Since nations are invented and there is no actual thing out there which is essentially English, it is worth thinking about how we construct these categories and come to accept them. Nations are built by using political symbols to make us believe in their unity; national flags, anthems, myths of origin and heroes or saints. They are also the result of playing with history.
The art of creating a nation is the art of forgetting, that is to say forgetting the many things that divide us and concentrating on those that unite. The wounds in many parts of the world such as the Balkans or Ireland will only be healed when people learn to forget, or at least put on one side, past bitterness and memories. This is not just a negative process of amnesia. There is also a positive building up of unifying symbols, what is known as the invention of tradition.
Humans are very good at accepting common traditions, shared histories and ways of doing things, which after a very short time appear to have been there for ever. This is universal. For example, the famous horse-race in Siena called the Palio, which many people think has been continuously held for 600 years was, in fact, abandoned centuries ago and has been invented, or re-invented, recently.
Or many people think that the Indian curry restaurant is an old tradition, brought to this country. In fact, there were no curry restaurants of the kind we now go to in England until they were invented in the 1950’s. They were invented in England and later exported to India itself. Even curry itself is a moderately recent invention; it could only have developed after Europeans began to import its mainly south American ingredients (potatoes, tomatoes, chillies) to India from the sixteenth century. Likewise, in India, tea has been commercially grown since the 1840’s, but it was only drunk seriously by Indians from the 1920’s.
In England there are new ‘traditions’ being invented all the time. In Cambridge, for example, the very ‘traditional’ festival of Nine Lessons in King’s College, which has become an icon of Englishness when it is beamed all over the world on Christmas Eve, was invented in the early twentieth century. Admittedly it has bits and pieces of older words and music in it, but the form and structure is twentieth century.
In fact, almost always if you look at some royal ceremonial such as a coronation service or wedding, most of it has been invented or heavily adapted for the present purpose. The same is true abroad. The tradition of clapping after a lecture or performance was unknown in Japan in 1870. The first recorded clap was made by a missionary in the speech hall at Keio university. Thereafter the Japanese learnt to clap and thought of it as the normal way to behave.
Very much of what we think of as old and unchangeable and ‘natural’ in our own culture was a deliberate invention of only a few years ago. Even in the family or school we see this. We invent traditions about Christmas celebrations in one year and then the next year feel as if we had always done them. And it is not just actions. Few people who go on tours round Cambridge realize that almost all the buildings they see are quite recent, less than two hundred years old. The city feels ancient, but it is constantly evolving and being re-invented.