english culture

This webpage is about English culture.

Comfort Blanket Grayson Perry

Many people who can't thrive in their own countries choose England as their destination to seek refuge and a better life. Others are drawn to learn, train and work in England, with the hope of a long-term career or higher professional qualifications that will be assets when they return home. The NHS depends on the dedication of many thousands of workers from overseas, and most GP Training schemes train and support growing numbers of international medical graduates -- many of whom have limited experience of living in the UK and working in the NHS.

This collection of resources has been curated to help doctors explore the culture of England. 

Let's start by defining culture:

Culture describes the characteristics and behaviours of an individual, group or nation and is made up of many factors including race, ethnicity, religion, values, social habits, arts, language, gender, social status, environment and generation. Or, put more simply, it’s how we do things around here.

Here are 21 aspects of life in England to help you explore ‘English Culture’ in the 21st Century. These are by no means representative of the breadth and depth of what it is to be English. Many aspects apply to the other nations in Britain; Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and the headings could be used to explore other cultures around the world.

For each aspect, I’ve selected one or two pieces of art.

The selection of 21 aspects of English Culture is in no particular order -- like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle you can't prioritise one piece over another, you need to look at the whole picture.


1. Language

This is the obvious place to start. English is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world and is the national language of many countries. English has one of the largest vocabularies, with spelling and grammar that often does not follow rules, making it one of the hardest languages to learn.

The way language is used in the UK is often a surprise for English-speaking international medical graduates. This is a comment from an international medical graduate:

"I was simple enough to think that the British people were all the same, all speaking the same sort of language, the language which I learnt at English School in India. I was surprised I couldn’t understand the English nurse and was even more surprised because she did not understand English – my English!” 

Local dialects and accents can cause confusion in GP consultations. Even if you move from one part of the UK to another it can take a while to 'get your ear in'.

Here are some examples of language use in England. Do you understand what they all mean, and have you come across any other examples?

“I’m feeling right mardy doctor.” (Local dialect words)

"My head is all over the place." (Idiomatic English - that is, the meaning of the sentence cannot be understood through the meaning of the individual words)

"Let's sweep it under the carpet." (Idiomatic English)

‘If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?’ (The song by The Bellamy Brothers has both a literal meaning and an idiomatic meaning)

'The elephant in the room' (A metaphor)

'The pain feels like I am being stabbed' (a simile)

What metaphors, similies and idioms do you use in your medical practice?


How many words can you think of that a patient might use instead of 'urine'?

Wee, p*ss, pee, wee-wee, water - these are synonyms.

What about words for faeces?

Poo, stool, number 2, sh*t, crap, filth, soil, waste, diarrhoea


Homonyms (words which sounds the same, but have different meanings) can often cause problems in communication.

Watch this famous comedy clip to help understand the problems caused by having more than one meaning for a spoken word.

The Two Ronnies

Photo by 'geni' of a Model 70 Invalid car from the 1970s

'Invalid' and 'invalid' are homonyms. In English, we use the same word to describe an out-of-date document, indefensible argument and a person who is disabled. The word is said slightly differently. 

Think about this.........

There is so much more to say about language, I hope this gives you food for thought.


2. The NHS

Most healthcare in England is free. Do you know which aspects of care you have to pay for?

Aneurin Bevan, Minister for Health in the UK (1945-1951), was responsible for creating the NHS. He said, "No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means." 

There is a wealth of art celebrating the life and success of the NHS.

These two books of poetry are excellent resources to read and use in teaching. 


3. Education

Everyone in England is entitled to free education until the age of 18. University and college education used to be free but now students have to pay Tuition Fees. Most people borrow money to cover the fees. 

Listen to Roger McGough’s poem about his first day at school.

What are your memories of school?

What was an important moment in your medical education?


4. Literature

There are so many English authors, it’s hard to know who best represents English culture.

Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters tell stories that are quintessentially English, but their novels are not about what life is like in England today.

Shakespeare tells us about what it is to be human. His plays and poetry are still popular because of this.

But what about England in the 21st century?

My choice is the first novel by British writer Jon McGregor,  If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. The book portrays a day in the life of a suburban British street, following the lives of the street's various inhabitants.


Many people in England access fiction and non-fiction books by going to their local libraries.

