The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Land + People

Much has been said and written about the British character. For centuries the British have been known as insular. Traditionally, according to Dave Morgan, the British have also been known as superior, snobbish, aloof, hypocritical and unsociable. For example, English confempt for the Irish was part of an increasingly entrenched disdain for foreigners in general, and visitors from other countries often remarked on this trait. The Swiss traveller de Saussure observed in 1727, that he did not think there was a people more prejudiced in its own favour than the British people, and they allow this to appear in their talk and manners. They look on foreigners in general with contempt, and think nothing is as well done elsewhere as in their own country.

These characteristics have been noted by observers from all over the world, but are they typical of all the Britons? The ordinary Briton was seen to be friendly and sociable. There are indeed two nations, with basically different outlooks and characters, in Britain. The two nations are defined simply as the rich and the poor. The traditional opinion about the British, or the English in earlier centuries, was based on the habits of those Britons who could afford to travel, the diplomats and merchantsA English vanity and arrogance grew as England fought off the competition from other European countries and became the world’s leading trading nation, going on to industrialize rapidly.

I Leading British historians claimed that the English were a homogeneous people descended from the Anglo-Saxons, whose Teutonic or Germanic racial heritage gave them a unique capacity for governing themselves and others. The historian Lord Acton wrote in 1862, that subjection to a people of a higher capacity for government is of itself no misfortune, and it is to most countries the condition of their political advancement…

An enormous exercise in self-delusion has helped to preserve English pride and self-regard down the centuries.

Morality for the British ruling class has always been linked with whatever served their own interests. Nowhere has this been more clearly seen than in the field of politics. Parliamentary democracy is seen by them as the best method of disguising their class domination.

Among the working people of Britain there is a different outlook. They have had a long tradition of democracy, not so much in the sense of creating formal institutions, but in the active sense of popular cooperation to uphold the will of the people. This democratic tradition has been shown in many trade union struggles, the tough fight of the London dockers to stop the ‘Jolly George’ sailing with munition for use against young Soviet Russia in 1920, the mutiny of British troops which ended military intervention at Archangel. In recent years the Aldermaston marches every Easter have involved hundreds of thousands in the fight for peace and disarmament, as well as the peace movement of women at Greenham Common.

The character of the British people has been misjudged for many centuries. The British ruling class, with its long recaord of success, developed a sense of superiority and arrogance to an extreme degree. But more recently many people have found that there is another Britain, the Britain of the working people. They have very different characteristics from those of the upper class. The British people may appear, as D. Morgan put it, to move very slowly, but so does history in Britain. They may seem stubborn and hard to convince, but when they are convinced and when they start to move they show a high degree of persistence. It is not then easy to stop them. F. Engels, in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, observed, that ‘the English working man develops that side of his character which commands most respect’*.

It was the strength of character evolved through struggle that Engels admired best.

Great Britain is an island on the outer edge of the European continent, and its geographical situation has produced a certain insular spirit among its inhabitants, who tend, a little more perhaps than some other people, to regard their own community as the centre of the world. The insularity produces a certain particularism among the numerous groups of whom the whole community is composed.

Englishmen tend to be rather conservative, they love familiar things. They are hostile, or at least bored, when they hear any suggestion that some modification of their habits, or the introduction of something new and unknown into their lives, might be to their advantage.^ This conservatism, on a national scale, may be illustrated by reference to the public attitude to the monarchy, an institution which is held in affection and reverence by nearly all English people.

Apart from the conservatism on a grand scale which the attitude to the monarchy typifies, England is full of small-scale and local conservatisms, some of them of a highly individual or particular character. Municipal corporations, universities, schools and societies have their own private traditions which command strong loyalties. Such, groups have customs of their own which they are very reluctant to change, and they like to think of their private customs as differentiating them, as groups, from the rest of the world.

Most English people, for the business of heating houses, remain strongly attached to the open coal fire, although it causes much work and adds to the pollution of the air, and sometimes pours smoke into the room which it is heating. The landlady of a large house, when she was converting some upstairs rooms to serve as living rooms for lodgers, spent much money and trouble in putting in dummy fireplaces, which would never be used: she thought that a living room without a fireplace would be a room without the basic characteristic of cosiness which it was her human and hospitable duty to supply.

England is supposed to be the land of law and order. Part of the English sense for law and orderliness is a love of precedent. For an Englishman, the best of all reasons for doing something in a certain way is that it has always been done in that way.

The English are practical and realistic; they are infatuated with common sense. They are not misled by romantic delusions.

The English people are prudent and careful about almost everything. Their lawns are closely cropped, their flower beds primly cultivated, and their trees neatly pruned. Everything is orderly. Drinks are carefully measured, seats in a cinema are carefully assigned (even if the theatre is empty you are required to sit in the seat assigned to you), closing hours rigorously observed. )

One consequence of English caution and prudence is the habit of suspiciousness. This is curious, for the English are among the most honest. Yet the whole of their business and much of their social life seems organized on the basis of suspicion.

