It is very difficult to define British culture, because British society, like most others, is an eclectic mix of individuals and groups of widely varying backgrounds, tastes and abilities. Culture is a spectrum along multiple dimensions. Some of those dimensions are illustrated here.
The one most often referred to is `class. Traditionally there are three classes:
- Aristocracy: established families who are generally large landowners and often wealthy. Historically they have been brought up in a culture of service to the nation and taught organisational skills from an early age. So aristocrats have frequently risen to the top in politics and the armed forces.
- The `middle classes: generally professional or skilled people, typically owning their homes and investing for their future. These form the backbone of economic prosperity of the country. But they could not do so without
- The `working classes, typically unskilled or semi-skilled labourers.
Over the last hundred years, the aristocracy (and the wealthier of the middle class) have been subject to crippling tax levels, which has eroded their wealth and reduced their ability to diversify into new ventures. And the `working classes (and the more junior of the middle classes) have seen their educational level and their relative incomes rise massively. The result is that almost everyone is now `middle class except through historical (almost tribal) loyalty to their ancestry. There is extensive mobility between classes: many successful businessmen, for instance, buy country estates from impoverished aristocrats and quickly become the new squires. `Class is probably still discussed so often precisely because of this levelling; maybe people fear a dreary uniformity in which it is embarrassing to stand out, and look back to their lineage, high or low, as a means of asserting individuality.
A side effect of the British obsession with `class is the phenomenon of pretentiousness. This happens when someone who is not fully familiar with the `next class up tries to behave like them. Their mistakes only make it obvious that they are out of their depth. This is a rich source of material for comedies. It is not to be confused with aspiration, which is where someone observes a role model and is thus inspired to work hard to achieve more. This is of course a thoroughly good thing as long as the role models are positive. We will come back to this later.
Since the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, a divide has been growing between town and country. This divide is deeper than in most countries because industrialisation started sooner, so many peoples last connections with the land were many generations ago. Today there is a gulf of incomprehension between the two. Many city children have no concept at all of where their food actually comes from or even what it is really made from.
A bizarre corollary
of this divide is the `chocolate box or `cuddly bunny syndrome. This occurs
when people start hankering after a mythical countryside where all is peace and harmony,
normally frozen in time about 200 years ago. The realities of life on a farm, or the
brutal facts of life for wild animals, are not allowed to intrude into this vision. It is
related to `disneyfication, named after the American film maker, in many of whose
films nature is sanitised and all the potentially unpleasant bits of reality carefully
A bizarre corollary of this divide is the `chocolate box or `cuddly bunny syndrome. This occurs when people start hankering after a mythical countryside where all is peace and harmony, normally frozen in time about 200 years ago. The realities of life on a farm, or the brutal facts of life for wild animals, are not allowed to intrude into this vision. It is related to `disneyfication, named after the American film maker, in many of whose films nature is sanitised and all the potentially unpleasant bits of reality carefully screened out.
Naturally, people who actually do live and work in the countryside view such things and people as though they come from another planet; and when confronted with reality, the `chocolate box group are horrified it punctures their cosy ideal and launch well-meaning but totally misguided campaigns to change things which are better left alone.
Where most people agree, though, is that the British landscape is marvellous, and is something to be cherished and protected. This does not mean avoiding progress, but encouraging development to be in harmony with the local area and consistent with local peoples needs. This is managed in some places better than in others, and has recently led to a culture of protest in which developments (both good and bad) are regularly opposed by vociferous local pressure groups, with support from a new breed of professional activist. We will bring you pictures of different areas of Britain over the coming years.
Art is the aspect of culture which does most to cement a society into a coherent unit. Through art, a people develop a sense of identity and shared experience which ultimately breeds solidarity and a willingness to operate together rather than as an anarchic collection of individuals. And the better the art, the more it enriches peoples intellectual and spiritual lives. Those who claim that high culture is only affordable by affluent societies rather miss the point; any society with a developed high culture will be far more resilient to disaster and misfortune than one without, and thus cultivated societies will generally tend to become more affluent. Until decadence sets in, that is.
