British history and culuture is replete with subtle complexities and glaring paradoxes. It is all too easy for some people to disregard it as something arhaic and autocratic, in which all the main players are people dominated by a strong conviction of their own worthiness and who conquered the world to get away from their own rainy skies and bad cooking. The stereotype is found everywhere in books, films, and musical interpretations. Some Americans, especially those of strong Irish ancestry, tend to bask in it. It's a feel-good mechanism employed to justify our origins and glorify our short yet shimmering history and whipper-snapper cultural style.
Apparently, Brits and Yanks have an uncanny knack for rubbing each other the wrong way sometimes, especially when they are tourists in each other's countries. Some Brits come off as being sanctimonious snobs who look down on Americans for being up-starts, while some Yanks come off as being nosy nut-cases who look down on the British for being so straight-laced. But perhaps this is more due to cultural differences than intentional nastiness. Americans tend to be more out-going in general, while Brits tend to be more reserved in their manners and reactions. But of course, generalizing a race of people is pretty futile in the end. Each person is his/her own person.
I set out on a mission to meet people from the UK several years ago. In the course of this, I have made good friends and discovered that the stereotypical approach to understanding the British people is just as silly as the stereotypical approach to understanding the American people. I have met a varied array of ordinary folks from Britain, including an engineer, a book-keeper, a journalist, a butler, a political bloggist, historical society archivists, and Anglican vicars. They are anything but cookie-cutter images of each other. Some are extrovert, and some our introvert. But overall, I have come off with the impression that they are a hard-working, intelligent, funny, caring, and passionate lot, quite the opposite of stereotypical stiffs that the British are "supposed to be".
Furthermore, they lend life to the historical and political concepts that I have emmersed myself in. All that can be dismissed as ink-on-paper, but these people are real and their sentiments are real. Talking with them about their history and heritage makes one begins to understand that Britain is not some abstract demension accesible only in ancient tomes, but a beloved "home" and national identity. When talking with my Scottish engineer friend about the Napoleonic wars, he interjected enthusiastically, "Now that was a time of glory!" You would have thought that Napoleon had only been haulted at Waterloo several years ago, for his pride in the event was as strong as ever. When talking to the butler about the military career of General Thomas Gage, the ancestor of his employer, he trumpeted, "He was in the same campaign with General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham." Again, the way he said it made one think that Wolfe had just been buried and hype of the victory was still in the air.
This sense of national pride, I have found, is not limited to historical nostalgia. There is a real determination among many to confront the problems in British society and change things for the better. Also, there is real sense of self-understanding that varies in its range of depth. My book-keeper friend gave me his philosophical summary: "I've always seen my heritage as one of a thoughtful, measured, civilized, yet firm approach to tolerance, fairness, liberty, and the rule of law. We don't submit to tyrants; but we don't have blood-in-the-streets revolutions either....although we do occasionally riot and decapitate our king!" My engineer friend stated, "Many people are proud of their British identities. We are not especially vocal about it - that would be quite un-British indeed - but that doesn't mean it's not there."
And these people aren't just chattering - they mean it and many of them are working to better their society and serve they're country, in all ways, grand and small. The London book-keeper would like to become a barrister. The Glasgow engineer is involved in an outreach program to aid those who work at sea, especially those who come in and out of his native city. The London journalist is involved in all forms of public service operations, from Catholic evangelical ministries to protests against the redefinition of marriage and abortion. The historical society archivists are working to preserve their local history. The Vicars are working to spiritually serve their flock.
This is merely a microchosm of a forever socially-changing, conflict-ridden Britain, but that doesn't make it any less authentic. These are some of the people that make up the fabric of British society, and they are the ones with whom the future rests. They have helped me clear up the thoughts in my own mind, and assess what Britain means to me and why I love her. Perhaps it is because she is much loved. Blood, sweat, and gold have gone into her, and a panoply of struggles have been fought over her soil, and her people know and appreciate that. There is an appealing rebel streak that emerges beneath the reserved exterior of this place and this state of mind called Britain. It is no paradise, but instead a constant battleground. And that it what causes it to draw in the casual student like a vacume. There is something here to sink one's teeth into. It is the treasure always being sought after; it is the ideal always being reached for. The journey is often just as important as the destination. This is Britain.
|This is Britain|