Friday, 5 January 2007

2.4 Where do you come from?

We also invent our origins. We easily slip into the idea that the things around us were discovered, or at least basically adapted, by our own society. Yet if you think for a moment you will find that almost everything was invented in other civilizations.

The anthropologist Ralph Linton described the average American as follows. He ‘awakens in a bed built on a pattern which originated in the Near East…. He throws back covers made from cotton, domesticated in India, or linen, domesticated in the Near East… He takes off his pyjamas, a garment invented in India, and washes with soap invented by the ancient Gauls…Before going out for breakfast he glances through the window, made of glass invented in Egypt, and if it is raining puts on overshoes made of rubber discovered by the Central American Indians and takes an umbrella, invented in south-eastern Asia… On his way to breakfast he stops to buy a paper, paying for it with coins, an ancient Lydian invention…His plate is of steel, an alloy first made in southern India, his fork a medieval Italian invention, and his spoon a derivative of a Roman original.’

We have only reached breakfast and through the day the assemblage of world cultures continues. Nevertheless, at the end, ‘As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles he will, if he is a good conservative citizen, thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is 100 percent American.’

So we are all composites of history, built up from our past. England is a particularly obvious example of this because, being part of a small island near a great Continent, and being a trading and imperial nation, it has sucked in almost all of its culture from abroad. There is scarcely anything, in music, painting, architecture, science and knowledge, up to the eighteenth century at least, which was not largely the result of borrowings.

A particularly obvious instance is the effect of the Imperial phase on British life and above all the influence of India. In many ways a Martian might well look at England today as just an extension of India. It is not merely that more people are involved in making curries in England than in any other form of manufacture. Nor that much of the wealth which built parts of England, including many of its great houses, gardens, art collections and libraries, came from India. It is something more.

Many phrases and ideas have Indian roots: veranda, gymkhana, pyjama, kedgeree, bungalow and polo. Many items of furniture, food, architecture, botany flow from India and the Himalayas. And it is not just India. If we look at the underlying patterns of consumption in Britain they form a mirror image of Empire. We can see this in food and taste.

If we move down the west coast of Britain, wherever there is a great port, there sugar poured in from the West Indies and where it did so it sweetened the tooth of the British. So in Glasgow and much of Scotland there is a love for sugary foods, particularly sugar mixed with flour and baked into cakes and biscuits. I always used to feel proud as a boy when I met lorries bearing the name ‘Macfarlane Lang, biscuit makers’, but I never asked myself why the Scots should be so famous for their sugary short-breads.

Further south, sugar came into the Lancashire ports and found its way to Kendal where the almost pure sugar lumps known as Kendal Mint Cake are manufactured. Bristol became a great West Indian port and Bristol sweet sherry was developed. It happened all over Britain, with what we ate, drank or wore. Many other things including garden plants and those great staples, rubber, tea, coffee and cotton became part of the ‘British’ way.

The same would be true if we went to any part of the world, where many of the characteristically ‘local’ things were imported from elsewhere. Much of modern India is of British origin, just as Britain is of Indian origin. Much of modern Japan was imported from China, just as much of present China was ‘made in Japan’. Australia, just like north America, is a basket of foreign imports. We borrow, imitate, trade and steal and then conveniently forget.

No comments: