What I most wanted to become when I grew up was a foreigner. My father was from another country and my mother hadn’t been born in the city where we lived (Sheffield), so I always felt like a bit of an Ausländer. I must have heard my dad and his mum speaking German together and wanted to join in, to be part of another world. I remember my mum being appalled when I, aged about 6 during an overenthusiastic game of toy soldiers, shouted with glee and fury as I smashed my fist into the enemy lines, “TO HELL WITH THE BRITISH ARMY!”. Straight after university I moved to Ireland and started to reinvent myself as someone a bit more worldly.
Something I subsequently read which left a major impression on me was Declan Kiberd’s classic book ‘Inventing Ireland‘, in which he wrote about how national identities are formed through mirroring, through a dialectical process of subjecting and objectifying. ‘Us’ can be defined as ‘not Them’, and thus the British projected onto the Irish all those qualities they didn’t want to acknowledge in themselves: catholicism, irrationality, brutishness, ignorance, free-spiritedness, etc. Much more recently, another Irish writer and thinker, Fintan O’Toole, has helped me reflect on what being British (and English – see below) entails in the wake of Brexit. In a recent article for the Irish Times he wrote:
Brexit and the English nationalism that underlies it are redefining England for the rest of the world as an angry, hostile, unlovable place. And it’s vital for Ireland that we are clearly distinguished from that new English identity.
An exemplary British European, Julian Barnes, expressed similar thoughts in an article for the LRB called ‘People will hate us again’:
We have our sentimental vision of how others see us: as correct, humorous, eccentric, polite, tolerant, phlegmatic and so on – ‘très British’. But historically, they have equally – if not more often – thought of us as cold, arrogant, violent, self-interested, racist and hypocritical.
Both writers are concerned with how Brexit changes the international reputation of the British. What about the view from inside? What will Brexit do to our sense of ourselves, especially those of us who live abroad?
The process of even acknowledging myself as British was a long one. Although in May 1997 I was living in self-exile (and no fan of Tony Blair), I shared at a distance the widespread relief that nearly 20 years of Tory rule were over and some measured optimism. I was glad to be out of the country when Diana died, with the public outpouring of sentiment for the loss of the national poodle. At the time I thought the whole morbid fanfare was both hilarious and contemptible; by the standards of 2017 it seems quite harmless, even laudable. When Blair sold Britain into the war in Iraq I expressed outrage and joined the march in Lisbon, but also felt that I benefitted from years of distance – he wasn’t ‘my’ Prime Minister, I thought.
I’ve written here about the process of coming to terms with my identity through living abroad, learning languages and reflecting on my own culture and history. In China I was confronted with the contradictions of presenting myself as someone who was all foreground, no background. My students’ questions revealed an assumption that as a British person I admired ‘my’ Prime Minister and was happy to be seen as a representative of my culture, my country, and my government. Such preconceptions were never hostile. They were positive stereotypes and as such, although they challenged my own view of myself, I benefitted from them.
I’ve also written (here) about my insecurity when it comes to claiming the status of a foreign language speaker, seeking acceptance as a member of another cultural community. My anxiety about that status being rejected – when, for example, someone switches from their language into ‘mine’ – houses a fear of being seen as small-minded, provincial, and naive. What results is an instinctive chippiness and defensiveness. Similar emotions arise when food is mentioned in class. In response to the stereotype of the British being unsophisticated in their eating habits, I get riled and feel compelled to point out that We, because of Our History, have a very cosmopolitan diet…I’ also have to keep in check a tendency towards snobbery in relation to less culturally or gastronomically diverse cultures. My sense of entitlement (“curry is a British invention! of course we know how to cook pasta properly!”) has deep roots, partly buried in centuries of colonialism. Barnes was right to mention hypocrisy. My defensiveness when it comes to languages and food and my refusal to wear the badge of my own culture ignores the fact that my livelihood is entirely founded upon on centuries of colonial and imperial dominance.