`High culture is a relative term. The height of a culture may be thought of as a measure of the skill of execution of artistic works, the depth of the message conveyed, and the degree of emotional and intellectual impact on the observer. Although there is a huge range of media in which art is expressed, I will concentrate on the obvious: architecture, literature, music, painting, poetry and theatre, with a brief digression into television and film at the end.
British architecture has been a crucial part of public life for centuries. The early Christians built churches, which grew grander and grander to demonstrate to people the glory and love of God. The devotion and meticulous skill which went into even small village churches is breathtaking. Cathedrals take one to another and higher spiritual plane. After the Norman conquest, castles became increasingly strong and permanent structures; many castles from the fourteenth century are still standing firm today. Civic architecture grand public buildings in towns and cities really took off with the prosperity of Tudor times, and is still important today. Since many civic buildings like town halls were paid for by public subscription, the community they were for felt like genuine stakeholders. Some of the worlds most famous architects Sir Christopher Wren (St Pauls Cathedral), Sir John Vanbrugh (Blenheim Palace), Nicholas Hawksmoor (Castle Howard) and Sir Edwin Lutyens (New Delhi) are good examples have been British.
Modern architecture is constrained by the vastly higher cost of skilled labour these days, and by the urge to complete things quickly. Intricate details are therefore out. During the 1950s and 60s, a large number of ugly, faceless concrete buildings were put up. Thankfully the lessons from these appalling monstrosities have largely been learned. There are still some buildings whose only merit is being `modern (ie, weird), and suffer major structural problems in a short time, but they are becoming fewer. Todays British architecture is an expression of the energy and vitality of the country.
Against that has to be set the acres of drab, soulless and claustrophobic houses which make up so many of the suburbs and housing estates where most British people actually live. Though they are perfectly functional, many of these have a depressing rather than an uplifting effect. This is hardly surprising given the huge population which needs to be crammed into a finite space, while still leaving room for some landscape (see `town and country above).
If the best British architecture is superb, the cream of British literature is even better. Its roots are ancient. Myths and legends, passed orally, came to Britain with the Saxon and Viking invaders. Many of the Celtic legends are even older, such as those enshrined in the Welsh Mabinogion. Building on this tradition, the first recognisable English fiction was by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. The invention of printing in the late 15th century was a huge boost to the language. Until then, regional dialects were more or less mutually incomprehensible (actually a lot of British regional accents still are). The Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare between them brought the language into a consistent form. Spelling was still erratic though, and was not really standardised until the publication of the worlds first dictionary by Samuel Johnson in 1755.
There are so many classic British authors that it seems invidious to mention individuals. With choices as diverse as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, it is impossible to define a single characteristic British style. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R Tolkein, was recently voted the `best book in the English language. The thing they all have in common is an ability to use the incredible toolkit of the English language to fullest effect. The tradition is carried on by many modern writers, who bear the torch with skill and erudition.
There are three particular genres at which English writers excel. Detective stories were invented in the 1850s by Wilkie Collins, and have become a staple ever since with people like Arthur Conan Doyle (the Sherlock Holmes stories), Agatha Christie and more recently P. D. James. British writers have produced the best ghost stories in the world (M.R. James being the best, but others such as H. Russell Wakefield are excellent). And many legendary horror stories were created by British authors; Dracula by the Irish Bram Stoker, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, stand out
Of course, not all British people appreciate these marvels. Many of the bestselling authors write rather formulaic and one-dimensional novels for an undiscerning mass market. It is obviously better for people to be reading than not, and many of these works are perfectly decent entertainment. But it is sad to think how much people are missing if this is the limit of their horizons.
And the impact of the Internet? Reading is certainly becoming less popular. But there are no signs of its death at the hands of the evil electrons just yet.
