Patriot: Late 16th century: from French patriote, from late Latin patriota ‘fellow countryman’, from Greek patriōtēs, from patrios ‘of one’s fathers’, from patris ‘fatherland’.
Recently I read a thoughtful article by John Mitchinson on the subject of Englishness, the same morning as I was interrogating my reasons for setting my book Salt Lick in England, not Great Britain. These reflections are a consequence of current politics, of Brexit, of a growing understanding that the bonds that separate us may sadly be deeper than those that connect.
In Salt Lick, I have presumed the break up of the Union. The collapse of a viable rural economy due to cheap food importation leads to a restructuring of the country. This was uncannily brought closer to reality by a leaked email from a government adviser that Britain doesn’t need farms, we could, like that smaller island Singapore, import what we consume. This insular thinking, like Brexit, belongs to an absurd England that still recons itself a world power.
Brexit is for some of those who chose it, a consequence of a white identity that its claimants wish to shore up, to fortify; identity as a bond that separates.
Thinking about the ideas around identity recently, I came to understand that for many people, claiming identity was necessary. It is an assertion of the right to a place, a bulwark against the careless, if not outright hostile, hegemony of the majority. I have grown up with an assumption of belonging that hasn’t been challenged to any significant degree, even when I chose not to fit in to the centre ground. The deficit in this belonging has been the commonplace, if often frightening or infuriating disregards, attacks and impositions experienced by women in a patriarchy. That’s an ongoing fight, but luckily for me, one that is not complicated by the intersection of ethnicity, health, sexuality. I have been free to reject a telling of myself that fits into any specific narrative, whilst I’ve come to understand and respect that this isn’t so carefree an option for others.
But am I to extend the same courtesy to those who feel under attack? People whose experience is that life offers less than they believe it should, and in truth, sometimes offers very little at all? Does their identity matter? Is their whiteness ever going to bring them the confidence and strength in numbers they hope will broaden their paths, their opportunities, their outcomes? I can’t respect this chosen identity, because the analysis of the cause of their disease is so superstitious and mean. And some who cling to whiteness as though it is a precious commodity don’t seek to improve their own lot but rather to diminish the lot of others. This is the risk with identity. Any that is named is such a short step from becoming a description of those who don’t belong,
Patriotism has always embarrassed me. Part of the clue as to why is in the word itself; of one’s father. It is automatically an infantilising word. It seems both infantile and sentimental, to love one’s country, often for the ‘true’ patriots to the point of tears. Perhaps I misunderstand the scope of the word and my love of cultural markers and familiar landscapes is all that is meant by patriotism. But there is no flag to fly for that, no anthem to sing. I haven’t read Orwell’s essay on the subject but I cringe when contemporary politicians on the left try to access a little bit of useful populism and proclaim the need for a new, progressive patriotism. With all due recognition of the perils of capitalist globalism, there is nothing progressive about the concept of a fatherland.
For a while, as a music-obsessed teenager I remember feeling a huge sense of arrogant, and ignorant, relief that I was born in England where ‘everything’ was happening. The post-punk cultural scene seemed to be the only place where I could possibly desire to belong. And at the same time I hated the political stupidity of the time, reflected and enlarged as it is now, as Thatcherite bombast rinsed the dignity from people’s lives. I was ashamed of the greedy and arrogant history that was still so palpable in the pride of patriots and nationalists.
I used to joke that the first time I felt proud of England was during the seven or so years I spent in other countries, when almost the only people I met who seemed to feel any sense of shame or embarrassment about where they came from were the English. Even the savvy, laid back and cool people I hung out with from other lands were mostly proud of their nationality in a way that seemed extraordinarily naive.
The landscape, the seasons and, however changing, the climate, give me something wonderful – they give me home. But I know it would be possible to find home, and to love it, somewhere else. I love pubs, enormously, but I don’t feel able to take any credit for them. Where in the world are there not convivial places where people tell tales, fall in or out of love, laugh, show off, meet quietly in the concealing hubbub of the voices of others? Does it matter overly much if there are pewter tankards and black oak beams? I would miss pubs, the particular variant of cosiness, the democratic mix of people, but that is changing in favour of the well-heeled eating from slate plates above stripped wooden flooring anyway – even in what is sometimes taken for the bible of Englishness, The Archers.
Englishness feels to me to be a burden. But I am not sure that the patriotic expressions of any other country would feel less so. When I lived in Germany, I asked a friend who is a little older than me, an author, why people still spoke so much about Hitler and the Nazis, he told me that he was born in the shadow of a mountain, that mountain was so big and he was born so close to the base that he could run all his life and never be out of that shadow. Everywhere has a dark human history, and as someone said on Twitter in response to my post about identity, none of us would sleep too well if held accountable for the actions of our ancestors. It seems necessary, as John argues, for us not to cop out, to face up to Englishness. But perhaps, I still hope, it isn’t necessary to put it on.