55 minus 19: How do you feel?

Posted: 29 July 2019 in 55 minus, London, personal
Tags: , , , ,

Regular readers of this countdown blog – and indeed previous countdown runs – will know that by the time I’m a couple of weeks through it, the breakdown has started.

I don’t mean my breakdown – that happened several years ago, and some day I might even feel ok blogging about it – but the pattern of the blog.

We’re now at the stage where readers know what to expect: Tuesday, you’ll get some fiction; Thursday, we’re in the middle of the antisemitic imagery stuff; Friday, a list of content (tv, comics, movies) I enjoy; Saturday, well, we have the Smiles.

Which leaves three days a week when I’ve got to sit down in front of a blank screen and decide on what to write, on which subject to opine.

And, walking to a coffee shop in Kilburn, I was playing with various ideas in my head, wondering whether this subject or that topic, or this item of news, or that piece of tech would be worth a few hundred words.

(Answers: no; yes, but not today; definitely yes at some point; probably not.)

And then I walked into someone in the street. Quite literally. My body collided with theirs.

My fault entirely. I have to stress that, and you have to understand… the lady in question was completely and objectively free from blame and responsibility for the collision.

And yet, when I apologised, she shushed me immediately. No, no, she insisted. It had been her fault. She hadn’t been looking where she was going.

I demurred: it was wholly and solely my fault, I protested.

Nonsense, she continued, my fault entirely.

This continued for about thirty seconds before we grinned at each other, and moved past each other, her to continue into Sainsbury’s, me to head for Costa, and coffee.

I’d never felt more British in my life. Or rather more “English”

Which is weird because I don’t usually ”feel’ English. Not as a thing, an important thing.

John Cecil Rhodes may have once said to Lord Grey:

You are an Englishman, and have subsequently drawn the greatest prize in the lottery of life.

usually misquoted as

To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life. 

but Rhodes supported aparthied, and Hitler liked him, so maybe not the best fella to cite if you’re proud of being English.

But it did set me thinking about being English, and British, and European.

I’ve written previously, when the government were considering making public servants – people who work for or are paid by, the state – swear an oath of allegiance to “British values”.

As I and others pointed out at the time, enforcing the swearing of an oath to British values is, in and of itself, pretty self-contradictory to British values. It’s not what we do, it’s not the kind of thing we like. Other countries may insist that their people carry identity papers, and swear loyalty and all that, but our constitution – such as it is – is built around the principle of “we leave you alone and you leave us alone, ok?”

Yes, of course there are oaths sworn in the UK; the military swear oaths, politicians swear oaths, and the general public do so in court. But in the latter case it’s an oath to tell the truth, not to pledge allegiance to a nebulous collection of nonsense called “British values”.

I kind of like the idea that British values aren’t easily codified, and indeed, if you asked ten different people you’d get fifteen different answers. (Not because we like arguing; we’re just useless at maths.)

But with the unavoidable juggernaut of shit that we chose to name “Brexit” rumbles towards us once again, the concept of what it means to be British, or English, or… European, has been asked.

I’m not sure how I identify myself these days, in that respect.

Or rather, I kind of know how I identify myself; I’m just not sure that if I was questioned as to why, I could come up with anything beyond “Because I do” as an answer. And that’s a shitty answer to anything, and should be restricted to those occasions when it’s either said to a toddler, or a toddler’s the one saying it.

Do I feel European? Not really. Not in any meaningful way. I’ve barely travelled to Europe in my life, something I faintly regret but again not in any measurable, meaningful, way. And unlike many of my friends, I don’t speak a European language beyond a paltry smattering of German and the occasional word in French I remember from school.

I don’t speak any languages, really, other than English, although I can get away with fluent Rubbish when called upon to do so. I can understand some written Hebrew and even speak a teeny tiny bit of it… and the occasional Yiddish phrase, in the same way as I know some Latin phrases. Doesn’t make me anywhere close to fluent, and I’m at as much of a loss when listening to people speak fluent Irvrit as I would be hearing someone speak fluent Mandarin.

But do I feel a commonality with the French, or the Dutch, or the Germans? Not really. I’ve not visited any of their countries, and I bet I’d feel like a complete stranger if I did.

I mean, I’ve been to Russia, on work; spent a week there in 2006. I never felt anything other than a stranger there, although I did have the opportunity to feel several strangers while there… but that’s another story for another time.

