We happy few

Terry Thomas
Terry Thomas and Benjamin ZephaniahShopkeepers?

How I Killed Pluto is a book which tells the story of how the planet Pluto was demoted from a planet to a planetoid. The logic seems to have been that since the Kuiper Belt is comprised of planetoids and Pluto is part of the Kuiper Belt then Pluto must be an planetoid. – QED.

Only no. Not QED. The book tells how, some years ago astronomers thought that the universe consisted of stars which moved across the heavens together and planets which moved with reference to the background of stars. Planets could also be seen as discs whereas stars could only be made out as points of light.

Then, in 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered Ceres.

I’ll let Wikipedia take up the story from here:

“Ceres was originally considered to be a new planet. This was followed by the discovery of other similar bodies, which, with the equipment of the time, appeared to be points of light, like stars, showing little or no planetary disc, though readily distinguishable from stars due to their apparent motions. This prompted the astronomer Sir William Herschel to propose the term “asteroid”, coined in Greek as ἀστεροειδής asteroeidēs ‘star-like, star-shaped’, from Ancient Greek ἀστήρ astēr ‘star, planet’. In the early second half of the nineteenth century, the terms “asteroid” and “planet” (not always qualified as “minor”) were still used interchangeably.”

Later, some pompous oaf decided that the star like planets were not planets at all – Ooh, no Mrs. how foolish to refer to them as planets when a planet has a discernible disc – The trouble with this argument is that, as telescopes improved it became possible to discern the discs of many objects including stars. So, should Alpha Centauri now be demoted to a planet?

For me, the whole wahala points up the obsession men have with categorising things. The average American supermarket carries 47,000 categories of product. Like an American supermarket, the universe is big and diverse but it is not full of different categories of identical objects. It is not full of things that are either Marmite or asteroids. In nature, at the super-atomic level, objects may be similar but they’re unique – like people.

It’s ridiculous but men get into heated arguments about such stuff. In 1799 a preserved platypus reached England and was regarded as a hoax because it didn’t fit an existing category but the platypus was rummaging around Australia long before men invented the categories of mammal, reptile and bird so the categories had to be amended. Categories, such as planets and mammals and Englishman, are artificial. They’re invented by humanity and imposed on the universe.

Identifying seems important to us especially when it comes to our own identity. Recently I read a definition of Englishman which stated: a man who lives in England. Broadly I agree. I say broadly because setting foot on English soil does not make you English anymore than emigrating strips you of that distinction.

A century ago Englishmen had a similar understanding of identify. An Englishman meant a man from England but, in those days, this overwhelmingly translated to white, Christian, English speaking and superior to everyone else. Today white and Christian is not a true representation of people living in England. As with astronomy and zoology so with cultural identity. We must redefine our definition to include the people who do live in England rather than trying to reject those who do not fit our old definition.

Not fitting the definition
neither a planet nor an asteroid

On Sunday, at an airport, I overheard a tall gentlemen with a turban and that accent that Englishmen develop after spending a long time in America. He raved about the English breakfast but, to me, his tone seemed false which wasn’t helped by his American pronunciation of the word “Tomato”. As with many Anglo/American expats he seemed  keen to prove his Englishness by his choice of breakfast.

Do we possess our identity or is it in the eye of the beholder? In a world of global travel, global brands and online “virtual communities” cultural identity is not as simple as geography. Englishmen of West Indian ancestry are no less English for embracing their cultural heritage but Englishman whose ancestry lies  in England are not bigots for taking pride in their roots.

The term English has different meanings in different contexts. Obviously English can mean a person from England but equally it can relate to cultural ephemera. A penchant for bland food, a style of curries, a certain humor, smugness. politeness. a propensity for getting drunk – Take your pick. This is not a problem and we don’t need politicians or pundits to define Englishness for us. Over time various traits die off, rub off on or are accentuated by new arrivals just as the traits of newer arrivals die off, rub off on or are accentuated by the general population. This should not be controversial. It  is only to state the bleeding obvious.

To insist that Englishness means no more than resident of England is as insulting as asking an Englishman of West Indian heritage to take the “cricket test” and as redundant as trying to fix Englishness to an outdated set of traits. England, like the rest of the world, is a miasma of waxing and waning cultural phenomena or memes. Bollywood, Cricket, Lamb Madras, Punk Rock, Henry VIII, Mini, The Turbine Hall, Mr. Shakey Hands Man, The Green Man, Brit Art, Banter, Spag Bol, suet puddings, Morris Men, Fleur-de-lis, Sunday joint, Ping pong, Routemasters, Nah mean, The Angel of the North, Spitfires, Ska, Cool, Pub grub, Hip Hop, the NHS, Football, the weather, Top Gear, The Queen Mother, Coca Cola and Titter Ye Not. All are bubbling away and, thank God, we somehow resist politicians of all stripes who attempt to steal the moral high ground by defining Englishness. Perhaps the best guidance for a of Englishness comes from Franky Howard: Please yourselves!

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