"Public libraries are, quite simply, a cornerstone of our cultural life. They are a central plank in the delivery of wider educational, social and economic benefits. They are accessible and egalitarian. They are a platform for self-development, a gateway to knowledge and a catalyst for the imagination."    Chris Smith's Creative Britain (Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 1997)

This quote from poet Ted Hughes describes the power of a library:

Even the most misfitting child
Who's chanced upon the library's worth,
Sits with the genius of the earth
And turns the key to the whole world.


5. Art and Sculpture

Wherever you live in England, you're not far away from a gallery or sculpture park. Access is usually free.

Why not visit a gallery where you live/work as the art may help you understand the history of the local area. 

Or have a walking tutorial around your practice area and see what art you can find?

Most cities and towns promote their art. Sheffield has an online map of all the city's amazing street art, such as the picture below.


6. Performance Art (Theatre, Film, TV and Radio)

Performance Art is an important part of the English economy, and shows like Downton Abbey have international recognition. Enjoying Theatre, Dance, Film, TV and Radio is part of everyday life in England.

Watching TV and locally made films can help you understand more about English culture, relate to your patients and engage in workplace chat.

Some media is intended to reflect real-life (e.g. TV and Radio Soaps like Made in Chelsea, EastEnders and The Archers). Other media is pure fiction, with the aim of entertaining. 

Take a look at the advert for Channel 4.

You may not think that watching TV is educational, but it provides another piece of the large jigsaw puzzle that is English culture, and can help you understand the English people and the nuances of the English language. 


7. Music

English pop songs are sung the world over -- maybe this is one reason why many people are so good at speaking English.

It’s difficult to pick just one song that represents what it is to be English.

My choice would be Penny Lane by The Beatles. Listen to the words, what do they tell you about the community that inspired the song?

Other genres of music composed by English people and played by English musicians have worldwide renown.

Vaughn William’s The Lark Ascending paints a picture in my mind of being in England. The music was inspired by a poem by English Poet George Meredith. 

Listen for yourself and see what you think?

What piece of music would you choose to represent English Culture?

If you are not English, how does English music differ from that of your own culture?


8. Traditions and behaviours

The ‘Last Night of the Proms’ is an example of a national cultural tradition, but is one that very few people are ever able to attend. Take a look at this Youtube Clip. The Proms brings music-lovers together to celebrate amazing composers and musicians in an iconic building. What else does it say about the island story of the English?


England is a rules-based society. We have rules and we like to follow them.

There are many behaviours that are seen as typically English. 

What do you think about this description of an English person?:

In England you wait your turn, don't complain and have a stiff upper lip. If someone knocks into you, you say, 'Sorry, excuse me!'.

people queuing beside Louis Vuitton store
Photo by Melanie Pongratz

What other behaviours and traditions do you associate with English Culture?


9. Names

Historically the English are given names by their parents, and sometimes names run in the family e.g. a grandparent's or favourite aunt's name. These are known as Christian, first or given name. Names that appear in the Christian Bible fall in and out of fashion as first names.

This is my name:

Dr. Nicola Jane Gill (née Plevey).

My Christian name is Nicola, which friends and family shorten to Nic (this ironically called my nickname!). Sometimes nicknames bear no resemblance to the original name.

My middle name is Jane. If an individual prefers their middle name then they may choose to use this instead of their Christian name for everyday use.

My surname or family name before I married (which is called a maiden name) was Plevey, and I took my husband's surname Gill after I married.

Surnames came into use to distinguish one person from another. It’s often easy to spot their origin.

John Smith – was a blacksmith.

John Lane – lived on the lane.

Conventionally, women change their surname to their husband's name with marriage, and their children take their father's surname. However, this is changing, and it is increasingly common for women to keep their maiden name or for couples to choose a new surname together.

It’s easy to assume this is how naming works is in all cultures, but this is not the case and often results in people being addressed by the wrong name. Think about the irony of a person of the Muslim faith being asked for their Christian name.

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, David Hockney 1971 (Fair Use)

How you refer to patients should be a conscious choice.

Is John Smith, Mr. Smith or John?

Is Madeline Kaminski,  Mrs./Miss/Ms. Kaminski, Madeline or Maddy?

How do you make the decision which name to use?


10. History

England has been a kingdom for over ten centuries. It is part of the Island Nation of Great Britain. The English are descendants of the Anglo-Saxons (Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians) and the native Romanised Britons. England remains a diverse and multicultural society. This adds richness to its cultural heritage but is also the source of tension and challenge, both nationally and within communities.

Every building, museum and art gallery tells a small part of the history of the English.

Take a look around you and walk around the local streets to see what you discover about the history of where you live and work.

Photo of a postcard by Hannah Green www.hannahlgreen.co.uk

What stories does this historical site in York hold?


Have you heard of the Blue Plaques?

London’s famous blue plaques link the people of the past with the buildings of the present. Now run by English Heritage, the London blue plaques scheme was started in 1866 and is thought to be the oldest of its kind in the world. Across the capital, over 950 plaques, on buildings humble and grand, honour the notable men and women who have lived or worked in them. 

For a broader, bigger picture take a look at the children's storybook, Our Island Story: A Child's History of England by Henrietta Marshall. First published in 1905, it tells the history of England from the Romans to the Victorians, from the perspective of the English.

Peter Ackroyd in his book, London Under, Peter Ackroyd tells the wonderful history of everything that goes on underneath London, from original springs and streams to Roman amphitheatres, from Victorian sewers to gang hide-outs.


11. Religion

England is a Christian country, but its citizens are allowed to practice any faith. English Laws protect this right.

Cathedrals, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples appear side-by-side in England.

Henry VIII’s desire to divorce Catherine resulted in the establishment of the Church of England, which recognises the English Monarch and not the Pope as the head of the Church in England.

Hans Holbein, the Younger, Around 1497-1543 - Portrait of Henry VIII of England, 1 January 1537 Image in Public Domain

12. The Monarchy

England has been ruled by a monarchy for over 1000 years.

         Queen Elizabeth II            Lucian Freud 2000-2001 (Fair Use) (Royal Collection Buckingham Palace)

Although fictional, the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ provides an interesting history of our current Royal family, The Windsors.


13.  Social Class

George Orwell, author said Britain is “the most class-ridden society under the sun.”

What do you learn about the English social class system from this 1960's comedy clip? 

The English Class system.

Of all the characteristics of English Culture, the social class system is the most difficult to define and discuss. The British Social Attitudes Survey found that, despite a decline in the importance of social class over the last 40 years, people still link class with opportunity.

Grayson Perry’s series of tapestries, ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, was inspired by his extensive research into taste for the 2012 C4 series ‘All in the best possible taste’. The tapestry series is a great resource for discussing class, taste, aspiration and identity, and can be viewed online or in this book below.

 

Grayson said, “the British care about taste because it is inextricably woven into our system of social class. I think that -- more than any other factor, more than age, race, religion, sexuality -- one's social class determines one's taste.”

What do you think about this statement?

The image below is a corner of the tapestry 'Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close'. The words stitched into the yellow sun's rays say, "my father laughed at Tim's accent but welcomed him onto the sunlit uplands of the middle classes". What do you make of this picture?

How does Grayson use objects in this tapestry to represent the middle classes?

To what extent do you think that you need to understand the English Social system in order to work in General Practice?


14. The Political System

 England is a democracy.

Did this start with the Magna Carta in 1215 or after the Woman’s Suffrage movement in 1920 enabled certain women to vote?

No political system is perfect. Banksy portrays his opinion of politics in this picture. What do you think?

Devolved Parliament Banksy March 2020 Shown under Creative Commons License

Many other artists use their creativity to make political statements and express their displeasure at political dogma. Some good examples include the film director Ken Loach and the songwriter Billy Bragg. Many of the daily papers also include political cartoons. Do you have an artist to add to this list?

Do you have examples to share?


15. Inventors

England is a nation of inventors. How many English inventors and inventions can you think of?

Here are some examples: Football, Cricket, Electricity, Antibiotics, Covid-19 vaccine.

The National Portrait Gallery in London is a great place to see the faces of those who have changed the world.

Trevor Baylis Tom Miller 17 July 1997 National Portrait Gallery

This is one of my favourites (I’m hoping the NPG and Tom Millar don’t mind me reproducing their image here, it’s a great example of how one person can change the world). Inspired by a 1991 television programme about HIV and AIDS in Africa, Trevor Baylis invented the windup radio which revolutionised access to information (and art and culture), especially in developing countries.


Luke Jerram - Glass sculpture of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine

This glass sculpture was created to celebrate the invention of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Vaccine in 2020.


16. Homes, gardens and the countryside

Most English people aspire to own their own home, but, as there is not enough affordable housing in the UK, many people live in rented accommodation. Despite England being a rich developed nation, many people are homeless or live in substandard accommodation. Take a look at the resources on home to think more about this subject. 


