by Adam Robertson
With Lucien Freud having died last year at the age of 88, David Hockney has been widely hailed as Britain’s greatest living artist. That his ongoing exhibition at the Royal Academy, entitled ‘A Bigger Picture’, is a collection of new works depicting the East Yorkshire landscape in which Hockney grew up, and to which he has only recently returned after his half-century long self-imposed exile in California, only adds to the notion that these works somehow embody that ephemeral concept: Britishness.
But what is Britishness? This is certainly a perennial question, but one which rarely seems to garner a decisive answer. That it is a vague notion, not easily defined, is well attested to by the ‘My Tram Experience’ and ‘Muslamic Ray Guns’ videos on Youtube. Both depict people expressing opinions that would traditionally be considered racist towards people from other cultures and countries who have moved here. Mr. Muslamic Ray Guns explains to his interviewer that he is attending the English Defence League march at which he is being filmed because he wants “Britain to be right British.”
These right-wing complaints about ‘foreign threats’ to the indigenous culture usually seem to be seeking to protect a perceived national identity that resides somewhere in the confluence of Eastenders, Football, Tea-drinking, Pub-culture, moaning about the weather, a jolly good game of cricket and reminiscing about the good old days when Britannia ruled the waves. But does this culture really have any claim to Britishness, especially when being juxtaposed with a perceived (usually dark-skinned) threat to its continuance?
This is certainly what can be considered a brief (if stereotypical) summary of what most of the country does and shares. But if we glance back through the history of the group of islands that the Romans called Britannia, we see a slightly different picture of Britishness emerging.
When the Romans invaded and conquered much of Great Britain, that island was inhabited by the Britons (the Welsh to anyone East of the Severn) and the Picts, while the Scots were still living with their Gaelic mates over in Ireland. The Romans ran the place for a few hundred years, inter-marrying with the local population. When things got messy over in Rome, the Romans left the Britons get on with things, only for them to be quickly overrun by a massive invasion of Angles, Saxons and Jutes from what is today northern Germany and Denmark. This left us with some Kingdoms that we would describe as ‘English’, and pushed the natives back into Cornwall, Wales, and the region roughly between the Tyne and Forth rivers in the north (fun fact: the word ‘Welsh’ comes from the Old English word for foreigner).
Meanwhile, the Scots invaded the Pictish lands in the north, initially dividing the region in half, but subsequently just mingling together and getting on with things, while the Strathclyde area has apparently always been inhabited by the Welsh (with the Wallace in William Wallace’s name said to refer to his Welshness). A few years later the Vikings landed and took over northern Scotland, parts of Ireland and a full half of England, again marrying the locals and begetting many offspring. Once the native English finally chucked them out, the Francophile Vikings, who we know as the Normans, came over and conquered the whole country.
In the intervening years, whilst the modern United Kingdom has taken shape, a similar degree of openness has been witnessed. We have seen the arrival of thousands of Jewish immigrants since the Norman Conquest, with many East European Jews escaping to Britain from the Pogroms of the late nineteenth century, as well as French Hugenots, Irish immigrants escaping famine at home and an influx of former subjects of empire from the Caribbean, the Subcontinent and Africa.
People have come here from all over the world. Throughout these changes, what has defined Britishness has been nothing more than physical presence in Britain. Indeed, if you are born in Britain, regardless of where your parents are from, then you are a British citizen, to no greater or lesser extent than Churchill or the Queen.
So Britain is merely a group of islands that people have inhabited. There has never been a ‘British people’. Britain is less an ‘Island Race’ than a ‘Peopled Island’. Our country’s commitment to multiculturalism and diversity stretches back at least two millennia. It seems that to be British is to simply live here, get on with your own thing, and, apparently, to constantly search for a more comprehensive definition for Britishness than this.
This is why Hockney’s most recent work is such a perfect answer to the question ‘what is Britishness?’ It encapsulates the experience of being British because it captures the experience of being in the British landscape. Everyone should go and see this fantastic exhibition, enjoy the beautiful and welcoming country in which we live, and be open-minded enough to enjoy a pint with whoever they might find themselves sitting next to, because, regardless of the colour of their skin or their accent, they are as British as the 62 million other people who live on these islands.
Image of fish and chips by Lucas Richarz. Image of union jack from Richard Bates, both on flickr.
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