Friday, 1 March 2013

Thinking about St David's Day




1st of March is the day for St David, Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales.  There are daffodils in the lapels of newsreaders and weather forecasters on Welsh TV.  "We had bara brith at school today" my nine year old neighbour told me this afternoon.  I like the fact that the day is celebrated throughout Wales but it has set me thinking about nationality and belonging. I wonder whether my own pretty lax sense of national pride is typical of my background and generation or comes from my rather peripatic upbringing.  I would love to know what you think.

I live in Wales.  I love the place I live in and I do recognise a distinct nation in Wales.  That is partly language, partly history and partly the stunning geography of the place.  I speak Welsh (not tremendously well but well enough to want to lay claim to it).  I decided to learn Welsh when we came to live here because it seemed to me that I would live on the surface of the country if I had no understanding of its culture and history and that if I had  none of the language I would be trying to understand that culture with my hands tied behind my back.  So I feel a deep attachment to Wales and to my bit of Wales in particular.  I love it even,  but I do not feel Welsh.

I don't feel English either.  I think I probably did when I was a child.  Certainly my favourite books were all carefully labelled with my name and address and that address always finished with a flourish: "England, Great Britain, The World".  But when I was eleven we went to live in New Zealand and I spent most of  my teenage years there.

Living in a country which is not your own seems to affect people in very different ways. It can make you more intensely English, Indian, Chinese, American by throwing into high relief the ways in which the culture around you differs from your own.  If it does that, it makes you hold on tight to your original sense of nationality, perhaps feeling it more strongly than you might ever have done had you stayed home.  At the other extreme, it can make you seek to integrate yourself as vigorously and thoroughly as you can, putting aside your  own language and customs and embracing those of the new country with determination and fervour.  One of the most English of people I ever knew was an elderly Indian man whose clothes and speech and mannerisms were entirely those of a rather old fashioned English gentleman.  He came to England when he was in his early twenties and resolutely set about ridding himself of his Indian accent and habits.  He kept his name.  He told me that it was not for him to change it.  But he lived a very English life in his semi detached house with church on Sundays and high tea and a whisky nightcap before bed.

Then there are the people like me who are somewhere in the middle.   By the time I had lived in New Zealand a couple of years I didn't feel English any more.  The Pennine hills and the milltowns of my childhood seemed a very long way away and not really to do with me any more.  But I didn't feel like a New Zealander either.  Unlike my New Zealand friends I did not have my extended family down the road, and a couple of ramshackle holiday houses perched above the sea, crammed with ancient beds and gently rotting furniture.  I couldn't sail or ski or swim like a fish as almost all my New Zealand friends could from what seemed like birth.  I liked New Zealand.  I liked my life there and I liked the people who lived there but I felt like neither a Kiwi or a Brit.

Some people describe this belonging to neither your place of birth or your chosen home as a sort of loss, not fitting in, having no roots, belonging nowhere.  I didn't find it like that.  With what has been described in my lifetime as an irritating Polyannish tendency, I felt it was a good thing.  I felt I could fit in anywhere.  I belonged to both places and neither.  My family were my home.  I liked the sense of freedom that came from that feeling that I could live anywhere.  Place was interesting.  Difference was interesting.  Nationality seemed irrelevant to me.  I could see that it was important to other people but I couldn't quite see why.  The people that I loved mattered.  The place that I lived in didn't.   And forty years on I still feel some of that.

So, if I feel neither English or Welsh, do I feel anything at all to which I could give a label?  British perhaps.  The country I know best and where I feel most at home is the UK.  But perhaps more accurate would be European.  The history that I know is European history.  I have a smattering of French and German and a tiny drizzle of Italian.  Europe makes sense to me.  I don't mean the European Union, I mean the continent, the countries in it.  I think I could live happily in France or Germany or Italy or any of the Scandinavian countries.  I like America and Americans and Canada and Canadians but somehow I am not at home there.  So I do after all have a sense of belonging, not a patriotic or nationalistic sense, more a feeling that there is a part of the world which, after a fashion, I understand.

Is this odd of me?  What about you?  Do you have a strong sense of being Welsh, Scottish or English, American, Australian, French or Dutch or wherever it is that you live?  I would love to know and I would love to know why.

