Granted: I’m not English. So why write about Englishness? One reason might simply be that I like England and Britain. England is not my home, but still a place where I like to linger and to roam. And, well, I’m doing research about Englishness in literature, so I try to think about the issue in an academic way.
Yet why should a German be interested in that? And is my perspective a German perspective after all? When I think about how much I’ve travelled Europe alone this year, how I’ve made friends from all over the continent, lived in Italy for nine months, and have been to Britain for more than six months during the last four years without having actually lived there, I’m after all not so sure about the exclusively German perspective. Maybe I’m wearing German glasses with a European-cut lens through which I take a look at England.
Now what does England mean to me? I’d like to borrow a typically English form to present my ideas: the List. Through my German, European-cut glasses, I visualise my version of England: with red telephone and letter boxes, double decker buses, queues and many apologies, exact change for bus fares, myriads of train providers, stations without litter bins, “mind the gap”, centralised London, Penguin books, tucan and pelican crossings, yellow lights flashing next to zebra crossings, left-hand traffic, two yellow stripes on each side of the road, (littered) canals with narrowboats, red-bricked terraced houses, rows of chimneys with seagulls, single-glazed windows, fenced gardens, burglar alarms, mantelpieces, carpets in pubs and even bathrooms, separate warm and cold taps, electrical showers with low, medium and high pressure (I always wonder who actually enjoys having a shower with low pressure?!), mist and fog, rain showers, a nice drizzle and sunny spells, sparsely dressed, freezing girls, health and safety regulations, obscure cricket rules and village greens, the home of football, oaks and sheep on green fields, rolling hills, hedges and stone walls, a day out, Ordnance Survey maps, public footpaths, gates and stiles, cold cider, warm beer, foaming local ale pumped into royal pint glasses, early closing times and last orders, terrible instant coffee and the world’s best tea, scones and clotted cream, Cadbury’s chocolate, ‘5 a day’, going out for a curry, poppadoms and naan, Pukka Pies, fish ’n’ chips with vinegar, brown sauce, mushy peas, Marmite, full English breakfast, the distinct smell of B&Bs, warm welcomes and hospitality.
These loose associations are just a small part of the England that is appearing in front of my metaphorically bespectacled eyes. My list of course features some typical notions of Englishness, but also some aspects the English themselves perhaps wouldn’t have recognised because they are just too familiar with them. And this also leads me to a possible answer to the question of why a non-English person might also dare to interfere in reflecting on English national identity. My general impression is that the people who are academically interested in Englishness are often people who haven’t got an exclusively English background but tend to live in cultural border zones. By engaging themselves with Englishness, they not only reflect on their own cultures but also help form the open character of modern England because, after all, they happily share the affection for that peculiar country.
Anna Rettberg is a student at Justus Liebig University, Giessen, currently working on “Challenging Englishness: Rebranding and Rewriting National Identity in Contemporary English Fiction”.