England is still a man’s country. Oxford and Cambridge keep to the traditional ratio of ten men to one woman. England is the land of the club, the pub, the dower house, the garden, the football and the left-hand driving.

The English have still in many, and important, respects a class society. The people of the Establishment are not quite the same as the members of hereditary aristocracy, though it is indeed very easy to trace a British group of 200 families at the very centre of power and influence. A big proportion of ministers in recent Conservative cabinets are connected with holders of hereditary titles going back for three or more generations, and such people hold many of the leading positions in the world of finance, banking and insurance.

A rather obvious division of people is based on the way people speak. Accent is important — accent and speech. Eton and Harrow, Winchester and Westminster, and a dozen other ‘public’ schools play an important role here. The great majority of English people speak with the accents peculiar to their parts of the country, but practically all establishment-people, and some others too, speak the standard English pronunciation, which is the ‘correct’ pronunciation taught to foreigners

The English sense and feeling for privacy is notorious. England is the land of brick fences and stone walls (often with glass embedded along the top), of hedges, of thick draperies at all the windows, and reluctant introductions, but nothing is stable now. English people rarely shake hands except when being introduced to someone for the first time. They hardly ever shake hands with their friends except seeing them after a long interval or saying goodbye before a long journey.

Snobbery is not so common in England today as it was at the beginning of the century. It still exists, however, and advertisers know how to use it in order to sell their goods.J

The dictionaries tell us, that a snob is a person who pays too much respect to social position or wealth. It is snobbery that makes some men feel annoyed when, on the envelopes of letters addressed to them, they find Mr before their names instead of Esq. after their names. Snobbery explains why many people give their suburban house a name, such as The Cedars, The Poplars, The Rhubarb Cottage, even though there are no trees or vegetables in their gardens. People of high social position have country houses with names, so a house with a name seems ‘better’ than a house with a number. Numbers make the postman’s work much easier, but this is not important.

The advertisers are very clever in their use of snobbery. Motor-car manufacturers, for example, advertise the colour of their cars as ‘Embassy Black’ or ‘Balmoral Stone’. Embassy black is plain, ordinary black, but the name suggests diplomats and all the social importance that surrounds them, and this is what the snobs need. Balmoral stone is the grey colour of ordinary stone, but Balmoral is, also the name of the residence in Scotland of the British royal family.

A tradition that is rooted not only in their own soul, but in the minds of the rest of the world is the devotion of the English to animals. Certainly, they will speak affectionately to and of their dogs and horses, which is more than they will do concerning their friends and family. Animals are protected by law. If, for instance, any one leaves a cat to starve in an empty house while he goes for his holiday, he can be sent to prison. There are special dogs’ cemeteries, a noted one in Kensington Gardens. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded half a century before its counterpart for the prevention of cruelty to children. )

Most people. in Britain work a five-day week, from Monday to Friday; schools, colleges and universities are also closed on Saturdays and Sundays. As Friday comes along, as people leave work they say to each other ‘Have a nice weekend’. Then on Monday morning they ask, ‘Did you have a nice weekend?’

Saturday morning is a very busy time for shopping, as this is the only day when people who are at work can shop for any length of time. On weekdays shops close between 5.30 and 6.00 p. m. and they are closed all day on Sunday, except for newsagents and some small grocers and confectioners.

Saturday evening is the favourite time for parties, dances, going to the pictures or the theatre, in fact for ‘going out’ generally.

Sunday for many English families begins with the by now traditional ‘lie-in’, when, instead of getting up at 7.30 or at 8 o’clock, as during the rest of the week, most people stay in bed for at least another hour. During the mid-morning most people indulge in some fairly light activity such as gardening, washing the car, shelling peas or chopping mint for Sunday lunch, or taking the dog for a walk. Another most popular pre-lunch activity consists of a visit to a ‘pub’ — either a walk to the ‘local’, or often nowadays a drive to a more pleasant ‘country pub’ if one lives in a built-up area. It is unusual for anyone to drink a lot during a lunchtime ‘session’, the idea being to have a quiet drink and a chat.

Sunday has always been a favourite day for inviting people — friends, relations, colleagues — to afternoon tea, and there are no signs that this custom is losing popularity nowadays.

The British people are the world’s greatest tea drinkers. They drink a quarter of all the tea grown in the world each year. Many of them drink it on at least eight different occasions during the day. They drink it at meals and between meals. They drink early-morning tea in bed, and some early-morning tea drinkers have automatic tea-making machines connected to their alarm clocks.

