30,000 years of hurt
by Sam Kriss
There is not an England.
England has a state church, but not a state. There’s a flag, but it doesn’t fly from any public buildings. An arts council, a national opera, some sports teams, and a Defence League: all the little medallions and accoutrements of an actual country, but there’s nothing there to pin them to. All our songs are about something that can’t quite wrench itself into reality. Till we have built Jerusalem. It’s coming home. Strictly speaking, England does not even have its own territory; the real England is hundreds of miles away, a peninsula bulging into the Baltic Sea, universally acknowledged to be part of Germany. The dynastic seat of the heir to our throne is still on that peninsula: Glücksburg Castle on the Flensburg Fjord in Anglia, that peat-bog desert from which the pagan warriors came. England is one of those countries, like Benin or Ghana, that’s chosen to name itself after a place not actually within its borders. Which makes sense: There’s some corner of a foreign field… England only exists outside itself. Once this meant an empire: cricket fields on the Irrawaddy, mass graves in the silt. And it continues, in those stretches of the Spanish Riviera where there’s nothing to eat except beans on toast, but elsewhere things are stranger. In the refugee camp that once sprawled outside Calais, I saw a shanty version of England. There was a small shop there, selling small necessities – energy drinks, thick socks for climbing over barbed wire. The building was made from scrap and cardboard, and the sign over the door read Tesco Metro. Other signs named the Jungle’s streets and gave them London postcodes. Muslims flying the cross of St George. The Syrians and Afghans and Sudanese who lived in this place had built an England far more English than that drab island across the Channel. More English because England is a fake country, an imitation of itself, an unrealised idea that can only phase into existence across its seas – and the camp was like that in every respect, but more.
There is not an English language.
What we speak is an idiot pidgin, a grunting caveman version of Anglo-Saxon, stripped down enough to be understood by the rampaging Danes. The only Indo-European language without any grammatical gender; a dramatically simplified system of conjugation; the faintest ghost of a declension, now mostly limited to the personal pronouns; a flowing poetical syntax, now jammed up in rigid word orders. Actual English, with all its grammar intact, is something very foreign; unremembered and unintelligible. Hwæt ic swefna cyst hwæt me gemætte to midre nihte. Present-day translation: Alright, let me tell you about a cool dream I had last night. If the Saxons could hear us, they’d think we had brain damage, and they wouldn’t be alone. Those who didn’t grow up speaking our idiot dialect tend to notice something hard and ugly there. Poetic turns of phrase that would be completely unremarkable in French or German become something else when translated into English: either an obnoxious floweriness, or else cliché. People who try to write elegantly in English end up sounding like twats, because this is an argot born in the ashes of monasteries and composed of burning books. It’s for raiding and trading, establishing quantities of one thing and their equivalent in another – wool, barley, bond certificates, lives. A pared-down grammar for people who do not share a common world. The writing schools encourage a plain, frank, simple style – if you want to be successful, if you want to turn words into cash. Language itself becomes something like money, the blankness of a universal equivalent. No wonder English took over the world. It’s a speech already atomised; for hundreds of years it prefigured the emergence of capitalism. A flow without codes. Hence the much-celebrated vastness of its lexis: any word of any origin can be incorporated, eaten by English, so long as the digestive process melts away all its grammar, all the structures that make it part of a system of meanings and not just an agglutination of sounds. You can see it happening today, in the mania for scratching off every grammatical gender we encounter. Latinx; filipinx. Unpronounceable in Spanish, but so what? Even the last remains forms of English grammar are being eroded from the inside out. Business emails: Can you action this by Tuesday? Supermarket posters: Time to organic your September. Slogans: Get that deliciousness feeling! Unleash your fierce! I’m hamburgers it! This kind of thing couldn’t happen in any other language; when people want to commit such barbarisms in non-English-speaking countries they’re forced to replace the native words with English. Because English is not a language, but the slop and mulch that remains once language has disintegrated. A puddle without syntax, where oiled lexemes sprawl over each other, each point frictionless and interchangeable; adjectively gone nounish, verbs to interjectioned, and conjunction to preposition of but when after in…
There is not an English people.