Music is an area in which Britain has never quite reached the heights of countries like Germany or Austria. As elsewhere, most early British music was religious; masses by Tallis and Byrd are still sung in the better musical churches and cathedrals. King Henry VIII was an accomplished musician. In the seventeenth century, the development of larger orchestral works saw Henry Purcell producing music every bit as good as Continental contemporaries such as Monteverdi. A hundred years later, Handel (actually a German who came over to England with King George I) produced exquisite music of the highest quality, such as the Messiah. But he was not quite so consistent or so intriguing as his German contemporary, Bach. Then came a big gap; while Austria was nurturing Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Britain was away getting an empire and having the Industrial Revolution. But towards the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, Britain started again to produce some first class musicians whose inspiration was the empire. People like Holst, Elgar and Vaughan Williams produced stirring and uplifting works of high quality. And Gilbert & Sullivan took the mickey out of it.
Todays new classical music is often rather inaccessible, so misses the point of high culture as a cohesive force in society. (Very few people deliberately sit through an opera by Harrison Birtwhistle). But the interpretive art of music is very much alive and thriving, with high quality orchestras in most cities, universities and even schools.
Britain has been particularly good at creative popular music in recent times. Perhaps the most famous examples are the Beatles and Rolling Stones, both originating along with many other British groups in the 1960s. In the 1970s three entire musical genres were led by British groups: heavy rock (Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple), technical rock (Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull) and punk rock (Sex Pistols, Clash). In a recent survey in America, the top three rock songs of all time were British (Stairway to Heaven, Aqualung and Smoke on the Water).
As with literature, there is also a steady supply of bland and uninspiring popular music for the mass market. This is often entertaining but is not really culture. Influenced strongly by America, this is indistinguishable from the pop music produced in most other places in the world, so cannot be said to have a unique character (or indeed much of any character at all). Sadly, this is what one encounters most, because, under the influence of teenagers whose taste has not developed yet, it is thrust upon unwilling hearers in shops, restaurants and many other public places where silence would be preferable.
The best of British painting is among the finest in the world. From the Court portraits of Hans Holbein (actually German - his paintings were designed among other things to help select wives for Henry VIII) through the country scenes of Constable and Gainsborough to the stunning portraits of Reynolds, the skill of British artists in depicting the best of British life over the centuries has been fantastic. The Pre-Raphaelites produced idyllic but aspirational works in the 19th century. Turner stunned the world with his experiments in luminescence. There were many English contributors to the impressionist movement.
20th century painting is an interesting paradox. As in the case of classical music, artistic forms have become increasingly obscure and, to many, unintelligible. Unlike music or (most) literature, the importance of the message has become dominant, and skill of execution is secondary (or even absent entirely). Given these trends it is astonishing that galleries of modern art are more popular than ever. Clearly, a love of fine art is deeply ingrained in the British psyche, and the enduring popularity of such a wide range of artistic styles is evidence of the remarkably eclectic taste of the British public.
As with painting, so with poetry. In the early development of the language, literature and poetry were very closely linked, sometimes even (as in Chaucer) the same thing. Some of the best poems ever written in English are by Shakespeare. Anyone with literary ambitions had to be a poet witness the deep and moving poems of John Donne, who for many years was Dean of St Pauls Cathedral.
From the seventeenth century, poetry and prose diverged. Poets such as Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Tennyson scarcely wrote any prose, but their poetry is matchless. As with prose, the range of styles is immense: from the superb religious poetry of Milton, the romantic poets already mentioned, through the flights of fantasy of Blake and Coleridge, to the gruesome reality of Houseman and the wartime poets, to the elegiac poetry of Betjeman, almost every emotion and aspect of the human condition is explored.
The tradition is carried on today with many modern poets such as Andrew Motion and Seamus Heaney continuing to produce interesting and thought-provoking work.
Theatre has been an enduring part of British life since the middle ages. Before newspapers, news of great events was passed on by troubadours, wandering bands of minstrels who acted great events of the day to music and song a sort of prototype opera. Some of these became tableaux which would be performed repeatedly to enthralled audiences. There was not much entertainment in those days, and any visit by wandering players drew huge and excited audiences.
Most people tend to associate British theatre with Shakespeare. This is reasonable he was probably the best playwright in the history of the world but incomplete. Had Shakespeare never existed, the world would still marvel at the skill of his contemporaries such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Beaumont & Fletcher. After the commonwealth period, when fun was banned, the Restoration saw a renaissance of great comedy which included people like Vanbrugh (the same one who was the architect) and Congreve.
