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Being British: Our Once & Future Selves is a journey into British culture and identity today, outlining a welcome new story for ourselves in these times of lack of belonging. It's a book for the liberally minded, and those who feel themselves to be post-traditional, not defined by nationality. The book takes a thought-provoking angle, which is neither Left nor Right, but instead brings the novel lens of a developmental view. It connects the dots between past, present and future, integrating the shadow side, and draws on many unusual examples. This is a fresh story of what it means to be British, where the author is included in the narrative. Without being nostalgic, it restores a sense of rootedness and helps us appreciate our British qualities, incrementally built over a millennium and a half. It celebrates being British as elective and not based on race, and demonstrates how to have pride in our nationality in a post-traditional way.
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About the Author
Chris Parish is passionate about British culture and identity, having spent years studying the subject. He directed a UK charity for over two decades and is an accomplished speaker on human development.
Read an Excerpt
Our Once and Future Selves
By Chris Parish
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Chris Parish
All rights reserved.
It's Getting Better All the Time ... Or Is It?
The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.
It would be useless to turn one's back on the past in order to simply concentrate on the future. It is a dangerous illusion to believe that such a thing is even possible. The opposition of future to past or past to future is absurd. The future brings us nothing, gives us nothing; it is we who in order to build it have to give it everything, our very life.
A British Dream
Recently I had a lucid dream. It was one of those dreams so vivid and tangible that it really felt like I was awake throughout the whole experience. It was so striking and meaningful I recorded it in my diary. Here's an excerpt:
I don't recognize the place where I am except it's clearly somewhere in Britain and there is a sense of vast space without any limitations at all. Everything is bright and spotlessly clean and it all feels enormously inviting. I'm walking across the open ground in the brilliant morning sunshine, and there is a clear path and I become aware that I'm not alone. I am accompanied by a great throng of people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, young and old. And this multitude of us is walking together and everyone is disarmingly friendly and effusive and caring. They mainly seem to be British as far as I can make out from hearing their voices. There are also people who seem to be there purely to greet us and help us, and apparently no trouble is too much for them. Yet it seems that they are not employees; it is only out of love that they offer this generosity of spirit.
As we march on, I see people sitting strangely high above us as if on stilts, and these people offer us uplifting thoughts and cheerful messages as we pass. We enter a beautiful park and there are meadows of wildflowers swaying in the gentle breeze, and huge wonderful buildings sparkle in the preternatural morning light. I feel a weight drop away from me that I hadn't realized that I was carrying. In the experience I somehow know that Life is overwhelming good in spite of everything, and it feels like a deeply healing salve for the soul.
An uplifting dream ... a British Nirvana, no less. And yet it wasn't a dream. Believe it or not, it's a pretty accurate description of my experience of alighting from Stratford station in East London and walking to the Olympic Park in the summer of 2012.
Up to right before the opening ceremony, the talk in Britain had largely been of how the transport system would creak and collapse under the strain. It would be chaos, there would be unheard of delays, terminal gridlock and London would more or less implode. The media was overflowing with all manner of predictable British moaning and dwelling on what could possibly, and most likely — in fact certainly — would go wrong, because it's Britain and everything is expected to go wrong.
As we all know, the Olympics was spectacularly successful on every level and none of these calamities came to pass. Danny Boyle's opening ceremony set the tone and it was staggeringly inventive, bold, positive and interwoven with humour, such as only the British could pull off. I found myself drawn magnetically to the TV to watch every scrap of the Olympics I could, and when the Paralympics came, well, that was, if anything, even more inspiring and moving. We believed we could succeed and we did, and with success came more and more positivity. The Union Jack flags, so long the more or less exclusive domain and symbol of the BNP and fellow extremist travellers, came to represent again, at least for the duration of the Games, all the people of these islands, as Britons of all ethnic backgrounds would drape themselves in the national flag on their victory laps. The message was reinforced again and again: Being British equals success, positivity; black, white, brown equals inclusivity. We were proud to be British, yet, at the same time, not at all narrowly nationalistic, for we graciously cheered the endeavours of athletes from all the other countries, too.
I realized afterwards how amazing and refreshing it was to hear not a trace of cynicism or carping from the media for a full six weeks. It's only when it's absent temporarily that I realised just how ubiquitous it normally is in our country. It was like going on a fast from negativity for six weeks. This was a unique rejuvenating experience for me and truly gave a taste of how we could be as a nation.
How much the spirit of the Olympics truly might mark the birth of a new sense of positivity and confidence in us British as a nation still remains to be seen over a longer period of time. Commentators are quick to point out that there's always an 'Olympic effect' in host cities and countries, which wears off over time. Undoubtedly so, and in many ways we British did slide back to our default state after 2012. And yet I sense that something deeper may be happening in our 'Isles of Wonder', as Danny Boyle called them, and that the country may be ready for, and perhaps even already starting to shift in its mood and values. About this, much more later.
