What Does It Mean To Be English?

 

Photographer and Poet Julia Katharina Keil  is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography.  From the project ‘There Will Always Be An England’.  To see Julia’s body of work click on any image.

 

 

For three weeks, I skimmed the surface of culture, identity and the effects of time by integrating myself into different English villages based in Lincolnshire, England’s third biggest, predominantly Anglo-Saxon county. I intended to discover a feeling of home and belonging to something, which has always been unknown to me in the traditional sense, after a life lived outside of my birth country, Germany. I wanted to find an answer to that constant question ringing in my mind of, where is home, what creates it and what exactly does it feel like. I thought by going someplace completely opposite to what I knew, I might find what I was looking for.

 

 

After having had lived in the south of England for 7 years, I wanted to uncover a sense of “Englishness” which I was both familiar yet unfamiliar with, by heading north. I found villages which from an outside perspective were just houses, gardens, a green, a village hall, a church, a pub and an array of hedges quietly nestled on the flat lands of the county, with their sometimes scarce and very rarely international inhabitants going about their day by day.
Walking about the villages, trying to integrate myself as an outsider, I was sometimes met with skepticism but more often than not, I was surprised by how willing people were to invite me into their lives, to have someone who was willing to listen and connect with, often accompanied by a cup of tea.

 

 

I felt that even though a certain stable “Englishness” was visible from an outside perspective, through the inviting in for tea and biscuits, the full English fry-ups, the well-kept gardens, quaint cottages, games of bowls, a drink (or two) at the pub and constant complaints about the weather, I realized that upon closer inspection and more time spent listening, that residents shared a common fear, a result of uncertainty and the unknown.

 

 

Everyone I would speak to, especially long-time residents, had a story which emitted either a longing for how things used to be, whether personal or in relation to the village, or a concern for their future; the increase of mechanized farming, the growing lack of employment and properties being bought up by surrounding areas and people from down south “coming and changing the place”. Resident Terry stated that before it was all “close knit” yet now he didn’t know about a third of the village because they had come from 200 miles away or more, “the world’s a smaller place”.

 

 

It seemed that what once was what people identified themselves with and valued in terms of connection, support and community, now no longer was. “In the old days it was great. If you went to church, there were 30-40 people in church. It was like a big family and now it’s not like a family at all.”

 

 

I thought by going somewhere where time slows down, somewhere “unchanged” and “chocolate boxy”, where I assumed an identity was stable, I would find answers to the questions of home and identity that I set out to find. However, what I found was a community nostalgic for a past, confronted with the change the present brings and a future, which is wavering. Instead of finding strong roots, I found division between “us” and “them” as Joyce, then in her 80’s, born and raised in one of the villages said “the people who have come in and bought properties they haven’t been village people if you know what I mean by that. They seemed different. Maybe (…) they’re townies and we’re country you see. I’m not running them down, but you feel the difference”.

 

 

I found individuals either reaching out for connection as local butcher, Ian stated that “the more you put in, the more you get out….’’ and yet simultaneously individuals living in isolation, as another resident shared, “there is an unspoken rule, everyone tends to their own garden.
You don’t want to be the one to stick out like a sore thumb”, or in other words, you want to
blend in.

 

 

I didn’t find answers at all, just more questions and never enough time. Seeing a part of England which I perhaps naively expected would be an example of togetherness and strong identity, only to realize that even in the smallest of rural villages, the complexities ran deep and uncertainty and divide bubbled under the quaint surface of Englishness, I now wondered, if it was possible to maintain a stable identity at all or if perhaps this is how we are evolving.
Where is that line between holding on to what we know and letting go to what could be? Are we afraid of the other because of the threat they pose on how we have learned to live?

Perhaps where the entanglement lies is precisely that we connect identity with home, with our origins, with roots that we assume are linked to land and property. Exactly that which I had done and led me to feel like an outsider throughout my developmental years, trying hard to fit in somewhere where I was seen and saw myself as separate because I didn’t have what they had. I was different, and I wanted to adapt to my new surroundings while simultaneously withdrawing myself out of fear of standing out “like a sore thumb”.

 

 

I realize now that going to these villages, I did exactly what I learned to do to connect, I observed, I engaged, I listened, I shared and I communicated. What I did differently was that I didn’t transform myself to fit in yet still, I was received with openness and curiosity. Maybe the key to harboring ones own identity and balancing what we know with others is through communication and understanding. Maybe identity isn’t set. Maybe it’s an ever-growing organism with roots that expand in multi-directions, sometimes intertwining with other roots and creating something new, with what we know still an integral part of our structure.

These images may appear to portray a type of “Englishness” but beneath them breathe roots that are bending, twisting and layering constantly. What we at first don’t see becomes visible once we are open enough to take the time to connect and know that there’ll always be an England, just maybe, a little different.

 

 

All images © Julia Keil

 

 

See also:

Prana

By Julia Keil

 

 

 

 

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