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Britain - Culture Smart!
By Paul Norbury
Bravo LtdCopyright © 2017 Paul Norbury
All rights reserved.
LAND & PEOPLE
WHAT IS "BRITAIN"?
First, a word about the different names used to describe the country referred to variously as Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the UK, and England (the latter still being used by much of the rest of the world, including the United States). Correctly speaking, "Great Britain" comprises England, Wales, and Scotland, together with all the offshore islands, including the Isle of Wight, the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetlands. The "United Kingdom" comprises Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and the Channel Islands, in the English Channel, between Great Britain and France, are largely self-governing, and are known as Crown Dependencies; but they are not part of the UK.
The name "British Isles" is essentially a geographical term, and describes all of the above plus the whole of the island of Ireland, as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
Britain is located on the westernmost edge of the continental shelf of Europe. It consists of two large and several hundred small islands that were separated from the European continent in about 6000 BCE. The mild maritime climate and gently undulating lowlands give the mainland an excellent agricultural base. The landscape becomes increasingly mountainous toward the north, rising to the Grampian Mountains in Scotland, the Pennines in northern England, and the Cambrian Mountains in Wales. The major rivers include the Thames in the south, the Severn in the west, and the Spey in Scotland.
Britain's climate is often thought of as cool, wet, cloudy, and windswept. This generalization, however, fails to take account of the many regional variations in weather, or the microclimates that are found throughout the country. It is also a fact that, increasingly, for the UK at least, the worldwide phenomenon of climate change appears to be blurring the distinctions of the seasons, especially the autumn (fall)-winter-spring period. The British weather overall is controlled mainly by a series of depressions from the Atlantic that move across or pass near the British Isles on account of the prevailing southwesterly wind.
Talking About the Weather
Given the considerable variations in Britain's weather both regionally and historically, it is no surprise that there is a great deal of "weather talk" in the media, on TV, and among the population: it is a constant topic of conversation and a routine part of social interchange. Freak weather events, such as the catastrophic flooding of parts of southern England in late 2013/early 2014, will occupy the headlines for days. Weather commentators will also insist on stating that it was the hottest, wettest, coldest "since records began," which actually only take us back to 1914 (under the control of the Meterological Office), although there are records for England going back to 1766, and even earlier if you include those of amateur meteorologists.
Historically, there have been many recorded "freak" conditions. For example, on January 21, 1661, five years before the Great Fire of London, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary: "It is strange what weather we have had all this winter; no cold at all, but the ways are dusty, and the flyes fly up and down, and rose bushes are full of leaves ..." On the other hand, on a few occasions, such as in 1683 and 1771, the River Thames has frozen over, providing an unexpected arena for skating and other amusements.
So, although Britain tends to be cloudy and overcast, the fact is that only about half the country has more than 30 inches (76 cm) of rain annually — except in recent years, as noted above, when freak flooding has overturned the precipitation tables. The wettest areas are Snowdonia, with about 200 inches (508 cm) of rain, and the Lake District, much loved by tourists, with 132 inches (335 cm). The wettest city is Glasgow with 170 rainy days (average) and the driest is Cambridge with only 107 wet days per year.
England itself generally enjoys the best weather overall, especially the southwestern part of the country, which benefits from its position in the path of the Gulf Stream (as do the Western Isles of Scotland). The coldest parts of Britain are the highlands of Scotland. On top of Ben Nevis, the highest peak, the mean temperature for the year is around the freezing point, while many north-facing gullies contain year-round snow. Air temperatures seldom rise above 90°F (32°C) or drop below 14°F (-10°C).
WHO ARE THE BRITISH?
Politically speaking, all the peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, including the indigenous English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh, those from former colonies, and the many others who have made Britain their adopted country, are called "British." On the other hand, it is important to understand that the historic cultural traditions of the British, particularly the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, and Norman French cultures, remain at the center of the traditional "British way of life."
The centuries of conflict that were finally resolved in the Act of Union uniting the governments of England and Scotland in 1707 (the monarchies having united a hundred years earlier in 1603) generated a profound and, at times, fiercely defended sense of separate identity. This is, perhaps, best demonstrated in the national football and rugby teams for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The matchesbetween the four nations — especially those relating to the World Cup — are typically fought out with great passion, above all because they are a matter of national pride. But overall, most people (opinion polls and ballots prove this) would agree that there is far more to be gained by remaining united.
