England my England?
Because the personal is political, Catherine Annabel’s musings on patriotism and national identity start with a question to herself – who the heck is she anyway?
I was born in the Home Counties but they were my home only for the first three years of my life, and then for a further year whilst I did my 11 plus. I have memories of Kent from that last year, but it was a strange, unsettled time. I arrived there as if from another planet, my accent marking me out as posh and my complete ignorance of the cultural artefacts that fuelled playground conversations marking me out as weird. By that time, I’d attended four schools in three different countries, and at the end of that year I’d move again, to another house, another school, another accent to attempt to acquire.
I define myself as English because my British homes have been in England, and my parents’ families (or 3/4 of them) are traceable back to the West Country in about the 17th century. My mother’s mother’s side were Welsh, I believe, though the name appears to be English, and her father’s side English (West Country) though the name appears to be Welsh. Which goes to show, really. My maternal grandfather’s family tree includes a whole dynasty of palaeontologists, a portrait/landscape artist, and a war hero with a VC earned in Kenya, whose father and stepmother ‘suffered an unfortunate fate’ (a very British understatement there) in the Mao Mao uprising. Strange that there is such a strong African connection.
On my father’s side, the names are much less unusual and so it’s harder to get a picture of who they were. A couple of them were painted by Gainsborough, though:
Is any of that who I am? It’s interesting, but it connects me as much with Africa as with England.
When I was three, we went to live in Ghana. As an independent nation, it was the same age as me. I have no claim on a Ghanaian identity – less so than my youngest brother, who was at least born there – but I feel a connection. For Facebook purposes, my middle name is Abena, which is the Ashanti day name for girls born on a Tuesday. I back Ghana in every African Cup of Nations, every World Cup. I wept when Uruguay put the Black Stars out of the last one and still revile the name of Suarez.
And though I haven’t been there since I was eight, I know I need to go back. The sounds (highlife music drifting over from the student residences, rain drumming on the corrugated iron roof, the haunting cries of the animals in the bush behind our house), the colours (kente cloth, the flowers, the fruits, vegetables and spices in the markets, the flag), embedded themselves in my psyche and changed me.
But during those years, I was immersing myself in stories of the once and future King of the Britons, the wizard of Alderley Edge, the lost ninth legion north of Hadrians Wall, the bleak moors of the Brontes. I read Shakespeare sitting outside until the African sun turned in a moment to African darkness.
My England is made up of those stories, and the landscapes that inspired them.
Of all the beautiful places in my homeland, the bits around the edge often move me most. It’s one of the plus points about living on an island – more coastline. The flip side is that it tends to be a bit, well, insular. Coming back to England in the late 60s was a culture shock in so many ways. I knew nothing of the tv programmes that everyone talked about, or the pop music. I caught up as fast as I could.
But I was out of sync anyway because the world that I’d been living in was not one that my schoolmates had even thought about, let alone experienced. Anything beyond these shores (possibly the odd holiday abroad, but those were much less common back in the day) was just not part of their consciousness, even whilst they lapped up American tv shows and English reworkings of black American music. It wasn’t just Africa, it was politics too. I vividly recall the killings of MLK and Robert Kennedy, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, because we talked about such things at the dinner table. Because my parents, whilst as English as English can be in so many ways, had an international perspective – socialist, pacifist, passionate about supporting developing countries and about the Commonwealth as a framework whereby we could meet our moral commitments to the countries we’d colonised. We could acquire the accent, the knowledge and enjoyment of popular culture, the loyalties to British football teams, but not that insularity, because we’d lived somewhere that was so profoundly, utterly different that we could never see England as absolute in its normality.
And of course, in the 70s when I was a teenager and a University student, the flag was a dangerous thing, wielded by the fascists of the National Front. I can add nothing on that topic to Mike Press’s powerful account here. But seeing that flag displayed at the Olympics and the Paralympics, draped around the shoulders of a Muslim Somalian refugee who won gold for GB, and in the exuberant celebrations of our diversity which opened both Games, has changed that.
So, I’m mainly English, a bit Welsh, a francophile, with an adopted Ghanaian middle name, and among the ‘isms’ that I will admit to are humanism, socialism, cosmopolitanism. But somewhere at the core I respond to something about England. And that’s what I want to analyse, in the context of those internationalist beliefs that are so embedded in me too.
George Orwell wrote, 71 years ago, as we faced the Nazi threat, that England had to be true to herself. ‘She is not being true to herself while the refugees who have sought our shores are penned up in concentration camps, and company directors work out subtle schemes to dodge their Excess Profits Tax’ (The Lion & the Unicorn, p. 122) – it doesn’t take much thinking to update that, as we send gay asylum seekers back to countries that want to kill them, and incarcerate traumatised torture victims in detention centres. And let’s not even get started on the bankers and the company directors. But Orwell’s mission in that fascinating book was no less than to reclaim patriotism from Conservatism, to reclaim it as revolutionary. And that’s well worth re-examining today.
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (first published in the Searchlight Books series by Secker & Warburg, 1941, republished by Penguin, 1988)
Billy Bragg, The Progressive Patriot: a search for belonging (Black Swan, 2007)