Photo: Getty Images, Penny Whitehouse

OPINION

Is this England? 

A Londoner? English? British? As Brexit looms, Marisa Bate takes a closer look at the city, the country and the nation she lives in

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By Marisa Bate on

I’m as English as they come. This is what I always say when people ask. My mum is from Essex; my dad is from Bolton. “This is England,” both places have always said to me, in a landscape scarred by a lost industry, or a silly sense of humour, or a lifelong Greek-tragedy-style devotion to West Ham. And, while "British" doesn't mean "English", my Englishness is my Britishness. Like a set of Russian dolls, my Britishness and Englishness – and even my inner Londoner – all sit inside one another, difficult, if not impossible, to separate. 

The question of what constitutes “Britishness” has become a desperate, soul-searching one since 23rd June 2016 and now our little island is inflated and red-faced with polarisation. There have been vicious, violent hate crimes, the vote seemingly a licence to attack the other. Our human rights, once protected by the EU, feels like a pile of papers by an open window and a storm is on the way. And many seem, more than ever, sure of what England is not. England is not Brussels, say the Tory backbenchers; England is not Islamic, says the EDL; England is not refugees, says Nigel Farage. England is not London, said all towns that voted Leave. And what about Britain? 

You just have to watch Morecambe and Wise dancing around a fridge to realise there’s something truly brilliant about this strange corner of the world, and all the ways we’re different are all the reasons we’re brilliant

In a piece in The New York Times last week, Sarah Lyall, an American journalist who lived in London at one time, wrote a fretful article about what will happen to the capital in the fallout of Brexit. If Brexiteers are demanding walls and barriers, how will London last, because, as Lyall believes, the city is built on openness and acceptance. London is not anything, because it can be everything, she seems to suggest. "This is London," she seems to be saying. But is London England?

I have dinner with a friend and his 71-year-old father. I bring him a new biography of Prince Charles that’s been sent to the office. He’s a royalist, impressed by their dedication, their duty. It is the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death, I say and we all pause at the passing of time and the idea of something so radiant buried so young.  

And, while London is often perceived as separate from the rest of the country – an island within an island – it is, of course, also home to the most English thing of all: the Royal family. And, in a way, what could be more quintessentially English than the Queen and antiquated traditions and wild privilege? Weirdly, in Lyall’s depiction of London there was no mention of them, despite the fact they prop up the economy – a neon light that tourists buzz round; a colleague whom Londoners never talk to but co-exist with, occasionally bumping into; a landmark that instantly means you couldn’t be anywhere but England; that says, "This is England."  

And something about the heavy weight of Prince Charles' biography and a 71-year-old solid with pride and my daily walk past Buckingham Palace and Lily Allen tweeting recently that Saffiyah Khan made her "proud to be British" (not English) made me think about my own Britishness, and Englishness, and I started to wonder what, as a 31-year-old woman, being British (and English) actually means – particularly at a time when it’s so up for grabs. 

And, while it evades articulation, if I try, to me Britishness is a comfort in our own skin. We don’t need to shout or over-explain or overcompensate; we don’t need a 20-second reminder at the start of a TV show; we don’t need to use exclamation marks or say too much. 

We aren’t hysterical – when Twitter began to #prayforLondon after the Westminster attack, nobody noticed. We were too busy (respectfully) carrying on. 

It’s our pubs – the great leveller, where your money and your day job and your school (all the things that can, and have, shred our country into a thousand civil wars) simply don't matter. 

And it's our rudeness. We don’t have to like you. But don’t confuse it with a lack of generosity. We’ll do everything we can when we really need to. 

It’s our desperation to be homeowners, even though we’ll never be. A national dream of islanders to have their very own islands. 

It’s the brilliant cynicism – a raised eyebrow, a frowned brow, a disbelief, which means we will always question authority and we won’t be blinded by flash or fancy. 

And it’s the love of the underdog. Because most of us are the underdog. 

And it’s a choice. A choice to dissent or to reject or to protest. A choice to endorse and support and stand in solitude. 

And it’s not all this nation isn't, but all the things this nation could be. 

And you just have to watch Morecambe and Wise dancing around a fridge to realise there’s something truly brilliant about this strange corner of the world, and all the ways we’re different are all the reasons we’re brilliant. And you’re no better because you’re from London or Birmingham or Bournemouth, or if you're English or British, because the fatal lesson that this small island will never seem to learn is that no man or woman is an island. And, while groups try to hijack nationality as a weapon for hate, or a tool for power, or a political one-upmanship, we're at our best carrying on carrying on – not noticing that we’re great, not letting the bastards get us down and often mistaking a lack of pride for our British way to just keep going, no recap or exclamation mark required. 

And, to me, this is England.  

@marisajbate

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Photo: Getty Images, Penny Whitehouse
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