
I consider myself to be English but by what measure? Perhaps not being Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish helps to narrow it down, but that’s just a start, an elementary guide for foreigners who are unfamiliar with the complexities of the United Kingdom’s constitutional make-up. DNA testing might help in the definition but, as the aforementioned research also shows, the average UK resident is only 36.94% Anglo-Saxon and, given that the British Isles has been an ethnic melting pot for millennia, I doubt that the essence of Englishness is embedded in genes. I prefer to think of it as ingrained in the culture (sorry, Yorkshire) and believe that it is acquired through absorption, assimilation and diffusion.
I can, of course, only offer anecdotal evidence to support my theory (such is the unquantifiable nature of the beast) and am always alert to situations in which only an English person feels completely at ease. Like, for instance, a recent lunch with friends in a pub in the Essex countryside, where the bar-staff were home-grown and the closest thing to foreign was the word croutons on the menu. Tourists, had they ventured so far into that deep redoubt of the English, might have delighted in the authenticity of the experience. But tourists don’t need to stray so far to experience English essence; it is available – at a price – on the main tourist routes. Take, for example, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, where I recently dined. The 185-year-old restaurant is reputed not to have changed much since its foundation. Certainly the interior is a well-preserved marvel of the Imperial Age and reflects, discreetly of course, English tradition (of the wealthy Londoner bubble variety) in every detail. The menu is from the glory days of English cuisine i.e. before the advent of WWI stopped it in its tracks and WWII finally put an end to it. But despite the perfectly orchestrated theatre of the ‘institution’ there was one thing that struck a discordant note with me: English is the second language of all the front-of-house staff.I was reminded that, comforting as it is to revel in one’s Englishness, the embracing of change is essential to ensuring it doesn’t become a mere sideshow in the greater historical pageant.