Diversity is a word we see and hear in the media, the workplace and our communities more and more these days. After all, it is the end goal of multiculturalism – a project which the political class has turned into an almost state-sanctioned ideology in the past few decades. But what our chattering classes fail to recognise is that the English have been – in all sorts of subtle and organic ways – a fountain of real cultural diversity for centuries – primarily through their rich regional expressions.
It is a myth to suppose that there exists an identikit, one-size-fits all Englishness. Try telling a Yorkshireman he’s the same as an Essex boy. A Geordie won’t take kindly to being pigeon-holed with a Scouser! Of course, they are all English, with common origins, cultural association, heritage and common national story, but they are also products of a centuries-old regional, localised fashioning.
The most obvious manifestation is our much-loved regional accents (albeit under attack via the homogenisation of the mass media and globalism in general). Scholars in the field postulate that our regional accents derive from our early English ancestors. The Bristol accent may descend from the West Saxon pronunciation. Up in County Durham they speak with a brogue not unlike Scandinavian. East-Midlanders trace their elocution to the Danes that settled in their part of the world. Brummie just might be how King Penda of Mercia spoke! But it is not only how we sound, it’s what we say. Regional vocabulary still differs remarkably from place to place – how many southerners know what a snicket or even a ginnel is? Then there is what we put on the table. Before the world’s cuisine arrived on our shores, we had our own regional specialities. Cockney’s have their pie and mash and Scousers enjoy, well, Scouse. The sheer variety of recipes and dishes our English regions and counties offer are too long to list here, but just like anywhere else on the planet – the English pantry has never been wanting. The continental joke that English grub/scran/scrawn (yes, that vocabulary again) is dull, is unfair.
Traditionally, customs and pastimes have varied greatly – Morris and other folk dance differ noticeably from region to region, county to county, both in style, costume and in musical accompaniment. In musical heritage, Northumbria has given us it’s beguiling pipes, and in stark contrast more recently, the South West has bestowed us with its raucous Scrumpy and Western! Yes, it’s a thing and just another example of evolving English regional expression. Moreover, our localities, counties and regions have a vast treasure trove of unique folklore and myth with heroes, villains and fantastic creatures exclusive to each.
Likewise sport. Cornish wrestling anyone? How about Aunt Sally – a pub game as popular as ever (with leagues and trophies) in Oxfordshire and over into neighbouring counties – but absent everywhere else? Rugby league tends to be a northern preference and they know it!
Each region has its luminaries of art and literature who have reflected their regions’ distinctiveness. Those that spring to mind are Thomas Hardy and William Barnes in the South West, LS Lowry in the North West, Tolkien in the West Midlands, and the Brontës in Yorkshire. Each have evoked the unique identity of their patch and have in turn become synonymous with their respective cultural expression. People talk today of Constable country and Wordsworth country, as well they should.
Since the Industrial Revolution, increasing urbanisation has been witness to an exclusive City identity giving rise to such cultural gems as a Londoner’s rhyming slang and Liverpudlian wit. The rise of specific industry and manufacturing has also been imbibed into different regional identities. Coal, fisheries, ship building, iron and steel, pottery, textiles, silverware and the people who became defined by them continue to evoke immense loyalty and pride from their respective communities, even though many were ravaged by the maelstrom of globalised economics.
English regional identity continues to develop. Recent years have seen a remarkable growth in popularity and use of county flags with many being enthusiastically flown from civic buildings. County days marked by celebration are also taking off. Why wouldn’t they be? The English counties (or shires) are one thousand plus years old – that counts for a lot in cultural terms. In fact, county pride is so strong that after central government rearranged the boundaries in 1974, it caused much consternation. A feeling that rumbles on to this day: try telling older people in Wantage they live in Oxfordshire or older Bournemouth residents that their postal address is in Dorset!
Recent decades have seen the rise of regional identity in an overtly political form, one recent example being the Yorkshire Party, whose efforts have met with electoral success in local government.
Perhaps our regional identities might develop in the same way as the Celtic revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries. Small numbers of determined Celtic revivalists set the wheels in motion for the resulting huge cultural phenomenon of the ‘Celtic fringe’ we see today. In fact, we can see signs of this now. Nascent expressions of regional identity based on the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy are gaining footholds, with growing loyalties to Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria coming into view – mainly through the flags of the Wessex Wyvern, Mercian St. Alban’s Cross and the Northumbrian banner of St. Oswald that are each becoming more visible.
Regional identity is part of what it means to be human and for the English, our regional differences show we have been experts in diversity long before the word become fashionable.