Saturday, 9 April 2016

"Where Do You Come From?" Thoughts on belonging and identity

"A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakeable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood."

George Eliot in Daniel Deronda is talking about childhood, how our earliest "sense of place" helps form our instinct that we belong to the soil we live on, and that we should love it and let it teach us about the great world into which we have been born as its citizens. 

I was brought up in suburban north London. I may have caught the occasional glimpse of Eliot's world when riding my bicycle in Highgate Woods or roaming Hampstead Heath on my way back from school. But it was hard to love the net curtains, manicured privet hedges and creosoted fences of suburbia. To me they all came to symbolise the addiction to privacy that's a peculiarly English trait. We knew few of our neighbours by name and socialised with fewer still though they were kind, decent people. We all kept ourselves to ourselves. We liked it that way. I had a good upbringing there. But it didn't help me to understand the idea of community.

So where do I say I'm "from"? This question has exercised me for some time. My usual answer is "North East England". I've lived here for longer than anywhere else in my life. I've come to love the strong sense of identity here in this region, and the wonderful people we have lived amongst, both in County Durham and Northumberland. I feel I belong here in a way that's more true than any of the many places we've been glad to call "home" up and down the country. When we first came to work in Northumberland in the 1980s, I found a lived understanding of "community" that was new to me. The Cheviot farmers talk about sheep being "hefted" on to their hill, bound to it as their own place. That's how I've come to feel about the North East. I've "gone native" as they say.

But that's only a part of my answer. In the expanding concentric circles of my belonging, my being European has always been important too. I've blogged about this before, how my mother's family were German-Jewish war refugees whom this country took in before it was too late. In my childhood we found ourselves on the periphery of a community of German emigrés in north London, all of them a lot better off than we were. Perhaps the fact that my mother had married "out" (i.e. an Englishman) meant that we weren't altogether kosher. But at social gatherings, we all flipped easily from English to German and back again. Families compared notes about their German homelands: Bavaria, Swabia and my mother's native Westphalia. As children we went to Germany a number of times to sort out my mother's family affairs. I felt at home there, and still do. And that goes for all the other countries in our continent that I've visited, from Ireland via Spain, France and Austria to the Czech Rebgpublic, Slovakia and Hungary.

On my Twitter profile, it says that I am "a European at home in North East England". I thought carefully about how to phrase that. "North East" says that locality is important, George Eliot's sense of a native soil in a particular place. "European" says that our larger networks and associations are important too, our ability to think beyond national boundaries (and not to stop until we think of ourselves as "citizens of the world" which is what George Eliot goes on to speak about). What about "England"? 

I admit that I don't often speak about being "English" (except in France where "je suis Anglais" is the usual answer to "where are you from?"). I'm a British national as it says on my passport. And my sense of nationhood is profoundly important. I don't give it absolute value ("my country right or wrong") and I always want to nuance it by saying that both my smaller and my larger circles of belonging matter just as much. However, I guess that if you are at all moved by Rupert Brooke's poem "The Soldier" and can read it, not as Great War jingoism nor as cloying nostalgic sentimentalism but for what it is, a simple, affecting love poem to his country, you're a patriot at heart. "A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, / Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam" is precisely what George Eliot is talking about. For Brooke, it had become "a sweet habit of the blood" to think and - just as important - to feel like this. I think I'm beginning to grasp this as I inhabit the later decades of my life when asking who I have been is vital to understanding who I am now

The EU referendum is making us think about these questions, where and how and why we belong. Some people seem to think that the EU is all about creating a superstate that will do away with local, regional and national identities and the human dimensions we associate with homeland and home. But the exact opposite is the case. The European Union has been a staunch defender of regionalism and localism and funds have followed that conviction. We've seen how in our own islands, membership of the United Kingdom has promoted a growth in Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish identities, and the same is true across continental Europe. These are welcome developments. They express the important idea of "subsidiarity" whereby things are not undertaken centrally that are better done nationally or locally. That's usually associated with decision-making. But implicit in it is the more basic concept of belonging. That's why it's to the good when we associate to all the communities we live in - small, large and intermediate. They help us learn that ultimately, our family is nothing less than the whole human race. 

This isn't quite making a "patriotic case" for remaining in the EU. But I hope that at the very least, it begins to show how a patriotic love of our country and a grateful attachment to our locality are not only compatible with our membership of the EU but positively encouraged by it. 

1 comment:

  1. My folks moved around, so saying where I am from is always a problem. Partly solved by the fact that I was born in God's own county! So "Yorkshire" is always the right answer. But where I am now isn't even in the North, and I feel incredibly at home. Funny old thing.

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