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Who are the English?

The arts, including a new opera by Gorillaz' Damon Albarn, offer some answers.

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The cast of "Jerusalem," a comedy by Jez Butterworth about contemporary rural life in England. (Courtesy)

MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — What is England? Who are the English?

It may seem a little odd to be asking these questions at this point in time — surely a nation with such a well-documented history and whose national art form is the written word should have the answers to those questions at its finger tips. But what it means to be English is the question of the moment in this country; so small that it could fit five times into Texas, but so crowded it has double the Lone Star State's population.

Englishness: In the wake of resurgent Scottish nationalism, English politicians have been discussing it. Now, following Anders Behring Breivik's mass murder spree in Norway and his contact with the "English Defence League," it is a question that needs to be attended to with urgency.

Younger artists have been dealing with the question for a couple of years.

On a cool summer evening in early July the crowd outside Manchester's Palace Theatre was sizzling with the buzz that comes from being among the lucky ones to grab a ticket to a hot show. In this case, “Dr. Dee: An English Opera” written by Damon Albarn, better known as the front man for rock groups Blur and Gorillaz.

The musical theater piece delivers precisely what it says on the package, an operatic take on Englishness. As the curtain rises a raven, guardian bird of the Tower of London, flies onto the stage, and a procession of English icons — or tourist cliches — march above the stage: suffragettes, morris dancers and a bowler-hatted gent from the Ministry of Silly Walks, balloons with the cross of St. George, the symbol on the English flag, float upwards. Meanwhile Albarn, hovering above everything, sings a song about "The People of the Rose."

Dr. Dee was a real person in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. John Dee in Albarn's opera is credited with being the prototype of a modern Englishman. He was a great mathematician and theorist of navigation. Dee deserves a lot of credit for convincing the Virgin Queen to build up England's naval presence in the world — not just for defense against Catholic Europe, but to develop its commercial power as well. He also put together the largest library the country had seen to that moment in time.

Dee lived at a moment of decisive change in England, points out Benjamin Woolley, whose biography of the doctor, “The Queen's Conjuror,” inspired Albarn's piece. "The Pope had just issued what in modern terms would be called a fatwa against the Queen," he said. "England, which had been Catholic for centuries, had to cut loose from its history."

A new narrative had to be constructed. Catholicism was ruled from the continent. The Normans who conquered England were from the continent. "Englishness was something pre-Norman," explained Woolley. "The English were free people able to do their own thing." That notion of individual freedom became a foundation of Englishness, he added.

Another essential part of Englishness came about at that time, according to Woolley: irony. The first definition of irony is saying one thing and meaning the opposite. In a time where one week everyone was Catholic and the next week everyone was Protestant, irony was a useful way to laugh off the change — considering that one's immortal soul was in the balance.

But Dr. Dee is only part of the picture. As much as anything the English question comes out of the rapidly changing ethnic make-up of Britain. When I arrived here in the 1970s for a junior year abroad I lived in a country called England. When I returned in the mid-1980s I moved to a country called Britain. What happened?

Politics. England was overtaken by Britain, as conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used the term in the hope of trying to seem inclusive, even though her policies were tilted dramatically toward southern England. Mike Kenny, a professor at Queen Mary's College, University of London, points out, "To the Scots and Welsh, when politicians in Westminster talk about Britain they are really only talking to the English."

The left side of British politics also adopted Thatcher’s term. Kenny, who studies the politics of English nationalism, says, "The liberal