261. What is Britishness? (Part 1)

In this episode I’m going to explore the notion of “Britishness”, including the stereotypes, the reality and the complexity of defining Britishness, or any other national identity. You’ll find that a lot of what I’m saying is transcribed on the page on teacherluke.co.uk for this episode, although not all of it has been prepared in advance, and there will be moments when I go off script and improvise. So, this episode is a mix of scripted and unscripted bits. This might be a long episode – I have no idea at this stage! If it is really really long, I’ll divide it into several episodes, and you’ll just get even more for your money, which is a lot considering it is a free podcast! [Download]


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I’m British so…
I must be some kind of 19th century cross between a gentleman and a hooligan, with a newspaper and umbrella under my arm, a cup of milky tea in one hand, and a pint of warm beer in the other, eating a bag of fish and chips while talking in Shakespearean English about the benefits of the rules of cricket and the class system before getting blind drunk at a football match, invading a bunch of developing countries, and then sort of apologising a bit, like Hugh Grant, because basically we’re just a bloody nice bunch of chaps who mean no harm and live in an antique world of Downton Abbey where we all just keep calm and carry on while being awfully polite and well-mannered, except when we’re playing Germany or France at football when we all forget our national anthem before transforming into a gang of brutal thugs who smash up the local town, blame it on illegal immigrants while we continue to eat our bad food under our bad weather using our bad teeth, the whole time making bad jokes in accents that nobody can understand before stopping everything in order to camp outside a hospital to await the birth of some blue blooded bawling British baby, who, if he’s lucky enough to make it to 100 years old, will probably put on a magic golden hat in an old castle to become our unelected and powerless king, like some twisted modern real-life version of Game of Thrones in 3D.

Yes, I’m from Britain. In fact, I’m from London…

Now, what’s all this about?
Well, this episode is all about defining “Britishness”, or attempting to do that.

I asked my students to define “Britishness” and that inspired me to do this episode
Recently in some of my English classes we’ve been studying topics related to the UK, such as the political system, the monarchy, the relationship to Europe and so on. In our first lesson we considered the idea of Britishness, national identity and the citizenship test. As a warm-up exercise I invited my students to try and define “Britishness”. The results were the usual mix of stereotypes and genuine insight. It’s interesting to me, to see the difference between how my students see my country from an outsider’s point of view, and how I see it from the inside.

Britishness is hard to define
It seems that defining “Britishness” is harder than you might expect. In fact, the more you think about it, the more complex it becomes. It’s remarkably hard to put your finger on a universally true definition of Britishness. Instead you end up with the usual stereotypes – either held by foreigners who have their own view of the UK, or by British people themselves who, for one reason or another, define their culture with certain reference points. E.g. it’s fish and chips, or it’s a cup of tea and a game of cricket on the TV. But I want to go a bit deeper than that. So that’s what I want to attempt to cover in this episode – Britishness. What is it? What is it not? I might not be an expert social historian, and I might not have all the answers, but nevertheless, let’s get stuck into this topic and see what we come up with. Essentially, in this episode I’m going to talk about British images in order to give you a broader understanding of the topic, beyond just the usual stereotypes.

To prepare for this question I’ve written myself some notes. I’ll add it to the transcript collaboration page. Also, please feel free to add comments under this episode on teacherluke.co.uk.

So, let’s get started – “What is Britishness?”

The Stereotypes of the UK from Abroad
Here’s what my students all came up with. I asked them to brainstorm things they associate with Britain, including values, people, and any other aspects of culture. You’ll find a lot of that listed below. I’ve also included what I’ve heard from students, and other people I’ve met over the years. I know I’ve talked about some of these things before (and I’ve talked about the fact that I’ve talked about things before, before too, and in fact now I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about talking about talking about things before, before, before too…) Anyway, here’s the list:
Bad food
Fish & chips
Jelly
Tea
The Queen (we worship her, apparently)
Hugh Grant
Bad Weather
Drunkenness
Football hooligans
Politeness
Indirectness
Colonial past
British Empire
Marmalade
Marmite
Margaret Thatcher
The Beatles, The Clash, The Arctic Monkeys, underground music and so on.
British movies (Gritty Brit Flicks?)
Relationship with the US
Literature – Shakespeare, etc
Sherlock Holmes
Confusing differences between the UK, Britain, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Republic of Ireland, The British Isles, etc.
Strange “British” humour
…The list goes on – Please add your associations too in the comments. Are they well-informed ones, or just stereotypes. Don’t worry, I’m not going to judge you harshly. I’m interested in what the commonly-held images of the UK are in your country.

