For me, my life, my memories and my experience of Englishness was formed in Stoke Newington where I grew up. All those things that made me English, including, but hardly limited to my birth in this particular geographical location happened in or near there.
But I know Englishness when I see it. And I see it everywhere in England.
Emma Burnell (in the 80s striped T-shirt and belt combo) with childhood friends
Sometimes it looks like the Grantchester of the famous Rupert Brook poem, which has become the stereotype of England. But for me sometimes it looks like the Blackpool lights reflected in the puddle I’m jumping in with my best friend as we screech our way to another terrifying rollercoaster.
Sometimes it looks like a picnic at Beamish, the living museum of the North, keeping the wasps out of my can of Coke while exploring an Edwardian Pit Village. Sometimes it looks like Haytor on Dartmoor, as families scramble together to climb to the top.
Sometimes it looks like the Bullring in Birmingham with their incredibly polite and helpful security staff. Sometimes it’s a moody landlord in an run down old pub, sometimes it’s that’s old lady you stop and talk about cats to every day who knows everyone on the street. It’s the Rastafarian guys a few doors down who are always on their porch when it’s not raining, every night when I come home.
Most often, for me, it looks like the house I grew up in. A beautiful house full of people and laughter and noise, with neighbours of every creed and colour imaginable.
My childhood was the same. My childhood friends were Canadian, American, Finnish, Iranian, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Caribbean, Turkish; they were Sikh, Hindu, Catholic, Church of England, Muslim, agnostic and atheist; They were white, black, Asian and so many amazing mixes. They were rich and poor, middle and working class. Their families were Communists, Socialists, Tories or completely disinterested.
They were all English.
So Englishness is not easily definable, but then these days, what is? Race? As those who grew up around me from second, third and fourth generation mixed families will tell you, that ain’t so easy. Class? Not so much. The strata of differences in class signifiers in my family alone shows that class may be an issue we’re talking about, as we haven’t for some time, but that doesn’t make it any easier to classify.
The truth is that identities are complex. I identify myself by so many different factors. I’m a woman, a fat woman, a fat married woman, a fat married woman from London. Etc. Etc. Throw in my fantastic taste in music and dubious taste in accessories and you have one of 50 million or so multi-layered individuals who can lay claim on one part of that identity being English.
I’m incredibly proud of my vision of Englishness. It’s a vision of who I am. It’s quite a different vision of Englishness from everybody else’s, but it is built by being in community with everyone else. My belief in my sense of place and purpose drives my patriotic belief that England is a wonderful places that needs a great deal of work. It is in part because I love my country – both England and Britain – that I am so passionate about politics. I want to make England great. I strive to play my part in that. For me that is true patriotism.
It is that need to build a sense of community that makes Ed’s speech about Englishness so important. It’s not about harking back to something that no longer exists, but of reaching out to something there is a potential for, something there is an appetite for: a renewed sense of togetherness.
The current government abuse this sense with rhetoric, but that does not make the concept of “all in it together” a worthless one. There is room in politics, particularly the politics of the left, to celebrate our commonality. To understand and embrace the ties that bind.
It’s about more than piggy-backing on Jubilee fervour and soon-to-be disappointing football tournaments, it’s about how amazing we could be if we lived the simple creed that we achieve more working together than working against each other.
For any politician speaking of Englishness, it will need to be authentic. Ed’s speech was. It needs to speak to a bond that genuinely exists between the people of Sunderland and the people of Southend, the people of Morcambe and the people of Ilfracombe. It needs to find commonality and sow the seeds of unity not division. That is my vision of Englishness: a progressive patriotism, based on our common strength, our common endeavours and a desire for a better shared common future for all.