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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The sweep of British history has been a coming together of disparate tribes through conquest and amalgamation to form what is now modern Britain. But there are now internal forces at work in Britain threatening to tear it apart. On top of the growing Scottish and Welsh nationalism, there's Europe, the bigger entity that Britain is now supposed to belong to. So are the British British anymore? And what does it mean to be British?

NPR's Rob Gifford has been walking all week from London to Canterbury in the footsteps of Geoffrey Chaucer and the pilgrims of his classic work, "The Canterbury Tales." Rob's been asking questions about the new British identity. And today, in the final installment of his new Canterbury tales, he reaches Canterbury itself.

ROB GIFFORD: So here's a question for you. Put your hand up if you know exactly what is the official name of Britain, or England, or the U.K. or whatever it is. Well, it's the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So you probably should call it the U.K. rather than Britain, and certainly not England, well, not to a Scotsman, anyway. There's plenty of them, though, at the St. Mary's Community Center in Chatham on a Thursday night.

(Soundbite of music)

GIFFORD: It's practice night for the Medway and District Caledonian Association. And Elaine Grayland is trying to work out who she is.

Ms. ELAINE GRAYLAND: I was born in Wales. My mom was Welsh. And my dad's Scottish.

GIFFORD: Oh, wow.

Ms. GRAYLAND: So I've got no English blood in me. I'm a Celt.

GIFFORD: You're a Celt. Wow. Are you British?

Ms. GRAYLAND: I'm British.

GIFFORD: What are you first?

Ms. GRAYLAND: Yeah, British. I'm British first. I would never say to people I'm English because I'm not English. I would say I'm British.

GIFFORD: Elaine's very English husband, Julian, is glad to hear that. He gets annoyed when the more militant parts of Wales and Scotland support France at rugby or soccer when the French are playing the old enemy, England. Julian worries the whole United Kingdom might actually fall apart as the sense of Britishness recedes and the local tribal loyalties grow.

Mr. JULIAN GRAYLAND: Great Britain is fragmenting into the regions, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly. I think it's - what's missing is the glue between the people, because everybody is moving into their own little world and their own little objectives and aims.

GIFFORD: Rita Menges(ph) is like many in this little colony of Scots in the south of England, opposed to Scottish independence. But she sees the younger generation in Scotland thinking very differently indeed.

Ms. RITA MENGES: They have been - become artificially independent in that they push their Scottishness against everything else.

GIFFORD: Is it possible that we could end up with an independent Scotland?

Ms. MENGES: Oh, I think it's possible. Yes. I think the way things are going it probably will happen. And it may have to happen because it's become such a big issue.

Unidentified Man: Going to be dancing?

GIFFORD: I'm dancing?

Unidentified Man: You're dancing.

GIFFORD: No. No. No.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Unidentified Woman: With me.

GIFFORD: Oh, no.

Unidentified Woman: Get your (unintelligible) on, come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GIFFORD: I'm the man with two left feet. Is it easy?

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) I've got three.

GIFFORD: Okay.

Unidentified Woman: Put your stuff down there. You can't dance with it.

(Soundbite of music)

GIFFORD: After a few wonderful Highland reels, it's back on the road for the final push to Canterbury through old English towns and villages, quietly getting on with being old English towns and villages in that old English kind of way. Sometimes you feel the biggest problem in Britain is apathy because so much of it is so comfortable, so developed. It's just such a nice country to be in. You can avoid all the difficult questions quite easily if you want to. And that's exactly what many people are doing.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GIFFORD: And then you reach Canterbury itself and its narrow medieval streets echo with the chatter of European tour groups, and students and visitors that turn this small cathedral town into a buzzing European city. It's inconceivable that any of the visiting Europeans would deny being European, but the British? Kylie Hazelden, Rachel Clarke and Sarah Collins are all students in Canterbury. They're sitting having a beer in the shadow of the mighty cathedral. So what are they?

Ms. RACHEL CLARKE: British. I can't say I'm just English, but I wouldn't say European because we're so separate from it.

Ms. SARAH COLLINS: I am a part of the European Union, but I am English.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GIFFORD: Are you a European?

Ms. COLLINS: Yeah, I am European, but only as part of the European Union. That is the only reason.

GIFFORD: You don't sound like your heart is in it.

Ms. COLLINS: I'm not. I really am British. And the only reason I'm in the European Union is because the government chose to, not me. I didn't choose to. That's why I'm British.

Ms. KYLIE HAZELDEN: It's not that we don't want to be. I think that's the way it is. But we are proud Britons or proud Englishmen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAZELDEN: That's all it is.

GIFFORD: So can this rather stubborn part of the British character, not really wanting to have much to do with Johnny Foreigner, continue? Are the Brits going to become a real part of Europe, or are they just going to try to cling on to the so-called special relationship with the United States while keeping their closest neighbors at arms' length? And what about the massive influx of immigrants? Surely the country and its attitudes towards itself and towards outsiders will have to change.

Professor FRANK FUREDI (Sociology, University of Kent at Canterbury): Well, I think in 20 years' times, what will happen is that England will be England, but without its Englishness in its kind of classical sense, I think.

GIFFORD: Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury and an immigrant himself from Hungary via Canada.

Professor FUREDI: We find that we're in the middle of a workshop, a culture workshop where a new culture is being forged. But the one thing that we do know is that British culture and English culture is about to go through a very radical transformative process. And that kind of melting of cultures and continuous ceaseless transformation of cultural and public life that is almost the norm in the United States is beginning to happen here in Britain.

(Soundbite of church bells)

GIFFORD: And so, finally, to Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of Thomas of Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury killed in the year 1170 by four knights who had heard Becket's former friend, King Henry II, exclaim in anger, who will rid me of this turbulent priest?

(Soundbite of organ music)

GIFFORD: Well, soon after he heard that the four knights had taken him at his word and actually come and murdered Thomas of Becket, King Henry rode directly here to Canterbury Cathedral and is said to have stripped naked and paraded through the cathedral to be whipped by the monks as a penance. Well, I'm not going to be doing that. But what I am going to do is finally head up, fully clothed, to the shrine of Thomas of Becket.

When you get there, though, of course, there's no shrine anymore, just a candle where Becket's tomb used to be. It was all swept away, like so many certainties of Chaucer's time by The Reformation of the 16th century. Much of what Chaucer's pilgrims thought they knew about themselves and their country was changed. And in some ways it feels as though modern Britain is in the midst of a similar type of change. The old certainties have gone, but the new ones don't seem to have yet been established.

Canterbury Cathedral itself, like so much of Britain's history, feels somehow strangely disconnected from the modern globalized world going on outside. And that's the danger when you've had an empire and lost it and when your language has become the language of the world. You know you can't live in the past, but you're not quite sure how to go forward.

And as a pilgrim here today, you do end up feeling, yes, what a wonderful country this is. This country that people all around the world feel they know because it's so much a part of everyone's history. But you also can't help feeling it's a country that in the early 21st century hasn't yet discovered its own modern self.

This is Rob Gifford, NPR News, at the end of the Canterbury Road.

(Soundbite of church bells)

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