On the other hand, at the time of going to press, the great surge of Scottish nationalism that was prompted by the September 2014 referendum on independence shows no sign of abating. Although those in favor of retaining the Union won by a margin of 10 percent, the Scottish independence movement has continued to gain momentum since then and is likely to have a significant impact on the outcome of the British general elections in May 2015 — not least in the balance of power at the Westminster Parliament.
In addition to the indigenous cultures, Britain also has what could be called its "Empire" cultures — principally from the Indian subcontinent (5.5 percent), together with Africa and the Caribbean (2.9 percent).
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the UK population is estimated to be 64.1 million (mid-2013). The 2011 census revealed that 14 percent of the population, or 8 million people, came from other ethnic backgrounds — numbers that have continued to grow. Today, according to the ONS, one in four children under ten are from mothers not born in the UK — some 12 percent of whom are from Poland. Britain, therefore, has the fastest-growing population in Europe, gaining a further 5 million since the 2001 census. These new communities are not evenly spread across the country, creating a very mixed pattern of integration and cohesion.
For example, about two-thirds of all Black ethnic groups live in London. In Leicester, Wolverhampton, and Birmingham, there are large numbers of Indians, and many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live in Birmingham, Greater Manchester, and West Yorkshire, especially in Leeds and Bradford.
More than four-fifths of the total population of the United Kingdom live in England. The greatest concentrations of population are in London (8.6 million in 2015) and the Southeast, South and West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, the West Midlands, and adjoining towns in the Northeast on the rivers Tyne (Newcastle), Wear (Durham and Sunderland), and Tees (Middlesbrough).
Following the passing of the Race Relations Act of 1976 (amended in 2000 and superseded in 2010 by the Equality Act), which brought about the establishment of the Commission for Racial Equality, now known as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the government has actively promoted a policy affirming the multiracial nature of British society.
While such legislation is not universally welcome, it is generally accepted. The great cities are already largely multiracial (and multicultural) in character, and life is all the more colorful and vibrant for it; but traditional town or village life in Britain is still very far from this, and the advent of the UK IndependenceParty (UKIP) reflects the view of a growing proportion of the population that Britain should now limit immigration and take back the power to do so by leaving the European Union.
Many regions and towns are associated with great English writers, artists, and musicians, such as Stratford-upon-Avon (William Shakespeare), the Lake District (William Wordsworth), Yorkshire (the Brontës), Stokeon-Trent (Arnold Bennett), Dorset (Thomas Hardy), Worcestershire (Edward Elgar), and Liverpool (the Beatles).
THE SOUNDS OF BRITAIN
The history of Britain has left a rich archaeology; but it has also left a remarkable "voiceprint" across the different regions of the country, with a great variety of accents, dialects, and vocabulary that can differ, even within the same region, from village to village and town to town. With more than 16,500 rural towns, villages, and hamlets in England, the majority having populations sometimes less than 500 or up to 3,000, many language variables came about.
If you link this to British history, and the story of how the island "mongrel race" evolved, it is hardly surprising. Even when Chaucer was writing his Canterbury Tales at the end of the fourteenth century, he was drawing on a Middle English vocabulary containing Celtic, classical Latin, vulgar Latin, medieval Latin, Saxon, Jutish, Northumbrian, Norman French, Central French, Danish, and Norwegian words! And since then, borrowed elements from the rest of the world have been added — from Hindi and Urdu to African-American rap.
Some visitors ask if there is a "correct" or "standard" way of speaking English. The answer is that for much of the twentieth century the BBC and other institutions tried to promote what came to be called "Received Pronunciation." Today, it is recognized that no such standard is necessary, and that regional accents all have their own innate value. Nowadays BBC listeners and viewers hear a variety of accents from all over the country, including what is known as the "flat vowel" sound (widely used throughout the north of Britain) in such words as "laughter"— pronounced "lafter," as in "patter," in the north and "laafter," as in "partner," in the south.
Accents and Attitudes
In his play Pygmalion, on which the musical My Fair Lady was based, Bernard Shaw wrote that, "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him." This neatly sums up the old situation, but while many would argue this is hardly true today, there are some who would continue to support Shaw's view!
The British character has been shaped by the accident of geography and two thousand years of history. Successive invasions left their mark, the native peoples jostled for power, and collectively the British burstbeyond the confines of their borders on to the world scene. At the end of this section is a list of significant dates in British history, which provides a useful point of reference. First, however, we look at the early centuries in which the foundations for the culture and way of life of today's Britain were laid.
