This week, we’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by our new intake of MLitt British Studies students at the University of the Highlands and Islands. As part of their induction onto the programme, we wanted to get our students thinking about the nature of British identities, so we set them a blogging task: to answer the question ‘What do British identities mean to me?’
Our second blog post comes from Sarah Christoph, an Erasmus exchange student from the University of Bonn.
Growing up in Germany with no British background whatsoever, my perception of Britishness must be quite different from how British people themselves understand facets of their identity. My early associations with Britain were solely based on media and pop culture and only later developed into something tangible when I started travelling and became a student of English Literatures and Cultures.
Possibly my first ever memory of Britain is footage from Royal celebrations at Buckingham Palace. As a young girl, I was particularly fond of Lady Diana and her two sons. I believe that the Royal Family influenced my perception of the British, who in my imagination, made up a society of posh people, drinking tea in their tweed clothes in grand mansions. This, of course, is a young girl’s generalisation but this stereotypical thinking is arguably still faintly present in outside accounts of British identity.
My highly-romanticised view of Britain changed when I was starting to learn the language in school and became more interested in music. Britpop was alive and kicking, and I immersed myself in the works of Oasis, Blur and Pulp. My perception of Britain arguably shifted from royalty to working class. It became a little more multi-dimensional but was still very partial.
As a teen, I also started to identify myself more with Britpop’s fashion in contrast to the traditionally-clad Royals or even trends within my own country. Thus, my own German identity was already influenced by another nation’s pop culture.
The rise of the internet had a huge impact on my perception of British identity. Being able to research information on topics I liked, instead of relying on the school’s curriculum, enabled me to deepen my knowledge of the UK. Jane Austen’s novels, the Sherlock Holmes adventures as well as their corresponding TV/film adaptations created the ultimate wish to visit Britain myself. My frequent travels to London and the English-speaking friends I made by then shaped my view on Britishness.
I realised that British identity is multifaceted just like German or any other identity is. It is not solely aristocratic and traditional or even old-fashioned, it is also fast-paced, innovative and can be rough as well as ugly. London’s architecture might serve as a good metaphor where the grandeur of St Paul’s or Parliament is contrasted by the Shard and the Millennium Bridge. I still associate tea culture and politeness with Britain, but by now I am just as aware of the many great coffee roasting houses and the occasional catcall on the street.
2013 I decided to take my interest in the UK to a scholarly level and started studying English Studies at Bonn University. With lecturers from Germany, the UK, Canada and the US, my knowledge and perception of Britishness grew even more diverse. Every teacher aimed at a different approach based on their own culture. I was now able to discuss my love for English literature and pop culture in class but also learned more in-depth about the unpleasant politics and effects of (post-)colonialism.
Thus, my view on Britishness went through different stages correlating with my own biography and interests. The internet and especially my studies turned my partial perception into a more diverse view. For me, Britishness, as well as other cultural identities, is an ever-changing concept, approachable from many different angles but never entirely fathomable.
There may be typical associations with British society, but I believe that these are accompanied by the danger of stereotyping. In the end, British identity is the whole of individual identities, and one should bear in mind that they should not be deprived of their agency.