‘A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation….Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.’
We British are in need of a new story. Our old story of ‘Great Britain’ – or much more commonly these days, our truncated story of ‘Declining Britain’ – doesn’t match reality, and is depressing. It leads us, in our confusion and perceived loss of national identity, to think that we can somehow ‘take back control’, by doing things like rejecting the EU and going it alone like buccaneers of old.
Here we are, a postcolonial Britain, unsure of who we are and still coming to terms with our loss of premier status in the world; a Britain disconnected from the thread of its long history, where the teaching of history in schools has become ever more reduced and relegated to isolated factoid bundles about Henry VIII or Hitler; a Britain which currently has lost its faith in our political elite and the two party system; a country now finding itself adrift with an unbalanced and overly negative view of itself.
It won’t work for us just to invent a story; we need to reconnect with the national thread of our country in a different way, and then we will find we actually do have an authentic and serviceable story. Not by just harking back to the past, nor by only looking to the future, but rather by being both traditional and post traditional at once; becoming more traditional and less traditional, if you like. I think we need to connect with the stream of our country; with that elusive beast of Britishness. For thoughtful people today in Britain and elsewhere can’t help but feel at least to some degree partly alienated. We just don’t belong like we used to in the distant past when the village was our life and community and the stars and planets were like the enveloping and comforting raiments of our hermetically sealed world.
Yet we are our country. it’s part of who we are, whether we like it or not, or whether it fits in with our political or intellectual persuasions or not. All the influences of the past carried forward through our culture, absorbed in our formative years and reinforced by the sheer immersive field of unspoken collective societal agreements, transmitted by example all around us. We are shaped and formed by the past, by the struggles, failures, sorrows and achievements of those who have collectively made a shift in the glacial flow of shared human – and specifically in this case – British culture. You could write a similar narrative for any nation of course, but I’m focussing on the specific British one, because it’s me; it’s you. It’s us.
It’s your civilisation, as Orwell said. You can deny it, avoid it, make fun of it, convince yourself with fine words that you are beyond it, but you will still be influenced by it. Reacting against it is still being under its influence. You can move to another country, be an expat for life, but you will never escape it – you will always be British whatever you do. You can no more remove yourself from your nationality than you can remove yourself from your physical body. You can’t not be your nationality. We are our history, our country, our landscape. This living beast of Britishness is always changing, ebbing and flowing, yet a thread remains and holds a collective identity.
We are not in any way separate nor superior to all the struggles and developments in humanity which have come before. The more we are conscious of what is forming us, the various stages and sets of values buried deep in our cultural and collective consciousness, and yet still living within us and influencing us – or being able to be reactivated at any moment – the better integrated we can be to have a healthier outlook to meet the challenges of the next moment. So that we don’t merely react to the past.
Now we can value the great emergences of the past without looking back at them in any way nostalgically. We can see the value of such past qualities now in contemporary society – upgraded and relevant to our situation; not reaction and rejection, but rather transcend and include and integration. We can recognise again the importance of qualities such as heroism, forcefulness, order, self sacrifice for a greater cause, conviction, passion, achievement, progress; and also of the qualities of kinship, belonging and a certain re-enchantment of life – not in the way they originally emerged but in a re-contextualised manner for our own life conditions. All these qualities restored healthily in our emotional palette would be invaluable for the Britain of today.
And as I mentioned, in an interesting way, this does point to us becoming both less traditional and more traditional together. This conscious embrace widens and deepens our psychological and ethical capacities and palette. This is an expanded sense of our own development which is not linear, but expands out more like a sphere with greater breadth and inclusion and which stretches back through time all at once.
Weren’t you moved by those human footprints recently discovered on the Happisburgh beach in Norfolk? It is the oldest record of humans outside of Africa anywhere in the world, nearly one million years ago. The first Brits? Perhaps hard to label them as Britons, since Britain was still part of the continental landmass back then, this apparently family group would have shared the estuary of a river thought to be that of the Thames earlier course with the megafauna of the time: mammoths, hippos and rhinos. The footprints – men’s UK size 8 – (or 42, since he may have been European) and smaller ones of children, were soon washed away by the tide, but they gave us a tantalising glimpse into our far distant past.
We carry and embody the achievements of those generations who came before: the hard won learnings of millennia of living and surviving on these northern islands; the desires, fears, dreams and imagination of earlier ancestors; the great strides in perspective and understanding. History lives in us and we live in history. This is our story and human beings have always told stories, perhaps unconsciously and intuitively because our existence actually is a story. As eco-theologian Thomas Berry said,
‘It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.’
There is never a break in history; it is the story of our lives, our struggles and our development, pushing improbably against the entropy of the universe, to create ever more ingeniously, instead of the to-be-expected gradual settling into dissolution. Modern thought breaks up experience and history into discrete events and dates. It’s a useful shorthand, but also a fiction. Reality is, and always has been much more of a stream, a process where everything influences everything else, and one ‘occurrence’ flows into the next in an endless succession of becoming.
Being British: Our Once & Future Selves