With them, comedy became an English speciality, the torch being borne by Sheridan through Oscar Wilde to many interesting modern playwrights. Many used comedy as a means of introducing audiences to more serious ideas; George Bernard Shaw in the early 20th century, and recently Tom Stoppard, are masters at this art.
Today, theatre is very much alive, with good performances of earlier works and good quality modern pieces. It is a miracle that it has not been killed by television, but thank goodness, it hasnt.
The 20th century saw the emergence of new art forms in film and television. Here, the boundary between culture and popular entertainment becomes most blurred.
There have been British films of very high quality. Many of the Ealing comedies produced after the second world war were excellent. There have been numerous excellent war films, which their producers probably hoped would perpetuate the wartime spirit of enterprise, resilience and mutual support. Unfortunately, they probably contributed to the complacent feeling that the world owed us a living, which nearly led to the countrys collapse in the 1970s. And of course James Bond is a British spy.
Having said all of which, film has become such an expensive medium that British film can never really rival Hollywood. Still, the vast majority of Hollywoods output has negligible cultural value, but is pure entertainment.
Television started with great promise. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was founded with the explicit charter to produce high quality radio programmes to educate and inform, and was later extende to do the same for television. A few of its programmes still do. There are good quality documentaries, dramas and comedies. News reporting is generally good. However, this applies to a very small proportion of what is transmitted. Apart from sport, the vast majority of British television portrays drab, appalling people doing drab, appalling things. There are lots of soap operas, all of which are tawdry and sordid. Very little television has any morally or spiritually uplifting content. Sex, violence, aggression and bad language are routinely portrayed.
Because large numbers of people spend significant amounts of time watching television, the effect is culturally corrosive. Behaviour in wider society increasingly mimics the atrocious behaviour portrayed on television. All things considered, by far the best thing about British television is the off switch.
It is worth mentioning the general questions of behaviour and morality. This is where the concept of Britain as a stratified culture is at its starkest. In the past, many people from other countries have characterised the British as honourable, trustworthy, polite, well-mannered, and altogether the most perfectly civilised people on earth. This has always been true of one section of British society (and one which cuts across other boundaries such as class and income). But there has always been a large section of British people who are yobs, louts and thugs. This can be a good thing if positively channelled (it has helped Britain win lots of wars), but its positive aspect rarely emerges. Famously, Japan closed the entire nation to foreign contact, being appalled at the desecration of venerated historical sites by English vandals in the 18th century. Anyone who has visited a British football match, or gone to a so-called holiday resort such as Ibiza, or visited any town centre on a Friday or Saturday evening, can testify that lots of British people behave like revolting louts at times.
This is often characterised as a recent phenomenon, frequently blamed on the collapse of discipline in the 1960s and an elusive `selfish culture of the 1980s. It is true that a lot of very silly trendy modern ideas have had an awful effect on Britain generally, for the most part because they ignored the lessons from the past and were dismissive of tried and tested rules that had previously been accepted. Thus they failed to build on the things which have been proved through experience to work well. But it is more true to say that a certain proportion of British people have always been revolting louts. There are two cultural trends which are worth mentioning in this context.
The first is the trend which led many people to admire the British, and also led many British people to excel in the first place. In the 19th century, it was obvious that British society had many flaws. The general national mood, inspired by Queen Victoria, was towards higher moral standards. Many individuals took up specific moral causes. The result was a virtuous circle of positive role models, who inspired people to great and positive achievements. The literature of the period also created fictional heroes who were explicitly intended to inspire people to acts of heroism.
Looking back on this from our comfortable existence today, many people are contemptuous of these trends or even regard them as patronising and false. That misses the point that they were necessary and worthwhile creatures of their time. And it also highlights the contrary trend we see today.
Role models today are different from those from the past. The two things most modern role models have in common is the ability to market themselves, normally from a single skill, and their coming from `ordinary backgrounds. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this and their skills should rightly be celebrated there is a world of difference between a successful footballer or pop singer and a successful campaigner or explorer. It is not entirely surprising that this should be so; unlike 150 years ago, most of the big causes have already been won, and most of the earth has been explored. The result is a society noticeably short of any really worthwhile aspiration. It may be that the general decline in moral and behavioural standards, exacerbated by television, is a reaction to this aspirational deficit.
