Why I can’t go home to England any more

I went home recently. Even though I have lived in California for 20 years what I think of as home is the north of England, the place where I was born and raised and where my parents still live.

Beyond that broad geographic description I’m finding it oddly awkward to explain where I have just visited.

Officially, the place I went home to is the United Kingdom. I was informed of this by immigration at Heathrow, which now goes by the name of the UK Border Agency. I had written ‘England’ as the country of my birth on the landing card. It was crossed out with impatience by the Border agent, who then wrote in ‘UK’.

Admittedly, my pen hovered for a while before I wrote England. I thought of myself as British before I became an American citizen (sorry, a citizen of the United States of America). But then having to write ‘Great Britain’ as my country of birth felt a little, well…un-British. I was never too sure about the United Kingdom.  To us up there in the north of England it was as remote as Narnia. But the Land of UK was where I used to belong, so I am told.

This England...

Like the USA, the UK suffers from having no convenient adjective to describe the country or its people. The best thing that can be said for “British” is that it is not quite as misleading as “American” but it is, nevertheless, the established term for “relating to the UK”. I was right to think of myself as a former  “British citizen”, although this causes endless confusion and a fair amount of ill-will when applied to the people of Northern Ireland. They are British citizens, and so “British” in one sense (although they can also be citizens of the Republic of Ireland if they wish, as many do). As they are not from Great Britain, so they are not “British” in that sense (i.e. as distinct from Irish).

There is no satisfactory noun for “British person”, either. “Briton” is too formal, “Brit” too informal, and “Britisher” just foreign. All are best avoided.

A person living in England today is part of 11 entities. Apart from England, there is England and Wales, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom and Islands, the British Isles, the Common Travel Area, the European Territories of the United Kingdom, The European Union, the United Kingdom and Colonies, and The Commonwealth.

Ask them what country they live in and surveys show that more will answer ‘Britain’, which is taken to mean ‘United Kingdom’.

And what of England – “this royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle; this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars; this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”?

Sadly, there is surprisingly little to say about it officially, according to the UK Border Agency,  other than it contains about 80% of the population of the UK and is therefore overwhelmingly dominant as an important “administrative unit”. Shakespeare would weep.

It could explain the surprising resurgent popularity of the English flag bearing the cross of St. George, which can be seen fluttering in equal numbers to the Union Flag on the buildings of London today.

Aggressive expressions of national self-awareness by Wales and Scotland  — which take their most solid form in the new devolved political arrangements within the United Kingdom  — and the waning of a shared British national identity, seem to have stirred the souls of Englishmen.

Arthur, Merlin – wake up. It may be time.

Independence Day thoughts on being American

Hey, what’s this on my shirt?

Landon Donovan’s last-minute goal in the World Cup was a joyous moment. With the most amazing late-game moment in American soccer, our national team beat Algeria 1-0 to reach the second round of the global tournament.

“This team embodies what the American spirit is about,” Donovan said. “We just keep going. And I think that’s what people admire so much about Americans. And I’m damn proud.”

Exactly, Landon. That was my thought. We Americans are damn proud of being American. So why does it say “US” on your team shirt?

The Fourth of July is as good a day as any to ponder the question of why we, as a nation, don’t give more of a damn about our national name. If we think of ourselves as Americans, and we live in what we call America, why do we have to refer to our nation as ‘US’ on the playing fields of the world?

An event such as the World Cup brings the issue into sharp relief. In no other sporting event in the world is national pride so much at stake. Alongside nations with full, proper names such as England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, etc., US seems such a sorry excuse for a name. If anything, it should be USA which, of itself, is what Washington Irving referred to as “a cold national cipher” for a political construct, the United Sates of America.

America’s Birth Certificate: The name America (applied to present-day Brazil) appeared for the first time on Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map.

From the start, many people recognized that United States of America was unsatisfactory as a name. I was not surprised to learn that considerable thought was given by early Congresses to the possibility of renaming our country.

One  problem people had with the United States of America was that it provided no convenient adjectival form. A citizen would have to be either a United Statesian or some other clumsy locution. American was deemed to be unsuitable as it might be thought of as referring to inhabitants of 36 other nations on two continents, North and South America.

Several other possibilities were considered – the United States of Columbia, Appalachia, Alleghania and Freedonia. We would then be citizens of Columbia or Appalachia, etc. None found sufficient support to displace the prevailing name. By default we became citizens of the United States of America, or the United States, or the USA, or the US. But not citizens of America.

So, in effect, we gave away ‘America’ out of a misplaced sensitivity to other nations who consider themselves anything but American. Isn’t that typically American? Of course, Canadians like to think of themselves as part of North America when it suits their business and political interests, but a trifle too quick to point out they are Canadian first and foremost. And how much thought do the people of Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia give to being American?

That leaves us, the American people, to sing of America The Beautiful, pursue the American Dream and to celebrate America and being American on Independence Day. We are collectively embraced in presidential addresses as “fellow Americans”. God is invoked to bless America. And yet our national teams bear a meager, abrupt and incomplete proxy for a name. US.

How much more patriotically inspiring it would be see Team America walk out at the next World Cup.

Happy 234th birthday, America.