I don’t hate ‘the English’, but I do hate the myth of ‘Englishness’

I make no apologies for relating historical abuses to current day dynamics

Megan Nolan: ‘contrary to what many people suggested, I am not longing to leave London. I am happy and grateful that I’ve been able to make a career and home here.’

Megan Nolan: ‘contrary to what many people suggested, I am not longing to leave London. I am happy and grateful that I’ve been able to make a career and home here.’

 

When my article about Irish-English dynamics post-Brexit was published in The New York Times on October 18th, I woke up at 7am to see the finished version and to share it online. I was pleased, and thought it a strong article, due in part to some thoughtful suggestions from my editor. I laughed at the headline - “I Didn’t Hate The English. Until Now” - which seemed to me jarringly extreme compared to what I’d written, and went back to sleep.

A few hours later, my Twitter mentions and emails were overwhelmed by hundreds, and then thousands, of responses. Many were supportive and related sympathetically to what I had described: my impressions of often ignorant and condescending English attitudes to Irish people.

Many others were very angry with me, largely because of the headline but also believing more generally that I was painting the English in a bad light. Those angry with me contended that I should leave England if I didn’t like it, that Irish people are always playing the victim, and even that I am a racist for denigrating the English en masse.

I am grateful to The Irish Times both for republishing the piece so that more Irish people have now read it, and for giving me this space to respond to the criticisms and reaction I’ve had.

Headlines

The first place to start is with something that everyone who has been following this article will be sick of hearing me say by now: I don’t write the headlines. I didn’t write the New York Times one, or the subsequent Irish Times one (‘English ignorance about Ireland just isn’t funny anymore), or the one which will appear above this piece. That is to say, I didn’t ever write that “I hate the English”.

Because I work in journalism and have seen both sides of this process, I didn’t find the headline to be too shocking, although neither did I find it to be representative of what I’d written. A journalist, unfortunately, is quite often lucky if the headline relates even tangentially to the content of a piece. So while I understood the process and didn’t pay it much mind, I should have predicted that it would make a lot of people angry.

For the elimination of doubt, I don’t hate the English on an individual basis. My boyfriend, my housemates, and most of my friends are English. Aside from my personal relationships, I feel no animosity whatsoever toward random people I meet or see, and arrive to introductions without any expectations. And contrary to what many people suggested, I am not longing to leave London. I am happy and grateful that I’ve been able to make a career and home here.

Upset

I suspect that a large part of the upset I have caused is linguistic. When I write about “The English”, I don’t literally mean all of the residents of this country. That would be absurd, so it didn’t even cross my mind to clarify the point in my article. I assumed an intuitive understanding of the constraints of comment journalism on the part of the casual reader, which I shouldn’t have done. I agree that precision of language is important, and that I should have been clearer.

But I make no apologies for relating historical abuses to current day dynamics. Many people angry with me responded that they weren’t even born when the Troubles began, let alone in the 19th century. And while it would be ridiculous to hold an individual Englishman responsible for the specific sins of his ancestors, there’s no doubt in my mind that England’s history has a bearing on its current day cultural climate, including in a good many of its individual citizens.

You’ll find this evidenced by the many otherwise decent people who sincerely believe that colonialism was doing hard-up countries a favour, and that India should be grateful for its railways. These aren’t evil people, they aren’t even the people I was referring to in my article, but they’re a good example of how hateful ideas can trickle down through generations until they seem entirely rational and moderate to your average secular-liberal, let alone to the land-owning classes.

I stand in solidarity with all people oppressed by archaic English ideas about who is the right sort of person. Many English people themselves are being excluded from the narrative of Englishness, a narrative which Brexiteers successfully sold to make Brexit a reality.

What I meant then was this: I don’t hate “the English”, but I do hate the myth of “Englishness”, which has always been more of a dangerous fantasy pursued by a dangerous ruling class than a reality.

I hate the Englishness of assembled nostalgias, the Englishness which propelled ads during the Brexit campaign which said, “The European Union wants to kill our cuppa”, with an EU hand punching various postcard markers of England, including the black cab, red phonebox, and doubledecker bus.

I hate the Englishness which prioritises symbols over material compassion, and the prospects of its people and neighbours.

Megan Nolan (@mmegannnolan) is a writer of essays, fiction and criticism from Co Waterford. She is currently based in London. Read her original article at irishtimes.com/life-and-style/abroad/english-ignorance-about-ireland-just-isn-t-funny-anymore-1.3677267

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