The Notebook

'Imagination will take you everywhere'

What does it mean to be British?


Recently I’ve been pondering my own sense of identity. What does being British mean to me?

It’s a question that regularly ignites debate in the rollercoaster ‘In’ ‘Out’ ‘Shake it all about’ EU referendum campaign that has swept these shores in recent weeks. Love it or loathe it, this political storm has thrown up some interesting questions regarding Britain’s autonomy, as well as how the country exists within the EU and its relationship with the other 27 member states. The BBC (despite criticism of the corporation’s bias) has a good overview of the referendum and the different sides.

But it’s not just because of this hotly anticipated political event that has got me thinking about being a Brit. In August I will be travelling to France – as per usual for the ole’ Williams family sojourn – and after the two weeks is up I will be staying to study abroad in Reims for a year. This is both exciting and terrifying. I have never left Britain for longer than a few weeks, so the idea of living and studying in a foreign country makes my stomach churn, particularly as my grasp of the French language is somewhat limited. I am also anxious about how leaving the EU (if it happens) will affect my stay. It is something I will have to research and really think hard about – it doesn’t help that I am an incredibly indecisive person!

So it’s led me to think about how British people are perceived in other countries and how we conform to those stereotypes. Recently I asked a couple of my foreign friends what they think about the British, their response was that they get drunk all the time and are aloof. Not exactly 100% true…

Stereotypes are almost always false; not all Italians are loud and expressive, and not all French people are rude and arrogant. And us Brits certainly don’t all speak like Downton Abbey characters, love tea and are related to the royal family (I wish). But there are some clichés that ring true, for example almost every Brit I know are obsessed with the weather, say sorry all the time, love a bit of sarcasm and always feel the need to queue – except when getting on public transport during rush hour, which just turns into a free-for-all. And my stiff upper lip is partial to a bit of a wobble.

I don’t really think of myself as European, despite being geographically within Europe – maybe it’s because we are on an island and therefore feel a little isolated from the rest of the continent. I have spent most of my life wishing I was Italian; mainly because of the food, the beautiful landscape, the sing-song language, the olive skin, and the sunshine. Funnily enough, when I came to university I made friends with a group of Italians and now feel like an honorary Italian – although the language doesn’t quite roll off my Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Living in London – a melting pot of cultures, languages, ideas and people – has not only made me more culturally aware but has also made me embrace my Britishness, which sounds quite odd. I still yearn to be more exotic. Most people I know are half this and that; a family history like a map of the world. Whereas I’m a born and bred English country girl with Welsh blood – something I always used to denounce as boring, but now I’m quite proud of. The patchwork quilt of fields and rolling hills of the shires is my home and I will defend it till the end (and never stop taking photographs of it). While I never fail to feel a stirring of emotion when the Welsh national anthem plays before a rugby match, and will always cheer on The Dragons even when their defence is awful.

I’ve also quite enjoyed having to teach/explain certain British phrases to my foreign friends who usually react with confusion and bemusement. “See you later alligator… In a while crocodile,” was one that caused much hilarity. The English language is a strange and wonderful thing – an amalgamation of various languages which my friends say is incredibly difficult to learn as there are so many words that just don’t have meanings in other languages. So I take great pride in our hearty English dictionary – allowing us to express ourselves in so many ways.

Our dry sense of humour is something that is regularly commented on and even if Faulty Towers, Blackadder and  Morecambe and Wise were a bit before my time, I find the witty put-downs and satire of shows like Have I Got News for You brilliant.

It’s not that I don’t feel a connection to Europe – I have spent many holidays travelling around the continent and want to spend many more exploring it further. Plus I have always dreamt of living in a place where the sun makes a regular appearance – not buried behind the grey clouds that Britain is notorious for.

I think that one of the best things about Britain is that it is a multicultural society; we have Glaswegian Muslims, Pakistani Yorkshiremen, English Jews, Welsh Italians, Cornish Germans, Bangladeshi Londoners – the list is endless. Our country is full of multiple identities and that is what makes it a vibrant and interesting place. And there is a strong sense of community – you just have to be in the country during an important event or celebration to witness the displays of togetherness; the 2012 olympics for example, or the numerous street parties held for the Queen’s milestones.

However I’ve also realised that it isn’t necessarily where you come from that makes you interesting, but how open you are to different people and learning about their customs, culture and background, which is why I want to spend a year abroad and am lucky enough to be able to take the opportunity. There’s a part of me that secretly can’t wait to be a ‘foreigner’, although just what people will think when I tell them I’m British will be interesting to see – particularly after the EU referendum.

My family joke that when I return from my year in France I’ll be unrecognisable; a cool French girl with a penchant for cigarettes and boire du vin (another cliché). But I reassure them that is unlikely to happen – like a Brighton stick of rock, I’m British to the core.

Here are some of my photographs which I think encapsulates a certain British je ne sais quoi…


2 comments on “What does it mean to be British?

  1. Aubane
    June 3, 2016

    Congratulations for this article Jessie! 😀 You can be proud to be a Brit indeed, you have such an awesome country full of lovely people!
    Hopefully meet you in France next year then ;-P

    • Jessie Williams
      June 3, 2016

      Thank you Aubane! Yes we will definitely meet up next year 🙂 Hope you’re having a lovely summer break xx

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