Friday, 23 April 2010

St George's Day

I have been cheered today by seeing some English flags flying for St George's Day; it is past time we reclaimed our national flag from the most bigoted and unpleasant elements of the extreme right. I am English: I carry a British passport but identify as English just as I have friends who identify as Scottish or Welsh while carrying a British Passport. I love England and wouldn't live anywhere else. I value the diversity of its regions and regional voices, traditions and character; I value our countryside from the wild moors and peaks of the north to the green hills and woods of my home Gloucestershire;I love our tolerance of eccentricity; I even love our weather, season after season.

I also value England's ability to absorb and assimilate other cultures because for me, 'English' is not code for 'white'. I was running some race and culture sessions for young people and started trying to make a time-line of migrations and immigrations into and through these islands. I had to give up because it would have stretched twice around the room. We have always had groups of people coming to, and passing through, England: we are truly a mongrel nation and it makes us rich in stories, traditions, and lore.

I was walking early this week and twice met old men walking their old dogs. Stopping to chat for a few minutes, the soft cadences of local accents took me straight back to my grampy, pushing his rickety bike with leeks in the basket and 'mums wrapped in newspaper and tied to the handlebars, after a day scraping a living from his allotment. Sometimes, when people hear I live in Cheltenham, comments are made about it being a wealthy place - and certainly, Gloucestershire has areas of affluence, especially in the picture-postcard Cotswold villages. What people tend to forget though (or not think about)is that anywhere there are people from the wealthiest layers of society, there is inevitably a raft of working people servicing their needs and so it has always been.

Because of this, I get irritated when any hint of being proud to be English is met, from some, with mutters about imperialism. The Empire was a long time ago and it certainly wasn't run by the working classes. The working class English people had it very hard during the times of empire - look at the child labour, the workhouses, the grinding poverty in the cities, the working class martyrs - yet those who can't forgive the faults (which were many) of the Empire behave as if the whole of England were the landowners and aristocracy. The English working class wo/man developed, through years of repression, a bloody-minded independence and pride as well as a mischievous delight in discomfitting their 'betters'. I suspect this is something not seen or recognised by those who haven't seen it up close - but it is something I know and love.

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