End of Part 1 – Click here for part 2

Song – “Autumn Almanac” by The Kinks
It’s song time again. I’d like to play a tune which I feel sums up a lot about British life, particularly English life. It’s called Autumn Almanac by The Kinks, written in 1967 I think.
It describes various aspects of English life. Imagine a picture book of images: Gardening, the weather, the end of summer and the approaching winter, escaping from the lack of sun by staying indoors and drinking tea, eating buttered currant buns, the atmosphere of a pub on a Friday evening, football on Saturdays, a roast lunch on Sundays etc. It has a kind of nostalgic feeling to it, and a slight sense of sadness along with national pride. Perhaps the sadness is the fact that this is a version of England which is slowly disappearing as the country modernises more and more, but perhaps these values and habits will always remain.

Buy “The Kinks – Something Else” (1967) on iTunes
Lyrics & Chords
A B7 E A B7 E
Am7 D7 G
From the dew soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar
D7 C D G D G D7
When the dawn begins to crack, it’s all part of my autumn almanac
Am7 D7 G
Breeze blows leaves of a musty coloured yellow
D7 C D G D G D7
So I sweep them in my sack, yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac

Em E A9 B7 E A9 B7 E
Friday evening people get together, hiding from the weather
C#m G#7 C#m7
Tea and toasted buttered currant buns
F#7 Amaj7 Ab7
Can’t compensate for lack of sun because the summer’s all gone
Am7 D7 G D7
La-la-la la-la, la la la-la la la-la-la ohh! my poor rheumatic back
C D G D G D
Yes, yes, yes, its my autumn almanac
Am7 D7 G D7
La-la-la la-la, la la la-la la la-la-la ohh! my autumn almanac
C D G D G D
Yes, yes, yes, its my autumn almanac

G D C G G D C G
I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday’s alright
G D C G G D C G
I go to Blackpool for my holidays, sit in the open sunlight
Gm Bb Eb F
This is my street and I’m never gonna leave it

F7 Bb Dm Fm G7
And I’m always gonna stay here if I live to be ninety-nine
G7/F C Cm G E7
Cos all the people I meet seem to come from my street
A7 B7 Em B7
And I can’t get away, because it’s calling me (come on home)
G A7
Hear it calling me (come on home)

Am7 D7 G D7
La-la-la la-la, la la la-la la la-la-la ohh! my autumn almanyac
C D G D G D
Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac
Am7 D7 G D7
La-la-la la-la, la la la-la la la-la-la ohh! my autumn almanac
C D7 G D7 C D7 G D7 C D7 G
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes
C D7 G
Bop bop bop-m bop-m ba -ohh! (repeat and fade)

What do you associate with Britishness?
How do you define your own country’s national identity?
Please leave your comments below & practice your English ;)

Related Episodes
If you found this episode interesting, check out these ones too:
262. What is Britishness? (Part 2) – How do British people define Britishness?
128. Luke’s Stand Up Comedy Show – Featuring jokes about British food, weather and our Royal family – Now fully transcribed
131. Rickipedia – Conversation with my Dad, in which we answer various questions from listeners, including some things about British culture.
British Slang (A-C)
British Slang (D-G)
British Slang (H-M)
British Slang (N-Z)
156. British Comedy: Ali G
172. British Comedy: Peter Cook & Dudley Moore
177. What Londoners Say vs What They Mean
192. Culture Shock: Life in London (Part 1)
192. Culture Shock: Life in London (Part 2)
195. British Comedy: Monty Python’s Flying Circus
199. The UK/USA Quiz
202. British Comedy: Monty Python & The Holy Grail
219. Scottish Independence – Key notions of national identity

  • Eisa Ibrahim

    clear and useful information about British Life and Culture can be found in this website: projectbritain.com/

  • For me britishness is Big Ben, tea with milk, Arctic Monkeys, Sherlock, Union Jack.

  • Liubov

    For me Britishness is a special kind of mentality formed by special geographical situation (Island). it’s a special cultural perception. Besides, what immediately reminds me of Britishness is…BBC…..and recieved pronunciation)) + all the things you’ve mentioned. Thanks for the gorgeous podcast

  • Anonymous

    Teacher Luke, you are simply A STAR !