An event which seems to be approaching tradition is the online pillorying of celebrities who have said something that was worded, or heard, badly and such has been bad enough to see them proclaimed ‘cancelled.’ The latest incident involved John Cleese who stated on Twitter that both he and an undeclared number of his friends had arrived at the conclusion that London was ‘not really an English city anymore.’
It should be recognised in the first instance that Cleese did not present this development as negative, but as an observation.
There are two things which must be said on this subject, and the first is that Cleese is right. London houses over eight million people, and thus it cannot be described as a city. It is an economic powerhouse, and a hub for people who have been drawn to it by varying degrees of economic need. In a cultural sense it is a collection of villages operating under one name.
The second point which should be queried is that there are vast doubts over whether ‘English’ can be classified as a national identity at all. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I heard a man, who was being interviewed on BBC Radio Ulster, refute being referred to as English because, and in his own words, he is a Scouser.
A fact which is generally true of emigration is that it is done with reluctance – most people do not wish to leave their own countries. Doing so will cause them anxiety and anguish, and they will become an embassy of their nation, on one square foot of real estate, wherever they subsequently stand.
This is perhaps truer for no people more than the Irish. One effect of our de facto empire is that the government of the Republic has an unrivalled exercise of soft power as its ministers are received by countries all over the world on St. Patrick’s Day.
In 1852, Archbishop John J. Hughes of New York, born in County Tyrone, said that not only do the Irish ‘cherish strong memory for the apostle of their native land, but they propagate it, and make the infection as if it were contagious.’ It is true that though they might emigrate, few Irish people ever leave.
The most notorious Irish area of London is best known as the ‘thirty third county of Ireland.’ Kilburn historically bore all the hallmarks of an Irish village, from GAA clubs to the more sinister aspects, as the Biddy Mulligan’s pub bombing in 1975 was the first time the UDA had struck outside of Ireland.
The other infamous Irish satellite state is Liverpool, alluded to above. From 1885 to 1929, the constituency of Liverpool Scotland returned a Nationalist Party MP to Westminster, and three quarters of the population claim Irish ancestry. Its heritage is not only shown in the annual Liverpool, but also in its Orange Order parades.
Not only have the Irish abroad traditionally been strongly nationalistic, but they were also a community which were looked upon with suspicion, ridicule, and even downright loathing among the English – a position which now seems to be occupied by the Muslim population. No one should need reminding that the default position of Anglo-Irish relations in the past millennia has been some form of war. Both factors, like burning a candle at both ends, serve as barriers to assimilation.
The same is true of Caribbean communities of London, which in many cases lived cheek by jowl with the Irish and shared many of the same values. Rapper and commentator Akala wrote in his book Natives that said communities guarded their identities far more fiercely than their relatives at home. He illustrates this through the point that, though the likes of Celine Dion and Garth Brooks are ‘practically music royalty in Jamaica,’ those in London are ‘focused more acutely and narrowly on Jamaican music.’
It is worth noting here that The Wolfe Tones, the Irish rebel band, of all the places around the globe they played, returned each year to the Falls Road in Belfast and the Kilburn High Road in London. Two places where identity was faced with adversity, which is the basis of ‘identity politics’ arising.
Furthermore, there are limitations on the extent to which there is such a national identity as 'English', and most of the people who would occupy that space seem far more defined by municipal locality than by nationhood.
In Pursuit of the English, by Doris Lessing, features the same interactions as described above whereby people reject the moniker of English in favour of terms such as Scouser, or Londoner. More people in England describe themselves as British, as term which is just as loosely defined and variable, than those that describe themselves as English.
Those in the latter group seem to lack any tangible meaning which forms the basis of such an identity, besides a general belief in ‘fair play’ which is far more characteristic of being human than any particular sub-genre.
John Cleese’s point was not meant as an offensive, nor even as a negative development, but merely as observation of the light of day.