Don’t get me wrong; I like that the UK is – still is, just – ‘part of Europe’, both politically and geographically. And I certainly voted to Remain in 2016.

But I didn’t vote to remain because I felt a strong link to Europe, nor that I felt everyone in Europe was my brother, or any such nonsense.

I voted Remain for the simplest (some might argue simplistic) of reasons.

If we stayed: we kind of, sort of, maybe, with a tip of the head, and a squint… knew what would happen. OK, we didn’t know everything, and the stuff we did know, we weren’t completely sure of, and the stuff we were sure about, we didn’t like it all. But again, we kind of ‘knew what would happen’.

If Leave won, no one had a fucking clue what would happen.

(One of the single best things during the Scottish Independence Referendum was Andrew Neil’s documentary a couple of weeks earlier, when he asked campaigners for independence what happened if Scotland voted Yes. The overwhelming conclusion was ‘no one has a fucking clue…’ Beyond ‘Scotland would leave the union’, no one had a clue what would happen. Plenty of hopes, plenty of desires, but no one could say THIS would happen or THAT would follow.)

And that was my view on the EU Referendum. All the promises…? None would be kept, none could be kept, because they relied upon other stuff happening… which wouldn’t happen.

So, no, I don’t ‘feel’ European in any meaningful way.

OK, so how about “British”? Do I feel British?

Well, leaving aside my 30 second apologyfest with the lady earlier this afternoon, I’m not entirely sure that I do. Not especially, not particularly. I mean, ok, I am British. But I’m very sure, I’m certain, that other people could identify what about me – beyond my accent – makes me “British” and why I should feel British.

“English”? The same applies. I was born here, and I’ve spent almost every day of my life in England. A few, rare, trips to Wales, and a total of about two months in Scotland. A few trips abroad. So I’ve nothing really to compare it to. I’m British, and I’m English, but I don’t ‘feel’ British nor English. I just feel like… me.

OK, so what about London? Do I feel like a Londoner? I suppose if pushed… I do, in a way. But I wasn’t born here. And yes, I’ve spent most of my adult life here, but I was born in Luton; despite Luton airport’s formal name, it’s not in London. Indeed it wasn’t even called London Luton Airport when I lived there; the name change was in 1990, five years after I left the place.

But again, it’s daft for me to ‘feel’ like a Londoner, because I’ve no idea what that truly means.

Unless it merely means “feels a connection to”.

But it can’t be that.

Surely it can’t just be that.

Because I spent a week in Maui, on my honeymoon. And I still ‘feel a connection’ to it because of that. I spent ten days in Antigua, ten much needed rest and recuperation days, back in 2011 when I was a complete mess, physically and mentally, and the holiday helped, a lot. I’ll always feel a connection to the place in gratitude.

How about, “ah, but are you proud of the place?”

Then… no. Not Antigua, nor Maui. But not Britain nor England, either. Not especially. We’ve done some pretty shifty stuff over the centuries. In fact, given some of the stuff Britain has done over the centuries, I’m not entirely sure anyone should be that proud. But plenty of people are. Just as others are proud of being Australian, or American, who maintain that their country is the greatest country on earth… Really?

New Yorkers are proud of New York, most of them I know, anyway. Plenty of people are proud of their cities. I know people who are proud of Liverpool, and Edinburgh, and Brighton, respectively.

But while I’m proud of London that we, on the whole, welcome visitors and hell, we elected Sadiq Khan, we also as a city elected Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. There’re times I’m proud of London, but not always and as A Thing.

I mean, I lived for four years in Richmond, well in Ham. And I very very much like Richmond Park. Definitely feel a connection to it. But ‘proud’ of it? No.

I’m proud of my son. And I’m proud of the things my friends have achieved, and I’m proud of the strength people I know have shown under incredible pressure and in horrible circumstances.

But that’s in part because he is my son, and they are my friends and they are people I know, like and personally care about.

But the country? Britain? England?

The country’s sportsmen and women… the country’s representatives in any number of fields? Not particularly. Not at all, in fact. Not really.

So yeah, I’m English, I’m British, I’m European.

Why, if I don’t ‘feel’ like any of them, do I claim those identities?

“Because I do.”

Damn. I really need to find a better answer to that.


See you tomorrow, with the usual Tuesday fare.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-fifth birthday on 17th August 2019. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

  1. Speaking as a Canadian, I empathize with all of this. Long story there, as long as yours, and I’ll save it for my own weblog. But the feelings you name are very familiar.

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