Mark Easton: the BBC's Home Editor on what Britain and the British are really like


This article first appeared in Issue Six of Umbrella
The BBC Home Editor Mark Easton’s book, Britain etc is an examination of what sets the people of these islands apart through an A-Z of objects, themes and living things. Our attitude to them, he concludes, tells us everything we need to know about the country that he reports on
Umbrella: Hi Mark. To begin, are we obsessed with the weather?
Mark Easton: It's certainly a way to break down barriers. We are obsessed with it, because it changes a lot. It's not the weather itself, but its unpredictably. A lot of people over the years have tried to demonstrate that the climate that they and their mates lived in has produced a particularly excellent group of human beings. Right up to the 19th Century people were trying prove that our climate had made created a particular British character that made us better. Sadly, it's nonsense. 
U:What does shape us then?
ME: Well, I do think the weather does affect us. I conclude that the changeability of the British weather affects the way we see the world. It makes us more prepared for when problems occur. It's not the umbrella that defines us but the fact we have to carry one.
People imagine that you're going to be happier if it's sunny, that you'll be unhappy if it's cold and wet. There is no evidence for this. There's this idea that Scandinavians commit suicide more than anyone else – it's nonsense. The Swedish suicide myth comes from a speech President Eisenhower made that associated European socialism with killing yourself. The WHO data suggests the Swedish rate is in line with Hong Kong and South Africa on suicide. In fact that nations that come out with the highest rates of happiness time after time are Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Sweden – and they're all cold places.
U: What about us and the idea of a unique ‘island race’?
ME: Since the Romans, people here have always had a real dislike of foreign bureaucrats and their rulers. We do not like straight lines, we like them to be complicated. We like it that Americans can't pronounce or spell Worcestershire. We like the fact that we're an old and complicated nation, that things don't make sense. We like irrationality and eccentricity.
U: Are we as anti-immigrant as is sometimes pointed out?
ME: On immigration, it's a tricky area. I've had to be immensely careful. Going right back to the expulsion of the Jews in 13-whatever, the powerful have used our natural distrust of foreigners as a way of getting what they want through. Edward I needed money for his wars, so decided to get rid of the Jews which was very popular. We can now see these shocking documents from after World War II, which show that we'd allow in all the people from the Commonwealth who'd fought with us against the Nazis, but actually behind the scenes people were coming out with devious little tricks to keep blacks and Asians out. In order to justify this, they created these committees to gather evidence to show that those from the ‘new commonwealth’ (ie black people) were committing crimes. It just wasn't true.
U: Does the British left have a problem with patriotism?
ME: The big divide is between traditional and progressive politics. Traditionalists will generally vote Conservative, progressives vote Liberal or Labour, though actually there's probably a bit of both in all of us. One of the chapters in the book is called <F for Family. We're told family life is collapsing in Britain. But we did some surveys at the BBC in which we asked people about family life – the same questions as were asked in the 1950s and ’60s. And in every single case about how happy they were in family life, people think things are much better now than they've ever been. That's weird. We were told the collapse in traditional families would make us more unhappy. 
U: What about the monarchy and our seemingly endless love affair with it?
ME: The monarchy is not rational – you wouldn't invent it now. But would I get rid of it? No, because it’s based on this wonderful thing: magic. We like sprinkling pixie dust around. We like the fact’ it's incomprehensible and doesn't make sense. We love silly hats and bearskin costumes. We like the absurdity of it all. 
U: On food, you say that what we eat can change how we see it
ME: Yes, like vegetables. It’s the story of the food of the poor becoming a superfood. Veg was for the poor, which you'd boil for hours as the fertiliser it was grown in was made from human waste and would kill you if the food wasn't cooked. The rich ate meat in vast quantities, white bread, sugar. Wind your clock forward to today and it's the other way round, the working class now eat white bread and red meat

U Another chapter is on swearing. Are we a nation of potty-mouths?
ME: The truth is that the upper and working classes have always sworn and they're very good at it. The bourgeois came up with the idea of modesty. We swear enormously, British men use the f-word 28 times more than their American counterparts. We use it like we sprinkle salt on chips, the Americans use it to hurt. If you go back the middle ages swearing was about blasphemy, the church and God, because they ran the show. Fast-forward and it became about sh*t, a word that was used in the King James Bible, but it offended middle class sensibilities. The working and upper classes knew it got under the middle class's skin.
U: And today?
ME: Swearing has reinvented itself. Swear words lose their power in our cuture. It now attacks the very tolerance that allows us to swear. So it attacks those minority groups in society. The words that cause most offence are about black people, women, other ethnic minorities. So "n**ger" which my parents generation would have shrugged at is now amongst the worst terms you could use. That's interesting. Swearing is always about the orthodoxy of the time, the church, bourgeois, and today's liberal orthodoxy. No other country has been on that journey.
Britain etc is published by Simon & Schuster, out now: Follow Mark on Twitter: @BBCMarkEaston

Mark Easton: the BBC's Home Editor on what Britain and the British are really like Comments

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