Sport occupies an important place in the lives of many British people. Most people think of football as the national sport. (Actually, the most popular participation sport is fishing!). Certainly it attracts the largest audiences and the largest amount of money. But it is also worth noting that many worldwide sports have British origins. Rugby was a branch of football created at an English public school of that name in the 19th century. Cricket began in England. Golf began in Scotland. The worlds most prestigious tennis tournament is at Wimbledon in London.
For many years the British were awful at most sports. This is probably because of endemic complacency; it was noticeable in many sports that when a British team started to do well, it relaxed, and the opposition took it apart. Also, the ridiculous education reforms in the 1960s encouraged schools to avoid teaching competitive sport for fear that some people would be branded `losers. Thank goodness, both trends now have counter-movements and the British have been getting better recently. Englands Cricket team is now ranked second in the world after Australia. England won the Rugby world cup in 2003. The British won a healthy number of medals at the Olympic Games in Athens. It is to be hoped that this will provide some more positive role models and inspire future generations to participate increasingly in sports of all forms.
British food is generally thought to be pretty appalling. This is only partly unfair. The British produce basic ingredients of superb quality. Good British food is of high quality and refinement. But it often lacks the more assertive and powerful tastiness that many people crave these days. The British never had a tradition of culinary inventiveness to rival the French. The British national dish fish and chips is loved by many, and can be good when made well, but more often takes what should be a lovely and succulent fish and totally ruins it by smothering it in greasy batter.
Since the British involvement in India, many Indian recipes have become British classics. After several waves of immigration since the second world war, every small town today has its Indian restaurant. Chinese and Thai cooking has become much more popular in the last two decades of the 20th century. I recently heard a foreign visitor asking what typical British food was; the answer, given without irony, was `Indian. If this is the future, it is probably a welcome improvement on the past.
It is dangerous to touch on religion, but since it has played a powerful part in moulding the British national character and landscape it needs to be faced. Until the 16th century, Britain was definitively Roman Catholic. In the mid 1500s, two big things happened.
The first was the reformation. Throughout Europe, people were becoming more and more angry at the corruption of the Catholic Church, and its loss of contact with the majority of worshippers. This was fair; corruption was rife, services were only permitted in Latin, and local language translations of the Bible were prohibited. It is hard to see how the true message of Christianity reached most people. Nevertheless, many people loved the forms and rituals, and the splendour which accompanied them. But many others didnt, and sought to create a new Church, free of the corrupt influence of Rome, following the original precepts of the early Church. These were the Protestants.
The second was King Henry VIII. Needing a son to succeed him, he wanted to divorce his wife, and the Pope wouldnt let him. Combined with the corruption in the Church, this impelled him to split with Rome and create a separate Church of England. This was in essence the old Catholic church but with the King as head instead of the Pope. His son, Edward VI, went further and decreed that this Church was Protestant. He enforced the use of Bibles and Prayer Books in English not Latin. Edward didnt live long; his sister Mary, a staunch Catholic, came to the throne and reversed his policies. She burned many Protestants as heretics. This turned public opinion massively against the Catholics. Mary didnt last long either, and was succeeded by Elizabeth; she engineered a skilful settlement by which the Church of England was officially Protestant, using books in English, with herself as head, but essentially retaining many of the Catholic forms.
The Spanish attempt to invade England and sieze the throne from Elizabeth hardened attitudes further against Catholics. This event led to Roman Catholics being regarded as servants of a foreign power which was by nature hostile to Britain. Catholics were ruthlessly suppressed and in essence remained so for a few hundred years.
Meanwhile in Scotland the reformation, largely untouched by these seismic English events, had produced a Protestant Church of Scotland. Protestantism also took root in Wales. But it was quite different in Ireland, where most people clung tenaciously to the old Catholic faith. An exception was in the North of Ireland, where Protestantism flourished, aided by William III in the late 17th century. This is a significant factor in the troubles in Northern Ireland today.
