That Blessed Plot, That Enigmatic Isle

Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic Monthly:

Book What is it to be English? I should say for a start that to be English is to be mildly embarrassed by the very concept of “identity.” To continue with the paradox for a moment: The English are famous above all for their insularity. That they are located on an island is essential to them. But not an island like Iceland or Samoa; rather, an island that is within swimming distance of the mainland, and thus an island that can be easily invaded, or employed as a base for invasion. Therefore, the insularity of the English has been complicated by two striking anomalies: their ethnic dilution and their history-making propensity for exporting people. Whole continents were settled by English (and Scottish and Welsh and Irish) emigrants, and I have hardly ever visited a country that doesn’t have a sizable English/British cemetery. Then, owing in part to its extraordinary capacity to borrow and assimilate, the English language has become nearly sovereign as a global lingua franca; but there are areas of the nation in which I can barely make out a word that is uttered, and the class and regional aspects of Englishness ensure that England’s sons and daughters are “branded on the tongue,” to make them more readily classifiable by their betters.

The English have a justified reputation for being sturdy and prosaic, yet they have excelled in poetry above all the arts. They are often thought to be shy and retiring and even (by Hollywood especially) affected to the point of effeminacy. Yet few peoples have shown a more frightening and ruthless aptitude for violence. Their fondness for flowers and animals is a national as well as an international joke, yet there is scant evidence of equivalent tenderness in, say, the national cuisine. The general temper is distinctly egalitarian and democratic, even populist, yet the cult of aristocracy and hierarchy is astonishingly tenacious.

When asked by an interviewer if he was English, Samuel Beckett is supposed to have replied, “Au contraire.” The nation whose passport I carry doesn’t even really have a name, except the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is the bureaucratic result of a seventeenth-century compromise. (Northern Ireland is legally part of the United Kingdom but not of Great Britain.) The country can be identified in shorthand as England, Britain, the UK, and — “in very exalted moments,” as Orwell once wrote — Albion.

More here.