I am ashamed to admit that today I referred to myself in casual conversation as being Anglo Saxon. This slip is probably attributable to my tendency to parrot whatever I hear around me (until it comes to compound vowel sounds requiring a deep pout for authentic reproduction, such as those to be found lurking within fauteuil, when my talents as a mimic desert me entirely) but I find it inexcusable nonetheless. I don’t identify particularly brashly as britannique or anglaise but, if cornered on the subject, this is how I would choose to describe my nationality. The Anglo Saxons, on the other hand, were historic peoples that I learnt about in school and as context to the Yorvik Viking Museum. They were, I believe, present in what we now call England between the fifth and eleventh centuries and hailed from what we would describe as Germany and Denmark. As far as I know they were comprehensively defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066. On this basis they are undoubtedly my ancestors but, particularly when you take into account my diminutive stature, I would imagine that some other peoples have had a role in my genetic composition since then.
To many French people that I meet, however, I am unquestionably an Anglo Saxon. At first I found this breathtakingly insulting (try calling someone from Lyon a Norman and you will get the picture) but, as I acclimatised, I began to shrug the label off with greater ease, and to listen with interest for what it signified.
The first thing I noticed is that I am definitely not alone in being Anglo Saxon. Nor am I simply being classed with other Brits. Oh no, I am being lumped in with half the world: the US, Australia, New Zealand, the anglophone parts of Canada, and sometimes Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and South Africa, are all being thrown into the mix with us Brits. These are all great nations with which I am often proud to be associated, whether or not they are proud of their association to me, but the point is that they are really quite different from England, which is in turn different from either the UK or Great Britain. To link them together in even the most sweeping of generalisations would offend the majority of this cacophonous bunch on each occasion, and is therefore, I humbly suggest, a task best left alone. I find it particularly obnoxious to be generalised in such a broad fashion by people from a country which distinguishes so pedantically between people from different villages, let alone régions or départements. How can a nation insist on the particularity of a blanquette de Limoux as opposed to a cremant de Bourgogne when it will so contemptuously equate cheddar with Monteray Jack?
There are so many examples of the casual lumping together of cultural identities that it is difficult to select which ones to single out here. Picking out the most recent, one person observed that my eldest daughter had a thoroughly typical Anglo Saxon complexion (blonde hair, blue eyes, yawn) though subsequently another person was more struck by how atypical of Anglo Saxons she was in stature (presumably this person was looking through my husband and I, stumps that we are, to the lofty great Anglo Saxon masses beyond, possibly as far away as in the US). Apparently my desire to strike up cheerful one-way conversations with people looking as if they have just swallowed a wasp is Anglo Saxon, as is every cake that I have ever baked here in France, even the yoghurt cake, baked faithfully to an authentic French recipe and without any giveaway Anglo Saxon icing. At a particularly low-point in my recent Anglo Saxon past I once took some Anglo Saxon scones to a sort of French pot-luck supper, and I still do not know what anyone made of them because they were loudly avoided.
You don’t need to take my word for it, either. A quick internet search will pull up entire lists describing bizarre Anglo Saxon behaviours, which shamelessly muddle various national predilections: flip-flop wearing, for example, which if forced, I would pin on the antipodeans, is included in the same lists as baseball cap-wearing (this belongs, if anywhere in particular, to the US) and leaving your towel on your sun-lounger first thing in the morning (Germany). I do not criticise any of these national habits, stereotyped as they are, but merely wish to point out that most of them would not be generally true of me, or of any of my fellow Brits, even if we hammed ourselves up for comic effect.
With the exception of anglophiles, such as the delightful owner of Little Britain in Lyon, and my French friends, who are evidently all deeply enlightened people, when French people use the term Anglo Saxon, they are frequently being derogatory. Anglo Saxon schooling, for example, does not spend enough time on the basics, but instead wastes time on self-expression and teaching children to stare mindlessly at electronic screens. As for Anglo Saxon healthcare, well, we Anglo Saxons leave our elderly, infirm and impoverished to languish in our gutters. We don’t believe in free healthcare and that which we do provide is deeply substandard. When lectured on this subject at some length, I have been able to make an educated guess about the nations with which my own country is being confounded but, as a citizen of a country proud enough of its national healthcare system to feature it in its Olympic opening ceremony, that does little to assuage my fury…
Phew. After that rant, I will need to retire to my straw hut with my husband, Eadred the Bald, and, after he has burnt some cakes, I may take my latest manuscript-turner, the Nowell Codex, to bed with me.