The English famously love their gardens, and the national hobby has become more popular over the pandemic.

This book is a great read for anyone interested in understanding more about the power of gardening to benefit the mind and body.


The English like a good walk in the English Countryside in all weathers.

Simon Armitage was made Poet Laureate in 2019: an honour which he will now hold for ten years. He lives in West Yorkshire. 

Take a look at this collaborative piece of work which brings together Simon's desire for poems that could be heard in the place rather with the unique landscape of Northumberland National Park. You can download the poems and map on an app and listen to them while you walk. Poems in the air.


17. Weather

The weather in England varies day by day; it can be cold and wet in the summer and warm and dry in the winter. As a consequence, everyone in England is always talking about the weather!

What do you think about this painting?

Man Stood in Front of his House (The Idiot) David Hockney 1962 Shown under CC license

The castle in the background reminds me of a declaration made by Judge Sir Edward Cook in the 16th Century:

‘The English man’s home is his castle and he should defend it as he sees fit’.


There are lots of idioms associated with the weather. What do you think these mean?

'It's raining cats and dogs'

'Come rain or shine'

'Save it for a rainy day'

 ‘Mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun’

Can you think of any others?

Are their weather idioms in other languages and cultures?


18. Sport

What sport do you associate with England?

Going to the Match L.S. Lowry 1928

This famous picture was purchased in 1999 by the PFA, and is on display at The Lowry Centre in Manchester.


19. Food and Drink

Is the national dish of the English; fish and chips at the coast, a Balti curry in Birmingham, Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding in a pub, or a vegan sausage roll from Greggs?



Tea is not grown in England, but the English are a nation of tea drinkers. Why?

This teapot stands outside the Tea Rooms at the stately home Beningborough Hall in Yorkshire. England has a vast number of stately homes, many preserved for the public to enjoy. A visit to any stately home is an opportunity to explore historical art, wondrous architecture and magnificent gardens. But take the time to scratch the surface and look beneath the glitz and glamour. Like the Tea Industry, many homes were built with money created by plundering the resources of foreign countries or on the back of slave labour. This is an aspect of being English that is often glossed over in history lessons or historical dramas. 


20. Work

England has high employment rates. There is a national minimum wage and a 'living wage', but, despite this, many people working full-time live below the poverty line. A social security benefits system exists for anyone who is unemployed, unable to work or on a low wage. This system is supposed to raise household income above the poverty line.

Ken Loach's 2019 film, Sorry We Missed You, is a powerful portrayal of the inequity that occurs in England today. 

 

Most towns and cities grew to their current size during the industrial revolution.  

In 1975, Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female Prime Minister said, “We used to be famous for two things—as a nation of shopkeepers and as the workshop of the world. One is trade, the other is industry."

Sheffield used to be known as the 'City of Steel'. To commemorate this, the Cathedral commissioned a nativity scene made of steel.

Nativity Scene by Brian Fell

York was the home of the railways and two international chocolate factories -- Terry's and Rowntree.

Leeds became a major trading city because of the wool trade.  

Look at the history of where you are working. How has employment changed?


21. Humour

The English embrace humour, sarcasm, irony and cynicism. Take a look at these clips on Youtube which illustrate this.

Faulty Towers

 

Mr Bean (follow link)

Does humour differ between England and other countries? In what ways?

Are there aspects of English humour you don't understand or enjoy, and why?

Doctors often use humour at work as a coping strategy. Do you do this, or have you observed others use humour in this way?


What have I missed?

What else would you add?

Let me know.


This is just a small taste of English Culture.

These are more great resources for exploring English Culture:


If you are looking for something visual to capture the bigger picture of being British these books are a great start. 

Each of these 3 books by Hoxton Mini Press contains an amazing collection of photographs of life in Britain. The books display a fascinating portrait of Britain and are great teaching resources.

 

 

 

 

 

Other resources:

Project Britain  (a website of resources)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first is a collection of infographics about British demographics, Kate Fox's book is self-explanatory, and Exotic England is a recent purchase yet to be read!

Also these:

Notes from a Small Island Bill Bryson (Book 1995) and .....


These resources are great for exploring the experience of people from other cultures moving to England:

  • Small Island Andrea Levy (Book 2004)
  • Anita and Me Meera Syal (Book 1999 and film)
  • East is East (Film 1990)

Do you have any other recommendations?


page created September 2021 with help from Beth Jakeman