Proper Gander – Exploring Englishness
Artist Grayson Perry’s latest side-job as a documentary presenter treads similar ground to his previous investigations into what makes up people’s identities. His focus this time is how and how much people feel ‘English’. He asks if there is ‘a shared identity that binds the English together? Or is Englishness just a fantasy that’s keeping us stuck in the past?’ and to find out, he gets in a van and goes on a road trip around the country. Over one episode each for the South, the Midlands and the North, Perry meets and chats with various people, his amiable and direct style drawing out how they define themselves as English. Grayson Perry’s Full English (Channel 4) has enough flavour, but doesn’t satisfy an appetite for explaining everything about what a national identity is. He mentions the context of the UK having left the EU alongside calls for Scotland to secede, and points out that English culture has been shaped by a history of empire and immigration, but the programme’s remit doesn’t stretch to covering the political and economic structures behind a sense of ‘Englishness’.
‘Englishness’ is bound up with nationalism: having allegiance to a state in the mistaken belief that it runs in our interests. In recent decades, nationalism has acquired more negative connotations when associated with England than with other parts of the UK. Perry says that for many people, English pride comes with the caveat ‘I’m not racist, but…’, because ‘Englishness’ has a baggage of knuckle-dragging bigotry. The programme doesn’t feature the stereotypical racist skinhead; although shaven-headed interviewee Ian has St George’s flag tattoos, he emphasises his view that Englishness can be for anyone. However, another person featured, long-haired Jeremy, spends his spare time reminiscing about the Second World War and patrolling the sea in his boat looking for unofficial crossings, to defend what he sees as his country. Other people Perry meets in the South, like Jeremy, tend to have ‘Englishness’ embedded in their character more so than those elsewhere, and they show this in a more theatrical way, whether taking part in a Druid ritual in the woods or styling their life around previous decades. In comparison, those in the Midlands and the North tend to be more down to earth. The people he meets in the Midlands demonstrate that associating ‘Englishness’ with ‘whiteness’ is increasingly out of date. Younger people in particular, such as Birmingham-based rapper Jayekae, have grown up in diversely populated communities, and so have a wider understanding of who can be English. Those Perry meets in the North relate more to their local area than to England as a whole. His driver Kirk and musician Paul Heaton both say that growing up in hardship means you identify with people around you in the same situation, bringing a sense of belonging.
A shared struggle through adversity is one way that living in capitalism distorts the basic human need to feel part of a community. Nationalism is another, which for many people has turned to patriotism, which emphasises identifying with a nation’s culture rather than with a nation in itself. As the programme demonstrates, patriotism is often towards a mythical vision of England, whether seen through Druidism’s reinvented folk traditions or an impression of the 1940s, 50s or 60s either with the rough edges smoothed away or as ‘nostalgia for the bad times’. This aspect of ‘Englishness’ looks backwards and therefore doesn’t point towards creating a different future. Perry sees the emotional appeal of this, but he’s more excited by how ‘Englishness’ has been changing through the impact of people whose families came from overseas. When cultures dialectically rub up against each other, something from both is created: the Northern Soul scene, Desi pubs, the only halal tea room in the Peak District, Grime music, or the domino club at the West Bromwich African Caribbean Resource Centre. This fluid, diverse notion of ‘Englishness’ promoted by the programme doesn’t have any room for the racist, flag-waving connotations of the term.
The mixing of people and cultures has tended to dilute nationalism, apart from during football or cricket World Cup tournaments. Nationalism has shifted to patriotism for those who reinvent traditions or yearn for the past. ‘Englishness’ as shown on Grayson Perry’s Full English often means something more personal yet. Perry asks those he meets to each lend him an object which represents what England means to them, to be part of a tie-in exhibition. Most of the items donated tell part of their owner’s story rather than being attempted symbols of England itself: a refugee’s ticket into the country, a body-building competition medal, a fur coat and knickers. If the people Perry meets are representative (and they tend to be on the eccentric side), then this suggests that ‘Englishness’ is changing its meaning to something more subjective than it may have been defined as in the past. And many of those featured in the programme understandably relate closer to their immediate community than to an abstract idea of ‘Englishness’. While this isn’t the same as rejecting nationalism because it’s part of a wider system which works against us, the programme optimistically suggests that nationalism is becoming less important as society evolves.
Next article: Book reviews: Camfield / Lafargue / Sanghera / Vettese ⮞