There are fetishes: an umbrella, a roundel, a breakfast, an armoury of sexual neuroses and different ways of taking tea. There is a history and a literature. But there are not the English. The traditional account distinguishes between British – an abstract political unit, broadly indifferent to race – and English, the tribe, the metaphor in blood. Because England is not a state, to be English seems less like being French, and more like being a Frank. This is why I still don’t like being described with the E-word: yes, my people came here on a boat, but we did not leap into the surf with war-axe and wooden shield; yes, we built our shrines in this new land, but they were never sacred to Woden. But that concept is changing: now, nine-tenths of the country see no connection between Englishness and ethnic origin. They’re correct, because in fact the tribe never existed. Defoe had it: From a mixture of all kinds began, that het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman… A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction, in speech an irony, in fact a fiction. It’s not just the disparate origins that are always the basis of ethnogenesis; the Englishman was always a political project, long before the Acts of Union. Today, July 12th, marks one thousand and ninety-four years since Æthelstan of Mercia proclaimed himself rex anglorum and brought a new political category into being. But this was not achieved simply through the unification of the Anglo-Saxon tribes: instead, July 12th, 927 is the day that the Celtic kings of Alba, Strathclyde, Deheubarth and Gwent accepted Æthelstan’s hegemony over the entire island of Britain. Why did the creation of the English require the assent of people who were not English? The only possible explanation is that the English are not the same as the Saxons; that they’re not a people, but a process. A swarming, a stamping boot, a subjugation. Once, the English occurred in the act of colonial conquest, from Ireland to every corner of the globe; now, sport substitutes for war. International fixtures set the wheels of Englishness turning; the Tebbit test defines it by your willingness to participate in the fate of our cricket team. This year, England’s footballers seemed to embody an Englishness without ethnicity: these nice lads representing all the diverse communities of our land, kneeling before every game, leading the way towards a kinder, better, more progressive version of English nationalism… Is that really what was going on? Notice that it only lasted as long as England kept winning. As soon as the nice lads missed a few penalties, a sudden explosion of racism. Ethnicity emerges again, in the ugliest form. It’s not just that Rashford and Sancho and Saka have lost the protective sheen of Englishness; it’s been denied to everyone.
But they could only ever lose. The process is always interminable, and victories must never be total, because England and the English always remain outside themselves; without a horizon the system would collapse. An England victory would have made it impossible to chant it’s coming home; it would have brought something which categorically can not exist into the agony of being. In this country, made of unrealised and unrealisable hopes, absent to itself, unpeopled and atomised beyond speech – in the middle of this void, do you really wonder why it is that we lost the Euros on a penalty?
I love the post. It’s erudite, blistering, subtle and striking all at the same time. But wait – you wrote it in English?
Of course. After all, he doesn’t know enough Hebrew.
The Italian state didn’t exist 200 years ago. It contains about 34 indigenous languages. Some of its natives could’ve been extras in Triumph of the Will and some could not unreasonably be labelled PoC. I don’t think England is a uniquely contingent or incoherent idea. Just worse at penalties.
I was just musing on the strange nature of English sports fan racism, which is based on no historical grievance that I could see. If they were chanting racist slogans or tweeting against the Scots, yes I could see the point of that, but Africans don’t really figure in the story of the English working classes much until recently, and recent grievances don’t usually carry this primal animus.
But you’ve shone some light on this, if the whole identity is as phony a conception as the Victorian Christmas. In that case tribalism has to use what it can, however childish or borrowed. Real nations have patron saints like Jeanne d’Arc or Charles de Gaulle, rising from amongst their own people to define them. The English patron saint was, if I remember correctly, a butcher from the Black Sea area who never got close to those green and pleasant lands or even really thought about them. He might have made a good goalie, come to think of it.
Perhaps in describing her in the via negativa you have inadvertently revealed the singular brilliance of England, of her protean form. At any rate, your “slop and mulch” is top notch to these eyes/ears. That said, I’m an American.
Excellent again. English footie “Lads” have always been the epitome of brutishness and slobbism, with their horrid “tinned” lager beer and patriotic items of clothing but this crowd of corrupted Sasha-Borisova crooks who have drifted like fatty scum to the surface of control and power in England have forced that essence out in concentrated form, for a while. Suffering before rebirth of sorts one hopes.
Persian (Farsi) is another Indo-European language that has dropped grammatical gender.
Armenian too, apparently.
I was aghast at this when I was in London. A whole city where everyone seemed half asleep; a whole world of stolen dreams to dream, yet everything at the Saatchi was trash.
England’s two patron animals are non-native (the lion) and mythical (the unicorn).
At least Russia has bears, North America has eagles and beavers, Australia has kangaroos, New Zealand has kiwis, China has pandas, Papua New Guinea has birds of paradise, etc.
well the unicorn stands for scotland, which has its own flavour of national neurosis. the point about lions is interesting, although i think they’re also the heraldic animals of the scandinavian countries, to which they’re also non-native, and some others besides. of particular note here i suppose are the chinese shishi or stone lions, in which the lion is pressed into symbolic service by a state that not only lacks native lions but seems to have had a very spotty understanding of what a lion actually looks like, to the extent that western visitors occasionally confused them for dogs…
I can’t figure out how to reply directly the essay. I am too old. Love the brief aside to X. Sometimes X is wielded effectively, as with Malcolm. Sometimes it is just more puritanical nonsense appropriating effective Blackness, as with “Latinx.” Comments reduce the literary complexity, so just, thank you.
Pickford saves, Saka scores, England win. Hordes of delighted fans fill the streets and…..refrain from singing their favourite song because of a metaphysical inconsistency….
There’s something hilarious to me about the ending.
It’s coming . . . ROME!!!
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