In 55 and 54 BCE Julius Caesar sent expeditions to reconnoiter Britain for potential resources and settlement. Nearly a hundred years later, in 43 CE, the Emperor Claudius duly set about the conquest of Britain, which was followed by some 350 years of Roman rule over an evolving Romano-Celtic society. By the beginning of the fifth century, however, the Roman Empire was in serious decline, resulting in the virtual collapse of many of its outposts, including Britain. The remnants of the Roman army withdrew in c. 409 CE.
With Pax Romana no longer maintaining law and order, Celtic Britain was soon at the mercy of marauding German tribes — the Jutes (Hengist and Horsa), the Saxons, and the Angles. The Roman-style civil governments, or civitates, that were left continued to beg Rome, in vain, for help against the invaders. Eventually, England was overrun and became a predominantly Anglo-Saxon society, with the indigenous Celtic peoples pushed to the extremities — principally to Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and, of course, the island of Ireland.
At the end of the eighth century, however, a new wave of invasions traumatized the people. This time, it was the turn of the highly sophisticated Norsemen — Viking pirates from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — to wreak havoc and destruction, at least initially, on towns and villages along vast areas of the British coast. The first of these devasting invasions was in 793, when the great abbey of Lindisfarne in Northumbria — famous as a center of learning — was sacked and destroyed. The greatest Viking invasion, involving hundreds of ships — the biggest fleet England had ever seen — was to follow some seventy years later. This resulted in the fall of York in 867.
Over time, the Viking authority in many parts of England was firmly established. The administration of these areas became subject to what was known as the Danelaw. Place-names ending in –by, as in Whitby, and –thorpe, as in Scunthorpe, bear witness to their Viking past.
Today, the archaeological and cultural history of York is centered on an outstanding enterprise known as The Jorvik Experience, in the Jorvik Viking Centre located beneath the old city, showing visitors the different archaeological time-zones, with moving models, sights, and smells.
The next major milestone was in 1066, when the last successful invasion of Britain took place. William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings on the south coast of England and became King William I, known as "William the Conqueror." The story of the battle is famously celebrated in the Bayeux tapestry, presumed to have been woven in Canterbury, and kept today in Bayeux, northern France.
Northern French became the language of the court and the ruling classes for the next three centuries and French legal, social, and institutional practice greatly influenced the English way of life. When Henry II, originally from Anjou in France, was king (1154–89), his "Angevin empire" stretched from the river Tweed, on the Scottish border, through much of France to the Pyrenees. However, by the end of the Middle Ages (late fifteenth century), almost all the English Crown's possessions in France, after alternating periods of expansion and contraction, were finally lost.
England and Wales were brought together administratively and legally in 1536–42 during the reign of Henry VIII (his family, the Tudors, had Welsh roots). After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James VI of Scotland (the house of Stuart) became James I of England, uniting the two monarchies. The political union of England and Scotland took place in 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne. "Great Britain" was now the entity we know today.
Britain's great overseas trading empire dates back to the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) in the sixteenth century, with opportunistic acts of piracy against the enemy, Spain — famously undertaken by the privateer Francis Drake who was second-in-command of the British fleet fighting the Spanish Armada in 1588. During the eighteenth century it expanded at the expense of its European rivals, making Great Britain the world's unrivaled naval superpower in the nineteenth century. The parallel story of Britain's great social, technological, and cultural advances, which have effectively created the modern world, has been the subject of many books. What follows are some of the milestones in the general sweep of British history.
Some Key Dates
55 and 54 BCE Julius Caesar sends expeditions to England (landing at Pevensey, East Sussex).
43 CE Roman Conquest begins under Claudius with 40,000 troops.
61 Rebellion by the Iceni people under Boudicca (Boadicea). Paulinus crushes the revolt after overrunning London and St. Albans. (Boudicca commits suicide the following year.)
122–38 Hadrian's Wall built to keep out marauding Scots, running from the Solway to the Tyne (partly rebuilt 205–208).
314 British bishops attend the Council of Arles, a fact that provides evidence of an organized Church in Britain.
406–10 Britain loses its Roman forces.
449 Landing of Hengist and Horsa. Jutes, Saxons, and Angles land in Britain and begin establishing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
597 Roman prior St. Augustine is sent by the Pope to refound Christianity in Britain. He becomes first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Excerpted from Britain - Culture Smart! by Paul Norbury. Copyright © 2017 Paul Norbury. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
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