The British people are very particular about their meals. British meals mean different things and different times to different people:

Early morning Breakfast.
Midday Lunch (hotels, restaurants, middle-class homes).
(12.00-2.00 p. m.) Dinner (working class).
Mid-afternoon (4.00-5.00 p. m.) Afternoon tea (hotels, tea-shops, middle-class homes).
(5.30—6.30 p. m.) Tea — the main evening meal of working people, of some middle class people.
(7.00—9.00 p. m.) Dinner — the ordinary evening meal for some middle-class people. Others call it ‘supper’. When these others invite people to a three-course evening meal, and put on their smartest clothes, they usually call the meal ‘dinner’. In hotels and restaurants it is always ‘dinner’.
(9.00—10.00 p. m.) Supper — light snack.

Some people spend Sunday evening quietly at home, others go to see friends, go to a concert or film, or go out for a drink. The realization that the weekend is nearly over casts a slight melancholy on the evening.

Much leisure time is spent in individualistic pursuits, of which the most popular is gardening. Most English people love gardens, their own above all, and this is probably one reason why so many people prefer to live in houses rather than flats. Particularly in suburban areas it is possible to pass row after row of ordinary small houses, each one with its neatly-kept patch of grass surrounded by a great variety of flowers and shrubs. Many people who have no gardens of their own have patches of land or ‘allotments’ in specially reserved areas — though a group of allotment gardens, with its mixed-up collection of sheds for keeping the tools and the dull arrangement of the rectangular sections of land, is usually not a thing of beauty. Although the task of keeping a garden is so essentially individual, for many people gardening is the foundation of social and competitive relationships. Flower-shows and vegetable-shows, with prizes for the best exhibits, are immensely popular, and to many gardeners the process of growing the plants seems more important than the merely aesthetic pleasure of looking at the flowers or the prospect of eating the vegetables. In many places a competitive gardener’s ambition is to grow the biggest cabbages or leeks or carrots, and the plain fact that the merits of most vegetables on the table are in inverse ratio to their size seems often to be forgotten.

Every Englishman is a countryman at heart. However many years he may have lived in the city, he does not believe he really belongs there. As he looks out of the window of his flat over the vast desert of brick and concrete, he has in his mind a vivid picture of the day when he will live in a thatched cottage with roses round the porch and hollyhocks in the garden, and breathe in fresh air of the unspoilt countryside. It is a long-distance love affair. The further away the countryside is, both in miles and time since he was last there, the more desirable it becomes.

The English countryside is many things to many people. But to all of them, it is worth fighting for, and an Englishman gets tremendously upset if he hears of anything which threatens to disturb or destroy his idyll. The countryside stands for freshness, for purity, for leisure, fun and games, for country lanes dotted with young couples on the verge. Every Englishman feels all this deep in his heart and it is for this reason that every doctor and dentist has in his waiting room a copy of the magazine Country Life; descriptive of rural pleasures and retreats, it is the most powerful anodyne known to English pharmacology.

Progress is the enemy of tradition. Before the growth of industrial cities, old customs and ceremonies wither and die. In the country, however, we can find ages-old customs still fresh and green.

A curious custom is still existent at Haxey in Lincolnshire. According Lady Mowbray, while on her way to church on Christmas day, lost her hood in a gale of wind, and twelve local worthies rushed to pick it up for her, even struggling together for the honour of being the one to restore it to her. She, on her part, was so pleased with the good manners of the men of the town that she presented it with a piece of land, which is called ‘Hoodlands’ to this day, stipulating that the income derived from it should be used to provide a hood each year, for which the men of the town should contend (struggle). The hood today is a roll of canvas, some two feet long by four inches thick, and the townsmen struggle for it on Christmas Day. Whoever manages to take the upper hand is rewarded with a shilling.

England has always been the home of the seamen, and the sea, too, affords its quota of tradition and custom.

Formerly, when the ship was launched, the Romans, Greeks, Vikings, and in fact all sea-faring folk, used to sacrifice to their gods, so that fair winds and good fortune might follow her keel across the seas. Oil and wine were poured upon it, and the Vikings even ‘reddened their keels’, as it was called, by fastening wretched prisoners to the rollers over which the ship should pass down to the water.

Today the bottle of champagne that is broken over the bows is a lost remnant of this sacrifice.

The best known of all sea customs is the ceremony that is performed when a ship ‘crosses the line’. Neptune comes on board with his wife and the court officials, the barber and the bears being the most important. Anyone who has not sailed across the Equator before is seized shaved with an immense razor of wood and then tipped backwards into the swimming bath, where the bears are waiting to duck him. Formerly the ducking of an apprentice to the sea was done when the ship passed well-known capes or even islands. A young seaman, who was tipped overboard at the end of a rope and not ducked in a canvas swimming bath as is the custom today, was thus forcibly reminded of these important landmarks.

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