Cultural Identity

12 October 2004

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I have been reading The Isles by Norman Davies. This is a history of the collection of European Islands which are often called the British Isles, or Britain and Ireland, or various different names.

Davies uses the term The Isles because names are not politically neutral, and although it may seem like a silly thing to argue about, but what terminology we use can often insult others. Besides he is dealing the history of this place pre-historic times, and back then nothing was British.

Because of this book I’ve begun thinking about identities, and what makes people so willing to identify with others simply because they share an accident of birth-place. Especially when this place can encompass many millions of people?
I can understand wanting a sense of belonging, of feeling kinship with those who grow up with. But on such a huge scale? Does a person living in the inner-city of London have all that much in common with someone living in the surrounding countryside, let alone further a field?

There has been an historical series on TV lately, on C4 or UTV about the island of Britain in the time of King Arthur called Britain A.D. in which the presenter re-evaluated a lot of what is presumed to have happened in Britain during and after the Romans were there.
He (I forget his name) pointed out something I have often thought, that the Dark Ages weren’t really all that Dark and horrific. Yes the Romans were in decline, and there are less written historical sources of us today, but not everywhere suffered terribly in Europe. This series showed a lot of archaeological evidence to back up the claims that British life continued on more or less as it had during the Romans, and that there was not such a huge collapse in standards of living.

The reason I’ve brought up this series is that I just watched the last episode. I taped it, was shown last week or the week before, and in this final episode the presenter kept referring to “our culture”, “our sense of identity” but always meaning English culture and the English sense of identity. Now I am not for one second saying he should have included Ireland in his series, but it was called Britain A.D., not England and a bit of Wales A.D. so what happened in Scotland and the rest of Britain?

Or is just that being English is still seen as the best of Britishness? I thought these statements were particularly out of place in an episode that went to great pains to say that part of what made Britain successful was its adoption of outside influences, its mixing and blending of different cultures, from the Roman to the Saxon, from the Danish to the modern Asian influences, yet every scene meant to portray modern Britain featured an English flag (St. George’s cross, if I remember correctly) and not the British flag.

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