Is God still an Englishman?

Let’s face it — God is quite clearly Australian… Stands to reason, you know…

After yesterday’s post on Aussies and Americans and Americans and Brits I happened to find How the English breakfast has changed with Britain.

The Full English is the one meal that England does well, with fat bangers, sizzling rashers and eggs oozing sunshine, strong tea and two buttered toast.

This is food that makes you feel good just thinking about it, a platter that pulls on the heartstrings (as well as straining the heart). It’s an icon of Englishness, as much of a symbol as the flag of St George, but here’s the thing: who really eats it these days?

Less than 1% of the population starts every day with a cooked breakfast, compared to the 1950s when it was more than half of us. I was thinking about this the other day, chewing (and chewing) my compulsory muesli while dreaming of bacon and eggs. If the full breakfast is so representative of the English, what does it say about us? And if our attitude to it has changed so much, what does “the Full English” really mean — not just in the sense of what is on the plate, but in terms of being fully English?…

At the last census 87.5% of people described themselves as White British, but that was nearly 10 years ago and the percentage will be lower next time. Children are six times more likely than their parents to be mixed race, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The English are changing colour. Some people may want to complain, but at Cafe Lahore the mix of tastes and cultures looks like a reason to celebrate.

It’s loud, though. In your face. Some may prefer the calm, airy restaurant at the last stop on this road trip: the Ikea store at Edmonton in north London. A furniture shop may sound like a strange place to end, but here again, breakfast reveals huge social change.

“I am here because I was looking for calm,” says Hadi Haghighi, the 52-year-old food manager, who was born in Iran. “I am from Tehran and I was in the army. I wanted to go to university, but there was none after the revolution. I came here to get a visa for America, but the hostage situation was going on at the time and they said, ‘Do you want to kill us all?’ They refused a visa, so I stayed here. I studied computing but food is safer. I come from a volatile country and appreciated the stability of England. Even in a recession, they go on as they are, peacefully.”

And they come to Ikea, in great numbers, for a modern miracle: the Full English breakfast for 99p. Ikea do it by ordering in huge numbers — 2m breakfasts a year across Britain — but also by making a loss. They are deliberately using the emotional pull of the Full English as a way to draw people in to the stores. “The philosophy is to have a product that makes you go, ‘Wow’,” says Hadi. “With this one, the wow is the price.”

There are Asian women in hijabs, African women in headgear, and white women breastfeeding their babies. The price and the appeal of the cooked breakfast cuts across cultures. And here, at the end of the journey, I meet a young woman who is as representative as anyone could be of the new Englishness. Sade Tuite, 22, was named after the Anglo-Nigerian singer. Her mother is “half Irish, half Maltese. Does she have a temper on her? She sure does. My dad’s parents come from Jamaica”.

I feel fat, sick and salt-encrusted, but meeting Sade and her baby daughter, London — and looking at the people around us — confirms a feeling I had in my gut (before it started aching). We’re doing okay. The English are reinventing ourselves, just as we have done so many times before, fusing cultures as we did when the Vikings and the Normans came.

The cooked breakfast has evolved with us, from the upper-class country-house feast to this miraculously cheap version served in a Swedish store by an Iranian man to a woman whose heritage is Irish, Maltese, Jamaican and local. Here in Ikea, more than ever, the Full English is an icon of our (new) nationhood…

There are resonances there for Surry Hills in 2010 too.

Cole Moreton, the author of that piece, has just published a book. That’s his blog site. Looks like fun. Here’s another piece by him.

…The old, imperialist English God (who dominated the Scots, Welsh and Irish as well as anyone else who would let Him) died more recently than you might think. Sex, scandal and shopping played their part, as did a grocer’s daughter from Grantham. Don’t think of it as just a story for Christians, because it has changed all our lives.

But we haven’t stopped believing. Far from it. Many people feel a nostalgia for the faith they were raised in, even though they have no intention of going near a pew again. Two-thirds of us say we believe in a higher power. Strip out all those who go to church, temple or mosque, and that leaves at least 26 million men and women in England alone, who believe but don’t belong.

There are some things the majority holds on to. The existence of God. The right of each person to follow their own path to Him (Her or Them). The Earth as a special place. Our new national faith is a sentimental, superstitious, chaotic soup of ideas, the old Christian stock given new flavour by Buddhism, paganism, environmentalism and the arrival of so many new gods.

It is also identifiably English in the sense of the bawdy, thirsty, iconoclastic People’s England that has always been there, underground; suspicious of authority and ready to stick up two fingers at those who claim authority.

The English have evolved many times in the past and we’re doing it again. We’re morris dancers and maypoles but we’re also dubstep and dancehall. We’re roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, but we’re also chicken balti, born in Brum. Our children are six times more likely than us to be mixed race. It can’t be stopped now. So why can’t we choose to celebrate what we are becoming instead? It is new and exciting. Where are we going?
I still don’t know the answer to Ali’s question, although I saw the hope in her eyes. But I do know this, about the people she left behind. We may have lost our old faith, but we have also found new soul…

And just for fun: