Thursday, August 16, 2007

The People of 1066

In these ruminations about ethnicity, I have attempted to debunk ideas about race, color and minorities, but also to include the so-called whites in the discussion, as I refuse to deny anyone standing to speak simply because their victimization bragging rights have been forgotten. This is a small effort to rectify an omission in my last post, the English.

Sing a stanza of Rule, Britannia in the shower and you won't quite feel the English deserve much coddling. It's the impression they've been busily cultivating over the centuries they confronted peoples with larger numbers and territories much more vast than fair Albion. Think of the 139 British soldiers defeating 5,000 Zulu warriors at Rorke's Drift, South Africa.

Yet you'd be wrong. The pivotal nation-building event of English history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was as understated as everything English.

The event occurred on a slope surrounded by hills and forests. Historian David Haworth, in his priceless little book 1066: The Year of the Conquest, nudges the reader out of modern ideas of battle, with cannonades and great explosions, in noting that anyone as near as half a mile away would not have noticed that anything was happening. The Anglo-Saxon army consisted entirely of infantry and the Normans had only a few cavalry units. The loudest thing to be heard was the thumping of hooves, the clanking of metal and the cries of wounded men.

Deep within their phlegmatic demeanor the English harbor a hidden grief for King Harold, the last of the Saxon kings, for the Welsh and Picts the Germanic Angle and Saxon immigrants displaced to the west and north centuries earlier, and for their subjugation under the Romans.

How else to explain the oh, so, un-British flailing of emotionalism upon the death of Princess Diana, essentially a talentless pretty face tethered to a decidedly unphotogenic family?

Yes, Britain bears the historical burden of countless misdeeds. Perfidious Albion engineered the slave trade to America and gave it up only when they no longer reaped the profit. They invaded Ireland, North America, India, much of Africa and were twice the would-be conquerors of what is now Argentina. They seized and still hold onto Gibraltar.

Surely, also, not one former British colony has emerged from British rule without a hate-laden fissure -- European versus African, Pakistani Muslim versus Indian Hindu, Irish Catholic versus Ulster Protestant, Quebecois versus Anglo-Canadian. Even the Scots want independence now.

Yet what is at the heart of all this grasping and seizing of land and resources, and the accompanying dividing of others, if not an inherent self-belittling and disregard for England's "green and pleasant land"?

Living in England, I observed that the English express their priorities in their well-fed, fat dogs, who are allowed in pubs, and their scrawny, pallid children, whom they send away to school if they can afford it or notoriously mistreat at home. Is it not possible that what so often passes for arrogance is merely a resentful self-doubt, a forced shyness?

What to make, also, of a country that is gray year-round, save for those mid-year afternoons after the 3 o'clock rain in which the skies part to paint pre-Raphaelite clouds dabbed with weak yellow sunlight, an occasion the English quaintly call "summer"? Or a land in which central heating was still somewhat of a novelty even in 1980?

Shabby and unloved, mired in their muddy byways, the English deserve compassion without pity. Hug an Englishman, or woman, or one of their descendants, today.

(Note: This will be the last post on ethnicity for a while. To those who have ears, let them hear.)
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