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What is Britishness?

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Suggestions often include: queuing, self-deprecation, appreciation of irony, under-appreciation of suntan lotion, overcooking vegetables,  football hooliganism and apologising when someone else stands on your foot (when you’re not kicking their head in causing them to continue home in an ambulance).

But trying to define Britishness almost always becomes a matter of listing things people consider British. Then Britishness is like porn – you know it when you see it. As definitions go, it’s not one.

This makes me wonder: perhaps it is at the heart of Britishness to feel uncomfortable around any hard-edged definitions. There’s a reluctance to articulate things – feelings, identities, rules, movements. We have no constitution. We have “sets”, not intellectual movements. It’s all a matter of a nod and a wink and a handshake, and osmotically absorbed patterns of U and non-U and… don’t you know Charlie’s uncle? You know what I mean, mate? (Because class has to come in there somewhere, albeit often in an embarassed and defensive jumble.)

I know I’m British, but I could never tell you why. I’m almost certain I’d fail any test that tried to analyse my British identity, because tests that try to pin down qualities in an absolute fashion are themselves, just not British. Whatever that is.


2 responses »

  1. very true, although I think this extends to all nationalities – and indeed all generalisations/stereotypes. Britishness just means you were born in Britain… just because I am from Yorkshire doesn’t mean I HAVE to have a ferret in my trousers… I just prefer it.


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