46 comments:

  1. I have lived my whole life in Pembrokeshire, in the north of the county, descended from those natives pushed to the north by invading Normans and kept there by the line of castles and defences which, when joined by a line on the map, make up the Landsker. Welsh was my first language, but I was taught English to go to school, and my father believed that English was the language of education.
    I can trace many of my ancestors by local records and local churchyards. Farmers on one side, builders on the other, it feels like everything that surrounds me has a memory. I lost my parents very young, so this old history is comforting. I know exactly where I am from.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I sort of envy you that. I am also interested by the idea that Welsh was a language which might hold you back. So many of the people I am learning Welsh with are not English incomers (which I thought would be the case) but Welsh people who somehow "lost" the language in the forties and fifties when their families tried to embrace English as the language of opportunity. Now they feel they have lost something important and want it back.

      Delete
  2. I was born in India (of Scots parents) and lived there until I was 18. Since then I have spent a year in France, 7 years in London and 24 years in Bristol. I have only spent 5 of my 54 years in Scotland and yet, I consider myself Scottish. I also feel British and European, but first and foremost I'm a Scot. It's where I feel most at home, where I sense I belong and where I intend to spend my latter days.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fascinating. I find that many of my Welsh friends have this overwhelming sense of being Welsh, as you have of being Scottish. Yet to have an overwhelming sense of being English probably makes you a member of the BNP. Is it to do with power?

      Delete
  3. I've never posted on your blog before but read it often. This post has struck a chord in me. I was born in Co. Durham, family moved to Wales in my early teens. I joined the army shortly before my 18th birthday and spent most of my time in the Far East and Germany. I never lived in the UK again. I married an american, came to the States and still live here 43 years later. I have dual citizenship but sometimes feel like a ship with no port. I'm fortunate to be able to go "home" to Pembrokeshire every 1 or 2 years. I love it and it's where my siblings live but it's not my home. My children, friends and in-laws are here and I would miss them but I have no deep desire to stay in this state and could move without any feeling of loss. If I had the money, I could move anywhere in the world and that thought is exciting but I choose to stay here. So I suppose that makes this my home - for now!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for taking the time to post. Your experience seems to mirror my own in that moving around when you are young produces a sense of belonging nowhere, or if you are lucky, everywhere. I am not sure whether it is a good or a bad thing, it is just how it is!

      Delete
  4. I am American and mostly Texan. My maternal grandparents are German descent. My entire life I have felt the German influence and write about it quite often. But, somewhere, a few years ago, I realized there was something missing in my life. Because I was estranged from my father and his family, I had never embraced the Scottish in me. I now feel like it is part of what has been missing in my life. My name says I'm Scottish. Although I have never been to Scotland, I feel a great deal of attachment to it, it's history, and my ancestors.
    I think this must be the longest comment I have made on a blog. Your post inspired me to write this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for writing. I do think that America, Canada, and Australia and New Zealand too are all full of people whose identity if both that of the the country they grew up in and of the country from which their families originated. Perhaps our version of this in the UK, where many people don't have the pull of a different place of origin, is that part of our population which originates from India and Pakistan or the West Indies. I would love to know how English they feel or whether, in the same way as you feel American and also of German and Scottish descent, they feel English and Pakistani or whatever.

      Delete
  5. I am British through and through and feel a great deal of patriotism towards it. I was born in Yorkshire but never felt the pride in it like most Yorkshiremen - in fact when we moved away I didn't mind at all - even though all of my relations still lived there. I am sure I wouldn't feel at home in any other country.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting. I wonder where your strong sense of Britishness comes from? So many different responses to this blog, it really intrigues me.

      Delete
  6. I can identify with much of this. I have lived in Wales for more than thirty years but still feel I am a visitor even after learning Welsh in night school for two years. I can still sing 'Hi Ho it's off to work we go' in Welsh, which to my surprise even most Welsh speakers don't seem to know. Having been born in Scotland of parents who were born in Scotland but with grandparents born various in England, Scotland, Ireland and India I am a bit of a mongrel. I live in Wales but love France but I have also spent time or worked in many other European countries. So, like you I feel European, though I do like Canada, too. I am comfortable calling myself British but if it ever came to having to choose between a Scottish passport and one from the rest of the UK I guess I would have to choose to be Scottish. All this identity stuff is fascinating. Oscar Wilde wrote flippantly that 'we have addresses to conceal our whereabouts' and I have always thought there is a lot of truth in that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fascinating. I hadn't thought about the passport test. If I couldn't have a UK passport, which feels entirely right, but had to choose between England and Wales I think I would choose a Welsh passport if there was such a thing. That reflects where I live now I suppose rather than where I was born.

