Nothing British About Britain
I was walking through Greenwich Park two weeks ago. The sun was bright; the wind was clement. What a beautiful day: my copy of Wordsworth’s The Prelude tucked inside my coat, Elgar’s Enigma Variations plugged into my ears. Spring was gently kissing winter. And then I remembered Brexit again. And politics. And I thought: Blimey, there is nothing British about Great Britain, is there?
I took the bus back home, my bicycle having been recently damaged in a complete cock-up. As I got back, I didn’t stop for tea. I immediately started to write this piece. It is urgent and political.
Christianity is not British. Jesus Christ was a Palestinian, pacifist, pro-sex work, socialist, feminist, probably genderqueer revolutionary. Christianity, in fact, only arrived in Britain in the sixth century. The Venerable Bede didn't even write his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (which he wrote in Latin) until as late as the eighth century.
Morris dancing isn’t really British, either. If you’re thinking of having a quaint holiday in the Cotswolds with Morris dancers, please do remember that the term comes from ‘Moorish’. It only became ‘Morris dance’ as late as the 17th century. We’re dealing with a form of cultural appropriation. A scandal. Cultural vandalism. My heart goes out in sympathy to fifteenth-century Moorish customs. Writing this intense passage made me, curiously, moreish. I took a little break, snapped some shortbread, and dunk them gently into Earl Grey tea. After this break, I continued to write.
We know tea isn’t British because it comes from India. So let’s focus on another sweetly un-British libation: alcohol, the lubricant we often use to ease our social interactions.
The pub (shortened from public house) is where Brits often go to get drunk. We go there after work, at weekends, and to watch association football: but alcohol, the drink consumed in the pub, isn’t really British. Alcohol is actually derived from Arabic, Al-kuhl.
A lot of our basic pleasures, like watching sport, sustaining conversations with our best friends, and intensely awkward foreplay… are facilitated by something entirely un-British.
Now, alcohol isn’t the only common word with Arabic origins we Brits rely on. We also like to throw around more cerebral words like: Al-jabr (Algebra), al-kimiya (Alchemy), and Al-pacino (Alpacino).
The remarkable irony is that we particularly love beers which originate from places where we can’t understand what the people are saying: like Budweiser, Heineken, Stella Artois, and Newcastle Brown Ale.
So when Brexiteers go to the pub to consume their alcohol, they do so ignorant of the diverse and loose legacy of what they consume. That is why it is important to always remind them of this legacy. Everyday. Through Twitter.
We know Queen Victoria is not really British because her Great-great-great-grandfather immigrated from Germany. And to emphasise her un-Britishness: she also married a foreigner. Which just goes to show that unless you can trace someone’s ancestry to the time of Boudica, droning on about ‘Britishness’ is a fool’s errand.
Another person who isn't British is Idris Elba – our island’s modern-day Beau Brummell. Although he was born in Hackney and speaks with a familiar Cockney baritone, he isn’t really British as his father comes from Sierra Leone and his mother comes from Ghana. Whenever Brexiteers watch him play Luther on the BBC with their beans and toast (not British either), they should bear in mind the foreignness of what they are watching. And we should bang this drum. We need to expose the sinister small mindedness of these people, with their attachment to a fictitious ideal.
It has just struck me, writing this, that the English language also doesn’t exist. I saw a recent tweet that made a tremendously enlightening point: ‘I wonder what percentage of British people realise that the English they speak is a glorious melange of other languages. Mostly French, Germanic and Latin it reflects the waves of migration here since the time of Christ. There’s no such thing as "English" really, it’s just a soup.’
The language I am using to write this article is not a language. It’s just a soup of other languages. If I simply add some spices to it I could be writing Español; if I add some onions I could be writing Français. It’s a wonder why so many native English speakers are incompetent at other languages; it’s not a language but a soup!
I think it’s very important in these times of polarisation to remind everyone that Britishness doesn't exist and the English language doesn’t exist; and if we want to be the sort of proud and tolerant society we should aspire towards, the sort of society that is inclusive of all ethnic groups and cultural differences, we ought to remember one salient fact: there is nothing to connect us except that we are on an…
As I was editing this article, nearly two weeks after my Greenwich park epiphany, I realised that Britain itself is not a distinct island. The landmass of this country only separated from Europe in 6,100BC.
Illustration by Alex Christian.