How we Perceive our own Country
There are facts about a nation and then there are feelings, sentiment, general mood, confidence and cultural zeitgeist. How much correlation there is between the more objective facts and the general mood in a country at any given time or decade seems to be extremely variable, and no doubt always has been thus. It's rather like the sentiment in the financial markets, which often seem to be driven more by mood and sense of confidence or lack of it, than by any actual reliable data. And, of course, our mood and attitude has a large bearing on how we will interpret facts anyway. I've long since realized that we human beings make decisions far less on rational grounds than we imagine we do.
Even as small a mood inducer as the right music playing in a clothing store can tip the balance and lead me to impulse buy some ridiculous jacket which I afterwards will never wear and end up throwing out. And how much more so when it comes to broad currents in culture which have such an effect on our outlook? We can get fed up with governments and vote for the opposition sometimes just out of boredom with seeing the same old political faces on the TV, irrespective of what the government or opposition's policies may be, or whether they seem effective or not.
Britain's prevailing mood and sense of itself has been through some seismic changes during the recent decades since the end of the Second World War in 1945. Consider this global survey conducted in 2011 and what it says about us British in terms of the difference between facts and our sense of ourselves. It really made me stop and ponder. Called the Global Prosperity Index, the survey aimed to capture what social progress means. What seemed particularly interesting about this survey was that it did so through not just measuring, as is often the case, economic growth, but by using a wide range of diverse indicators, such as levels of safety and security, prevalence of corruption, optimism about job prospects, and suchlike. Even more unusually, it also included in the ranking of the country, people's perceptions of their own country. It compared a total of 110 countries and it was the data about good old Britain that naturally caught my attention most. All the more so, believing, as I mentioned in the introduction, that nationality is one important part of what has formed and conditioned our sense of identity and our worldview.
In terms of the overall world ranking Britain came in 13th. This was based on an averaging of all the various indicators. Some of the findings were salutary. This country, the survey found, has the fourth largest proportion of people who give to charity. It has 'high levels of safety and security', 'a highly effective government', a 'robust democracy' and 'low levels of corruption'. Britain ranks fourth in the world for entrepreneurship and opportunity and also excels in terms of innovation and it has the sixth largest consumer market in the world. The report says that 'the United Kingdom has shown a notable increase in prosperity'.
These are the objective facts. But as I said, in this survey people's perceptions of their country also affect its ranking. When it came to this area, a strikingly different view of Britain emerges. When asked about confidence in their own government, Britain comes 74th in the world. When asked about feeling safe walking home alone at night the UK comes 40th. And this in the face of objectively 'high levels of safety and security'. In fact, British people's perceptions of the UK were so at odds with the actual facts, that it led the Legatum Institute, the authors of the report, to say in their press release about the report,
Of the 110 countries covered by the survey, Britain ranked a staggering 101st in public confidence in financial institutions, 98th in optimism about job prospects and 93rd in expectations of future economic performance, the kind of ratings usually found in the world's poorest countries.
Our view of ourselves puts us, in the Global Prosperity Index ratings, according to our own subjective perceptions of Britain, in some measures a little below Rwanda and on a par with countries like Sudan and Yemen, and only marginally ahead of Zimbabwe. Something doesn't add up, for sure. Could this indicate, perhaps, a slight lack of objectivity on our part? Yet perception is what counts and politicians know full well how to campaign on issues like law and order since it is the sense of fear of crime that constituents feel that matters; much more so than whether crime is actually increasing or decreasing, or how likely or remotely unlikely you are to be a victim of crime. We feel things are getting worse and in the end that's what sticks.
Our view of ourselves as a nation is not fixed and our sense of ourselves can change seismically over the time scale of decades, let alone through the time scale of centuries. What seemed obvious to people in the 1950s may very likely seem strange and foreign to people in the 1970s and far more so today. I want to get across a sense of how our national attitudes and outlook are always being formed, responding and reacting to the general and inevitable changes in life and fortunes of the times. And our feelings and outlook are not just ephemeral; they can have a very significant effect on our actual lives.
A Post WWII Personal Story
To illustrate the profound shifts in the British mood and sense of identity through time, let me take you very briefly through the recent decades of this country. I don't mean this as a detailed history, for I am certainly not an historian, but more to highlight how people generally felt then, which I'll partly illustrate by my own personal story, and to see how this overarching mood, this perception of the nation and the prevailing circumstances, has changed and is changing.
As a child growing up in 1950s Britain, times were, in many ways, tough and austere; tougher than they've ever been since then, at least in my experience. Food rationing had only recently ended and food was not exactly plentiful. I recall going to school in London at times wearing what was euphemistically called a 'smog mask': a crude tin contraption with layers of cotton wool held on by an elastic strap round your head, to protect against the impossibly thick fog caused by millions of heavily polluting coal fires, the only form of home heating most families had. I can still almost taste and feel the biting way that the smog burned your throat with each breath. This was smog so thick that you could almost cut it with a bread knife. It's funny how American friends still ask me if, on coming to London, they can expect to be enveloped in a blanket of fog, like a scene, I think they imagine, from a Jack the Ripper film, and I have to inform them that, no, it isn't actually foggy in London and hasn't been for more than half a century.