Over the years I’ve met both anglophiles and anglophobes. I like people who don’t speak English, but I have sometimes detected a certain antipathy from a lot of lingua-franca-refuseniks, particularly from those whose dislike of the language of neoliberal globalisation is motivated by anti-imperialist sentiment. It’s almost refreshing to have to challenge that stereotype of myself as cold and lacking in empathy. It’s a rare novelty and as such a luxury to encounter anti-English/British racism. Few other nationalities enjoy such privilege.
It’s always felt like a small victory to be told I’m not typically British. At the same time, I’ve very slowly came to realise that my response is by no means atypical: as Kit Wright’s poem ‘Everyone hates the English‘ exuberantly points out, no one resents the English as much as the English do. My self-deprecation (e.g. wanting England to lose at sport) is in some ways typically English. (Indeed, someone once wrote a book about this very attitude.) When it comes to coldness, what ‘we’ see as humour and irony doesn’t translate. In the notion of ‘taking the piss’ there’s a defensiveness, as a character in ‘Against’ the Day’ by Thomas Pynchon remarks:
Any who may come to feel betrayed by them, insulted, even hurt, even grievously, are simply ‘taking it too seriously.’ The English exercise their eyebrows and smile and tell you it’s ‘irony’ or ‘a bit of fun.’
Here we come to a tricky area: am I concerned with being British or English? As the Scottish writer Momus points out, there’s a marked difference. Very few Glaswegians voted for Ukip. His classic essay is about English self-deprecation, not Scottish or Welsh*. He quotes Minette Marin making a similar point to Pynchon:
“To me, as an American on my father’s side, one of the most unattractive aspects of Englishness has always been false modesty. It’s called self-deprecation, but springs from a deep sense of superiority (not unjustified, and all the more annoying for that) and it was traditionally both a ruse to placate inferiors and a game to tease equals – a national form of self-aggrandisement and exclusion.”
While an English cliche has it that the Germans excuse their historical misdeeds with the phrase ‘I was only following orders!’, it’s long seemed to me that the English/British equivalent is ‘I was only having a laugh!’. It’s significant that insofar as Britain has sought to come to terms with its history of racism and violent plunder, comedy has been one of the main media.
I’ve gradually come to accept my national background as a defect, albeit one that I’m powerless to change, whether I eventually manage to acquire an Italian passport or not. I’ve lost some of my sense of shame, although I’ve never got to the point of cheering on the football team. I would never declare myself proud to be British. I didn’t like the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony any more than I liked Blair, but I could see that there was an aspiration towards a more inclusive cosmopolitan self-image, one that celebrated the progressive aspects of the country’s past without shying away from the guilt occasioned by slavery and empire. I began to see my antipathy towards my own national identity as a little more than an overgrown adolescent impulse.
Now, five years on, we have the most right-wing and nationalistic government of my lifetime, led by someone who actively sneers at ‘cosmopolitans’. Politics is dominated by a tone of unreflective and unrestrained imperial nostalgia and unreconstructed xenophobia of the most facile and obnoxious kind. Downton Abbey, Ex-NF thug Nigel Farage and scumbags beating up asylum seekers are all of a piece, symptoms of a deep reactionary shift towards the most repugnant aspects of our history. If you add in the media treatment of child refugees, the screeching of Katie Hopkins and all the other professional shit-stirrers and the fact that millions are expressing an intention to vote for much more of this, it’s hard to feel anything but a renewed sense of deep, deep mortification. We unambiguously are, as Barnes says, “cold, arrogant, violent, self-interested, racist and hypocritical.”
It’s shameful to be British, and I for one no longer feel ashamed to say so.
* I apologise for sometimes using the two terms interchangeably but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I’ve tried to use them appropriately. It’s worth noting that: a) it was the British Empire, not the English one b) Tony Blair joined in with the invasion of Iraq in his capacity of Prime Minister for the whole of the UK, not just England, and it wasn’t just English soldiers who killed and died there and in Afghanistan c) Wales as a whole voted Leave d) I happen to think that Scotland made a catastrophic mistake in 2014. However, do feel free to challenge individual misuses, in the meantime I’ll just leave this here: