From the archive: in search of the true British identity, 1967

The Observer Magazine of 12 February 1967 asked: ‘Who are the British?’, detailing our history of conquerors with a short interview with an inhabitant with some connection, spurious or otherwise.

First we heard from Jim James, 75, representing the stone age, one of the last survivors of Plinlimmon, Cardiganshire, which was evacuated to make way for a hydroelectric scheme in 1961. ‘These hill shepherds and farmers, inbred for centuries, are believed to have retained features – broad faces, strong cheekbones and eyebrow-ridges – of their stone age ancestors.’ I’m sure Jim was chuffed with that.

I should think the Vikings were big warriors with shields and long boots. But I was never very interested in history
Margot Shakespeare came from a Black Mountain family. ‘Her dark colouring and slim El Greco features are possibly inherited from the Mediterranean people who came to Britain during the new stone age, 5,000-6,000 years ago.’ Shakespeare said: ‘I’ve always thought we had a lot in common with Italians – they’re musical and love children. The Welsh are more affectionate and kindly and noisy than the English.’ Which is about as valid as DNA ancestry tests today.

The Anglo-Saxons were ‘stolid, quiet farming people, with fair or sandy hair, light eyes and strong, stocky figures, much like this farmworker from Goodnestone, Kent, a village near Sandwich named after Earl Godwin, father of Harold, the last Saxon king’.

They teased a fisher at Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, about Viking ancestry, but he wasn’t playing ball: ‘I should think the Vikings were big men, warriors with shields and long boots. But I was never very interested in history.’

As for the Normans, when people say things like, ‘It’s nice to know our family goes back to 1066, and I’m quite proud’ and then ‘I don’t think it’s as interesting as descending from a modern personality,’ it makes you hope that our next overlords finish us off completely.