I am English. I could not suppress my emotions any more than I do without standing on a chair. If I internalised any more, I would turn myself inside out. In adversity I gnaw my stiff upper lip to a stump and, on a really bad day, wring my hands silently. I do not make a scene. I am not even really keen on appearing in somebody else’s. I am so uptight that I do not need a belt. If there is anything about which I am not embarrassed, I am yet to find it. If God had been English, at least one of the Commandments would have been ‘Thou shalt not stand out in a crowd’. An English Jesus would have still gone ahead with the Resurrection, but he would have been dreadfully embarrassed about all the fuss.
Being English means that I do actually conform to just about every national stereotype you can think of: I will queue, quietly and placidly, even when there is nothing to queue for; I will observe all of the rules, even if nobody else has the slightest idea of what they are; I will chat happily with anyone about anything, providing it is in English; I will smile benignly at anyone who has not had the foresight to prepare themselves for a chat by learning English. I realise that nobody is personally to blame for not being English.
When I was a boy, Englishness was something like a suit of armour that you wrapped around yourself (I am fully aware of the physical impracticalities involved in wrapping rigid metal around oneself, bear with me) but today it is more of a universal acknowledgement of bewilderment and frailty: a virtual red flag that says ‘Whatever it is you are trying to explain to me, I will listen politely, but I will almost certainly not understand. I am English. Sorry.’
And historically, of course, we have much to apologise for – although I don’t believe that I, personally, was responsible for any of it. From conquest to slavery, exploitation to xenophobia, ‘Carry On’ to Simon Cowell, we have blighted the world in so many ways, but we also gave it football, cricket, rugby, fair play, The Beatles, Monty Python, Marmite, Stilton Cheese, scones with clotted cream and jam (or possibly jam and cream, depending on where you come from – I know it is terribly important, but I don’t know which is right) Eddie the Eagle, Judi Dench, Bobby Charlton, the National Health Service, real ale and The Queen. We have a small number of brainless morons – every country has them – but somebody has to govern.
What I’m trying to say, I think – I can never be sure – is that we’re not all bad. Historically we have been responsible for perpetrating some inexcusable wrongs, but we’ve also generally been at the forefront of efforts to stop them. I can feel ashamed of what my forebears might have done, but I can’t erase it. In the present, our victories as a nation are few so we do tend to bang on about them quite a bit – if the world is not yet aware that we won the women’s Euro’s, it soon will be (if only because Germany are insistent that we cheated [again?]) – but I do think we also gave the world ‘laughing at ourselves’ and the nobility of the valiant loser.
Am I proud to be English? Of course I am, it’s who I am, but it doesn’t mean I have to get all emotional about it…