Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A clod … washed away by the sea

One of the Dr’s acolytes is heading back to America next week, having learnt valuable lessons as a serf. To complete her education, the Dr had her round for tea and exceedingly good cakes, and later I joined them for curry.

Currying with birds is good because you get to finish off all their food – and also, if you’re lucky, their beer. Mmm.

I asked what top facts about England the acolyte would be taking home with her, and then had to explain the whole difference between “Britain” and “England”. Someone I spoke to this morning who works for the British government admitted he wasn’t entirely sure of the difference himself.

(From the other end of London, I can hear Nimbos squawking in horror.)

“Britain” is a bit of a pickle of a term, because it can be used to mean slightly different things. It is often used to mean the same as the United Kingdom – the collective name for the gang of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the various isles and islands (not just those immediately nearby, but ones as far off as Gibraltar and the Falklands).

“Britain” is also sometimes used to mean the single island comprising England, Scotland and Wales – and so not include Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man. Little islands that are very close, like the Isle of Wight, get included in this Britain.

James Bond and the Union Flag. Not Jack.So it can mean the whole, or part of the whole. And since it’s about nationality, people can get a bit hot and bothered about how it’s used (see the comments at the end of this piece about Britain’s flag, with people all steamed up about what the thing’s called).

Some people prefer just to avoid all the hassle and not the name “Britain” at all. They use “Great Britain” to mean the island itself, and “British” to mean “of the United Kingdom”.

England is just one bit of Britain/Great Britain/the UK. The largest, mind, and the richest. And, history tends to show, the most vicious in the fighting.

The general trend to thinking of ourselves as being English rather than British is a reasonably recent thing (not as recent as the Dr would like, though. She thinks 1996 is “a couple of years ago”). It’s probably connected to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland getting their own parliaments in the last decade (even if the latter is on hold). But people (well, pubs) seemed more keen to celebrate St George’s Day on Sunday than I’ve ever seen before.

Here are some top facts for any aliens reading this:
  • St George wasn’t English – and probably never even came to England. He was a soldier in the Roman army, and so (what with the killing) a favourite of the Crusaders. By the 14th century he was seen as an icon of chivalry – not shagging other people’s wives, and not killing anyone from church. That’s the sort of courtesy we English love, which is why we took him as our patron.
  • The “Houses of Parliament” are not the name of the building, but of the two groups of people nattering inside – the Lords and the Commons. “House” means a family of people, like a “suit” in playing cards. The building is really called the Palace of Westminster.
  • Big Ben is the name of the bell inside the Palace of Westminster’s clock tower, not the tower itself. (It’s also sometimes called St Stephen’s Tower, and that’s not right either. So there.)
  • The bridge with the towers on it (next to the Tower of London) is called Tower Bridge. London Bridge is the boring-looking one next along westwards. (Acolyte knew this one, admittedly.)
  • We don’t call them “Bobbies”; they’re “Coppers”
When we finally ambled home, I made the Dr watch the Venetian bit of Moonraker. Venice is also an island, and used to be its own empire with territories all over the place. Some people say that’s why it’s so popular with the British, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch. It's just a bit goth and pretty.

Vile poison. VILE. Do you see?Another silly James Bond thing: while having a BIG FIGHT with a villain, Bond remembers he’s got a delicate glass vial of DEADLY POISONOUS WATER in his top pocket. Mid scuff, he checks it hasn’t broken. By quite a miracle considering how much he’s been knocked about and how much other glass has been broken, it hasn’t. Phew.

So what does he do next? Puts it back in his top pocket and carries on fighting. You numbskull, 007!

Oh, and Bond’s English despite his parents being Scottish and Swiss. And his being played in the films by chaps from Scotland, Australia, Ireland and Wales. And Stockwell.


Nimbos said...

You know me so well :-)

But then something like 3 in 10 Americans can't find the USA on a globe, apparently. So maybe we're not doing too badly...

Actually - the way I understand it. "Great Britain" is the geographical name for the main island of the collection which makes up the "British Isles".

Again geographically speaking the island of "Ireland" is part of the "British Isles" even though the "Republic of Ireland" has not been politically part of the "United Kingdom" since 1926.

St George came from Asia Minor or the European bit of today's Turkey.

0tralala said...

"...something like 3 in 10 Americans..."

Apart from wanting to see how that study was sampled and done, I'd also add I didn't know where Preston was for the first three months I was living there.

"...St George came from Asia Minor..."

Thing I read over the weekend said (what's now) Palestine. But that may have been to help the (laboured) political point of the thing.

Nimbos said...

"Apart from wanting to see how that study was sampled and done"

Me too - can't remember where I heard the 3 in 10, but Googling it quickly gives a range of between 11% and 66% with the majority saying around a third of "high School Seniors".

I have also watched in horror, though, as some British school children on C4's "That'll teach 'em" struggling to label the countries of the UK correctly...

Anonymous said...

"Actually - the way I understand it. "Great Britain" is the geographical name for the main island of the collection which makes up the "British Isles".

Again geographically speaking the island of "Ireland" is part of the "British Isles" even though the "Republic of Ireland" has not been politically part of the "United Kingdom" since 1926."

This is all perfectly simple, isn't it? Omitting smaller islands which complicate the issue (and political or legislative insider knowledge of which is probably abstruse enough to be considered 'arcane' i.e. Just At The Moment I Can't Remember All That Nonsense)...

1. England + Scotland + Wales = Great Britain.

2. Great Britain + Northern Ireland = United Kingdom.

3. United Kingdom + Republic of Ireland + anything in the immediate vicinity = "the British Isles".

The first two have some national and political meaning and identity (Northern Irish types who prefer to refer to themselves as "British" notwithstanding). The third is purely geographical.

This is not rocket science. How anyone could live in this country and not know it is quite bizarre. Unless they are a stupid.


Andrew Tibbs said...

Wow, I spent four years studying things like the name of the country and the more you look into it, the harder it gets. The official name of the country as recognised political and which appears on government documents is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though thats the abbreviated version. For the full version throw in 'Britaniac Majesty', dependencies, territories and the Isle of Man. Geographically the area (including Ireland) is the British Isles, though modern preference is to say British Isles and Ireland. As for the composition of the UK, technically it's written in older documents as England, Scotland (Ireland occasionally) and up until the Victorian era Berwick-upon-Tweed. Wales was absorbed into England under the 13th century Act of Union, and some documents including the Treaty of Union in 1707 use the title 'England and Wales'. Modern usage of 'Enlgand & Wales' is more used out of ease rather than medieval 'my patch is bigger than yours'.

So now anyone reading these comments is going to be a heck of a lot more confused than before.