British Identity: Dying, not Dead
Cultures have always mixed and clashed, but the United Kingdom has a history of having a unifying identity for its population. It is the British Identity; its conception was designed to unite the countries first on the British Isles, then eventually the citizens of the British Empire. The Empire has long since passed, but is the British Identity still accepted by those living within the United Kingdom? Contemporary literature is challenging that identity, pointing to cultural differences and traditions prevailing over an outdated unifying concept. The purpose of this paper is to examine how the British Identity plays into two contemporary novels Brick Lane, and Sheepshagger. The settings of the stories will be examined in its relation to the British Identity, as well as the characters attitudes towards the concept. The clash of cultures prevalent in the novels will be examined and final thoughts on the future of the British Identity, and whether it is a dying concept as the novels suggest.
The British Identity can be dated to the creation of the Great Britain in 1707. At that time, it referred to the collective identity of the English Scottish and Welsh. The term became more popular during the rise of the Second British Empire. Historian Linda Colley attributes the creation of the British Identity as a way to unify the inhabitants of Great Britain in times of conquest, and expansion of the empire. “Empire did serve as a powerful distraction and cause in common” (Colley, 1992). However with the fall of empire, the British identity is also put into question. The 2011 census revealed that around 20% of the UK population identify themselves as British first. Large proportions of this percentage are non-white, or have different ethnic backgrounds outside of Europe (Statistics, 2013). There is also a stronger presence of British Identity in urban areas such as London.
The two settings in the novels Brick Lane and Sheepshagger differ from each other. Examining the two environments is integral in understanding how the British Identity is approached by the novels characters. Brick Lane takes place in the borough of Tower Hamlets in London. Tower Hamlets is mostly made up ethnic minorities with Bangladeshi’s being the prominent group in the novel (Easton, 2013). Tower Hamlets is almost segregated from the rest of London. Sheepshagger takes place in the countryside of Wales. This area in Wales has limited contact with outsiders, most of them being English tourists. The descriptions of nature given by author Niall Griffiths are gorgeous. “And he actually saw with bulging eyes the lightning reach spindle-fingered down from the dishwater sky of the day to clout the tree, heard the sharp splitting crack and now stands with ozone in his nostrils and his hair erect watching the tree burn” (Sheepshagger, pg. 52). The main character Ianto just witnessed a tree struck by lightning, and his senses are electrified by the...