Cambridge’s Curious Cultural Cringe

With St. David’s Day fast approaching, it would be remiss of me, a (somewhat nominally) Welsh Cantabrigian, not to write something about it. I could lecture you all about Welsh history, culture, song, poetry, and folklore until the cows come home, but if I did, I’d lose everybody but the ASNaCs within the next paragraph. Instead, I want to talk about the curious relationship that many in Cambridge have to it and to other traditional British cultural celebrations. At best, mention St. David’s Day to most Cambridge students, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Mostly, you get the same old lines about sheep, rugby, or the accent – graciously, I am spared from this by virtue of sounding as if I’m from the Home Counties. All too often, though, there’s a kind of mockery of the notion of Welsh traditions altogether, a condescending derision at the idea of somewhere like Much of this mockery is not the kind of good-natured fun-poking that grounds us and lubricates our social interactions with one another. A world in which we could not all tease each other over our regional idiosyncrasies would be a frightfully boring one. This is much different - this is genuine distaste, and actual, sincere disinterest in the things that supposedly tie us together as a country. Such an attitude towards Nowruz, the Chinese Lunar New Year, or Diwali would no doubt invoke furious accusations of small-mindedness and racism. “Well it’s not the same, is it?” mewls the smug contrarian, though they could not tell you why, if pressed. Why is British tradition open season for mockery, while we must all clutch our pearls in cosmopolitan understanding whenever the name of a celebration from outside of the British Isles is invoked? Because it’s ours? When we consider the cultural acceptability of English mockery of Scottish traditional dress or the Welsh language, this argument falls flat on its face. Compare the reaction on campus to a student from Surrey making fun of the Welsh language, and that same student making fun of Persian or Arabic. The student couldn’t claim to be a part of any of those cultures, but you can be sure that the latter examples would spark fury, while the former wouldn’t. No, to understand the root cause of the distinction, I’m going to have to employ my best Sigmund Freud impression, sans cocaine and incest, and ask Cambridge Students as a collective to lie down on my leather couch for a session of psychoanalysis. Cambridge students, and academics the nation over, have a terminal case of what social anthropologists would call ‘cultural cringe’ – it seems to me to be more like cultural masochism. There is a strange shame, for many at Cambridge, in associating with traditional Britishness. It has become culturally mainstream amongst our intelligentsia to deride Britain as a cultural wasteland, devoid of value, with a silly and small-minded populace who are neither as sophisticated as the French, suave as the Italians, or liberal as the Dutch. The food, we are told, is frightfully bad. The arts, meanwhile, are either non-existent, or are derived entirely from foreign concepts or post-modern dogma. And politically? A total embarrassment, with a government that can never put a foot right. This phenomenon is not entirely new. Orwell, in his day, spoke of how the English intellectual was so enamoured with the continent that they sneered at the value of their own traditions. The phenomenon is the same, even if the bounds of the admiration have widened significantly – not just the high culture of continental Europe, but the various cultures of relatively recent immigrants. This perceived cultural inferiority is, consciously or subconsciously, then used to justify a political agenda of Europeanism, internationalism, unwavering support of mass immigration, and a rejection of the nation itself. Any objective analysis will prove that these thought-terminating clichés about the inferiority of Britain’s native culture are nonsensical at best, and malicious at worst. We are probably the only European country with a sense of humour. You would struggle to find a country more musically vibrant, with a consistent through-line of brilliance which begins at some of the finest early examples of hymns, takes us through Greensleeves, Purcell, Parry, and Elgar, and carries on through to Paul McCartney, Roger Hodgson, Peter Gabriel and Neil Hannon. The poetry of Housman, Larkin, Chaucer, Milton, Kipling, and Dylan Thomas is praised globally for good reason. Ask most Cambridge students though, and it will most often be either their continental competitors, or intentionally “subversive” post-modernism that gets held up as the finest example. And the food – oh, the food! This one is easily the worst, because many of us actually buy into Franco-American lines about our national food culture being uniquely foul. Anybody who balks at the idea of being fulfilled by a hearty, filling Sunday Roast, who can’t understand the simple brilliance of a well-done Eton Mess, and who can’t appreciate the warmth of a country pub in winter either hasn’t experienced these things properly, or is deluding themselves. The truth is that we do have traditionally brilliant and brilliantly traditional things that we ought to cherish. In all walks of life, in all areas of cultural value, and in all things that matter, we have plenty to be proud of. We would do well to excise ourselves of this ill-founded national inferiority complex and start cheerleading ourselves a little bit more. Outside of the sorts of people who will end up working in the narrow bubble of London, Cambridge, and the Other Place, this country is receptive to the great unifying traditions and cultural touchstones that will be necessary to restoring any sense of national unity. It’s just unfortunate that those within this bubble presently dictate so much of how we think about ourselves as a country. This is not to say, of course, that we should ignorantly mock that which is not entirely familiar to us – indeed, if we understood other cultures just a little bit better, our foreign policy might be less stale, and our reputation as tourists might be altogether less woeful. That said, a curiosity about the foreign or different does not require self-flagellation or the petty rejection of the beauty and brilliance which is familiar to us. When I learn about all of the intricacies of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, or about the brilliance of Jordanian cooking (those of you who haven’t yet been to Little Petra on Mill Road, go), it makes me appreciate the familiar comforts of home all the more. It gives me points of reference and comparisons but does nothing to diminish the natural appreciation that I feel for home and its comforts. I am much happier for it, and can’t help but feel that Cambridge would be a much more harmonious place if we all dropped our collective sneering cynicism about things from this country, and were a bit more honest about how excellent they often are.