As I visited Westminster Abbey, the audio guide said that the Coronation Chair characterizes Britain as a country that “preserves continuity, while embracing change.” I believe this juxtaposition of tradition and progress is exactly what makes Britain, and particularly London, so very extraordinary.
My class ‘Recycling Architecture: New Life for Older Buildings’ is a testimony to this bidirectional outlook. It’s a class about how conservationist architects (like my professor) have fought to preserve historical buildings, while “reusing” them and bringing them into a modern context. Take, for example, the British Museum. Robert Smirke’s original early 19th-century design was only recently updated by Foster and Partners (some of the best known in the world for their re-use of old buildings) in the late 1990s. They opened up the courtyard and covered it with a gorgeous torus-shaped glass roof. The integrity of the original building remains intact, yet the whole space has become more usable—and sustainable. Before I even began taking this class, I could see the unity of old and new just by looking at London’s skyline: St. Paul’s Cathedral lies opposite the Tate Modern, which is Herzog and de Meuron’s re-use of the old industrial Bankside Power Station; the Monument and the infamous Tower of London sit next to the Shard, the Gherkin, and the other architecturally state-of-the-art buildings of the City of London.
The British Museum highlights another of its country’s unique characteristics, not through its architecture, but through its collections. Walking through the museum is like traveling back in time and across the globe. Arguably, most of the items housed there are stolen goods from Great Britain’s history of imperialism. For example, Egypt’s Rosetta Stone (confiscated in 1801) and one of the six caryatids from the Erechtheion in Athens (removed from the Acropolis, 1801-1803) were simply taken by the British. A sense of entitlement marked much of Britain’s global involvement up through the World Wars of the 20th century.
However, now it seems that the British are less concerned with pride and power and have fallen somewhat among the global powers, resulting in newfound humility, as evidenced by their sense of humor: the Brits love to laugh at themselves. British comedic television shows are usually centered on self-deprecating characters, according to Joe Tucker, a young British comedy writer who spoke in my British Culture class. This love for self-critical humor exemplifies the shift in what it means to be British; they recognize their flaws as people and as a nation and are able to move past their imperial history and into the 21st century.
But still, preservation of tradition remains: the Commonwealth of Nations symbolizes this emphasis on continuity. Sure, imperialism is outlawed and the British Empire is dead, but the Commonwealth remains under the monarchy, which is the heart of British tradition. Elizabeth II has been queen for over sixty years, and in that time, twelve Prime Ministers have had audience with her. The world keeps spinning, politics keep changing, but the Queen remains a symbol of British legacy and tradition. Recently, at the multicultural Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, I saw Handbagged, a play which explores the relationship between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher—two women representing two Britains, that of extreme continuity and that of extreme change.
As a visitor to Great Britain, I am a witness to this cultural theme of embracing change, while preserving continuity; as far as I have seen, it permeates nearly every realm of British culture. In a lecture, I learned that the class structure is fairly rigid, yet upward mobility is made possible through higher education. Whether I heard it played in a pub on Gray’s Inn Road, by a street performer on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, or by the firemen on strike marching towards Trafalgar Square, traditional Scottish bagpipe music seems to remain important to the British; yet, some of the most innovative and famous rockers, including The Beatles, David Bowie, and The Rolling Stones, were born out of the dynamic music scene of Britain in the 1960s. I volunteer at a Church of England primary school where the students start and end class with prayers and sometimes spend entire days learning about saints; yet, this past summer Britain legalized gay marriage, a law which the Church of England had been fighting until this past July. Most Brits only speak English and they refused to adopt the euro as their official currency, yet they have a relatively open immigration policy and are rather welcoming to foreigners. According to my professor Clive Bloom, London is “possibly the most forward-looking, dynamic, and multicultural city in the world.” I see the persistent movement forward with perpetuation of tradition as a testament to the ability of Great Britain’s citizens to adapt; they are enterprising and proactive, unlike other nations that are too proud and stubborn to keep up with the rest of the world.
Despite this traditional, yet dynamic approach, which tends to govern most British cultural institutions, “Britishness” is not well defined. This article suggests that even with her long history as an island, Britain does not have a moment in time that marks the beginning of her nationhood, like America and France do. Therefore, a changing national identity has arisen more out of folk tradition than out of organized nationalism. Some might argue that Britain does not have a national identity or that only in the past few years has a cohesive culture emerged. My professor even suggested that you’d be hard-pressed to find a Brit who can clearly articulate what “being British” means to them and that young people are becoming less and less interested in calling themselves “British.” Therefore, the perception of Britishness varies greatly on an individual level. A few weeks ago, when asked to describe the atmosphere of my favorite London pub, I responded that it was “casual-royal,” a characteristic that I think sums up the Brits: casual and comfortable with change, progress, diversity, modernism, globalism, and their own faults, yet royal, noble, and proud of their rich traditions. To me, Britishness is a marriage of old and new, of tradition and progress, an ability to laugh at oneself, and a comfort with diversity and change.