For many years, the Church of England, Scotland and Wales was a defining part of British culture. Until quite recently, it formed a body of shared experience which was a true bond between most (but by no means all) British people. Everybody could quote extensively from the Bible and Prayer Book. Everybody knew the Ten Commandments as the root of moral law. Most people knew the words to several of the best hymns. But in the latter part of the 20th century, this national bond has largely been lost.
At the end of the 20th century, there is complete religious freedom in Britain. The Church of England remains the official, established Church, with the monarch as its head. But thanks mainly to the growth of alternative attractions on Sundays, stultifying bureaucracy, moral ambivalence and weird trendy experiments in modernism, it is inexorably losing worshippers. This is a pity, because it has much to commend it, including a superb heritage of hymns, language and buildings. The Catholic church is flourishing and (thanks in part to the decision of the Church of England to ordain women in the 1990s) now has more regular worshippers than the Church of England. Stricter Protestants such as the Methodists are widely supported but also in slow decline, largely due to social trends away from such stringency. And successive waves of immigrants have brought their religions with them, including Moslems, Hindus and Sikhs.
Less religion is now taught in schools than was the case before the 1960s. Many no longer have a morning assembly. Some suhn all religions for fear of offending minorities. So many children are ignorant of the Bible's teachings, and some are even unaware that Britain has a state religion. The net result is that Britain is probably no less religious than it was 100 years ago, but because of the growing religious diversity and other social trends, there is no longer the common religious bond there once was.
The final point in this journey through some of the kaleidoscope of British culture is its ethnic diversity. This has been a politically and socially sensitive subject in recent years, so it is worth putting in context. British society has absorbed waves if immigrants from time immemorial. There have been substantial waves of immigration such as the Celts (pre-recorded history), Romans (55 BC), Saxons (4th to 7th centuries), Danes (8th to 10th centuries), Normans (1066), Huguenots escaping French persecution (17th century) and Jews escaping Nazi persecution (20th century). All these waves have created severe social strains (in earlier cases, wars) at the time, but eventually settled down and lived together pretty amicably.
It is in this long term context that the recent waves of immigration, largely from former British colonies, should be set. Largest numbers have been from the Indian subcontinent (initially to supply cheap labour for industries such as textiles), the West Indies, and Africa. Most of these immigrants are decent and hard working people who add value to British society. A few are troublemakers who give the others an undeserved bad name. Some are well integrated into British society; some live in ghettoes and do not socialise outside their ethnic group, which exacerbates any latent hostility to immigration per se.
Some have done very well for themselves. And many industries, such as the catering and hotel businesses and nursing, rely on immigrants because too few native British people would be prepared to work for such long hours for such relatively little reward. There are undoubted economic benefits to immigration. But there are also drawbacks. Britain is a fairly small and crowded island; too much immigration would increase the pressure on the already shrinking countryside. And the economic benefits can be overstated. Immigration is touted as a solution to the latent pension crisis, but in fact it would only defer the problem for a generation while increasing overcrowding; increasing the retirement age is the real solution.
Most British people are generally friendly towards immigrants, so long as they behave decently and obey the law. There are some people mainly mindless yobs who despise immigrants on principle and do their best to make their lives a misery. Racism exists and is a real problem, but is not as prevalent as some people in the media would have us think. There are effective laws to deal with the problem.
There are several campaign groups, such as the Commission for Racial Equality, whose noble aspiration is to ensure equality of racial treatment. But their practical effect is to bring racial differences to peoples attention, and thus perpetuate the very problems they desire to eradicate. By and large, they would do more good by shutting up. Positive discrimination and `political correctness' also create antagonisms.
And there are other people who, with the best of intentions, aim to turn Britain into a `multicultural society. What nonsense. Many immigrants come to Britain precisely because of its rich and diverse culture and heritage. Deliberately to suppress this will achieve nothing except to fuel resentment among native Britons. Of course immigrants come with their culture, and it is good to learn from this and absorb the best of it into British culture over time. But for goodness sake, let it happen naturally, and without the absurd meddling of politicians and bureaucrats!