I grew up in north-eastern suburban London. There seemed to be, through those early years, an unrelenting grey quality to the city and much of the city centre was like a mouth with missing teeth, dotted with the rubble of buildings destroyed by German bombing from a war ended just a single decade earlier. Rows of ugly, temporary pre-fab houses replaced the bombed-out homes that people once had occupied and they also filled the playing fields well into the 1960s before more permanent housing could be built. Yet despite the hardship, there was, as I remember, a simple optimism at work, and although as a child I didn't know this then, it was a renewed optimism after the depression of the 1930s. We were the victors in WWII. And it was a simple, just war with no ambiguities — at least that was the sense back then as a child. Good had prevailed over evil and a New Jerusalem was promised. Our comics, boy's comics and early graphic novels such as War Picture Library, celebrated it ad infinitum. In the cinemas jaunty newsreels never failed to extol the essential goodness of being British. Being British was good and so was history. These were truths which from a young boy's point of view, were absorbed as being self-evident. Life was bright, full of hope, with universal health care for the first time, a new education system, and a rocketing birth rate, producing the bulge in the population graphs which later came to be known as the Baby Boomers, which was my generation. Objectively, living standards were, by today's standards, low; everything had to be repaired, clothes patched up, handed down, never thrown out. Buying new was way too extravagant, unless absolutely necessary. People took a pride in this very make-do and mend ethos. Hardly anyone had central heating. I remember our primary school teacher trying to explain to us in the late 1950s what central heating was. She obviously had never seen this fabled invention and imagined that it must be something similar to how the ancient Romans channelled water from hot springs, with heated water flowing under the floor.
The economy continued to get better, and for many, we started to have more disposable income as we moved into the 1960s. For me too, as I entered my teenage years, these were exciting times. Britain seemed to be the vanguard of a cultural revolution. Our small island nation seemed to be at the forefront of all that was new and thrillingly different. Led by an explosion in popular music, with bands such as the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks taking the world by storm, and extending through fashion, art and design, London suddenly became the place to be, the epicentre of a seismic cultural shift. This was swinging London and the mood was soaring optimism; anything was possible. In the background, Britain was quietly and with surreptitious embarrassment divesting itself of all its former colonies and granting independence to these new countries. Yet life was positive and the future looked good and these shifts in our status as a nation were still shadows swirling in the background. At least this is how it felt to the younger generation, though many older people were no doubt much more aware of and concerned by the sense of Britain's shrinking status in the world as the Empire evaporated before their eyes.
As the 1960s progressed, I remember getting hauled up before my headmaster at my Grammar school, told I looked like a violent 'yob' and demanded of that I get my long hair cut. It was 1967 and the Beatles had just released All You Need Is Love, performing it to hundreds of millions on the first-ever worldwide television satellite broadcast, and I was profoundly moved by this event. I endeavoured to explain to Dr Jones, my stern yet even-handed headmaster, that my long hair, far from being a symbol of violence, was actually an expression of a new movement that was ushering in a different order of human life, a world based on peace and a new spirit of 'coming together'. Dr Jones, in his dignified and rather intimidating black gown, was not impressed, and regarded me, I would imagine from his uncomprehending look, as slightly unhinged, if not actually stark, raving bonkers.
So there was this interesting switch from the sense of a loyal, dutiful and proud people to a new ethos of freedom of expression tinged with a strong element of rebelliousness, but the common thread was, as I experienced it, a sense of optimism and unbridled possibility and potential; that Britain mattered and was going somewhere. And for a time this was true of this new, reincarnated version of our country. Another key and integral aspect of this cultural shift in the 1960s was a new, liberating sense of the importance of the individual rather than rote conformity to a collective and preordained will. The excesses of this new subculture have since been parodied as the self-centredness of the 'Me' generation, yet, in my opinion, it has to be said that much that emerged from the 1960s has genuinely proved to be of lasting value, and which I will return to and explain in more depth later.
Excerpted from Being British by Chris Parish. Copyright © 2015 Chris Parish. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 It's Getting Better All the Time ... or Is It?,
Chapter 2 The Downside of British Culture,
Chapter 3 Back in the Day,
Chapter 4 Shining a Light on Cultural Evolution,
Chapter 5 A New Story,
Chapter 6 The Setting Sun,
Chapter 7 The Myth of Decline,
Chapter 8 It's Your Country,
Chapter 9 Patriotism Reloaded,
Chapter 10 Shared Genius,
Chapter 11 The Sun Never Sets on the Creative Impulse,
Chapter 12 A Realistic Idealism,
Chapter 13 The Nature of Nature,
Chapter 14 The Future is Unwritten,