      Delete
  7. PS I should add it is entirely my choice to feel a visitor in Wales. Welsh people I have been fortunate to meet have all been most friendly and welcoming. The fault lies with me not with them.

    ReplyDelete
  8. oops forgot it was St Davids day when I posted daffs! MY ID is intensely English (God for Harry and all that) though born in Jamaica and my first husband is a Welshman. Second one is Jewish so I think I'm comopolitan :)
    p.s. admire your coming to grips with a difficult language to speak

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are I think the first person to say your identity is intensely English. I wondered if Scottish, Welsh and Irish people felt that more strongly but your comment and and others below show that is not the case. It seems to be to do with where you feel at home.

      Delete
  9. Very thought provoking post Elizabeth. You have a knack of putting into words thoughts that are going through my head - at the moment where and how to live is very much up for discussion.

    I have always had issues around belonging and roots, born in Yorkshire to an Irish father and a Canadian mother but with most of my roots firmly in Ireland, a country I hardly know at all. Nationality only becomes an issue during the Six Nations - otherwise I am English. Yorkshire doesn't draw me back, but Kent does because I brought my children up there and that, for me, still feels like home.

    Seems to me you have adapted well to your adopted country

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is interesting Marianne. I brought my children up in Manchester but though it feels very familiar it doesn't particularly feel like home. I think that is partly because I now feel very at home in a rural place and cities have begun to feel like places to visit, not to live in!

      Delete
  10. Here we are in Italy now, just after a surprising and bruising (and nearly ncomprehensible) election. What joy to feel cleanly irresponsible! None of this is my fault! I can't be expected to do much about it, being foreign. These are the much underrated glories of living away from your home. No mistakes or messes behind you, you can remake yourself a bit, start afresh, afresh.

    Plus everyone has the glow of being foreign. I find myself making much more effort with people who might barely register with me at home, attributing much more romance to them. I love being home away from home.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love this Jane! It makes me want to live abroad right now. I have loved that sense of being present but slightly on the outside for years and your life now does that combination in spades!

      Delete
  11. Loved the reflecting . . . yours, then . . . mine.

    I am an American . . . however, I don't "feel" like a "Michigander" . . . having lived here for thirty three years . . . Or an "Iowan", where I lived for ten years . . . and then there is a "Wisconsinite" the place of my birth and living . . . for thirty years . . . not sure I "feel" that either. It leads me back to being an Ameican . . . and some what like a "midwesterner". (The 'west' though in midwestener makes me feel less authentic.).

    Best I say . . . I feel "middle american!).

    Great post, love the way your writing made me feel, think . . . reflect. A "gift" for this Saturday morning in the sunshine of the west shores of Michigan . . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is fascinating to be reminded that your country is so huge that a sense of identity might be tied to a state and not a country. I am also intrigued by what the associations are that make "midwesterner" feel less comfortable to you than "middle american"? Are there very particular things which associate with the midwest that I do not know about?

      Delete
    2. There is somewhat of a difference for me in identifying more with "Middle American" than "Midwestern". I think the negative connotations from people in the East or West, toward "Midwesterners" may play into that for me. Plus, "Middle American" feels more inclusive of me living in the three states. I hadn't really thought of this until your post. There is a bit of arrogance that exists from Easteners, toward, "Midwesterners!". Like . . . "Midwesterners aren't as worldly, intelligent, stylish . . . Often stated, "they are JUST from the Midwest.". Stereotypes seem to exist depending what part of the country you live in. Brings me back to feeling "middle american" Thank you once again for giving to me, this time of reflecting.

      Delete
  12. I am a creature of the human family born in South Wales from a mixed ancestry, including English(Devonshire),Welsh, Scottish and Scandanavian. There are no Welsh speaking members of my family. I'm not sure I 'belong' anywhere anymore. I do however have a home in an ex-mining town on the side of a hill. I get upset by the disregard for the land, and soil that seems to be ingrained in the psyche of the Coalfields Welsh perhaps because we are used to the landscape being laid waste. This used to be a Welsh language area, but now there are more English accents because the housing here is so cheap it has encouraged a similar immigration to that which took place during the Industrial Revolution. This region has always been a mix, remnants of that past immigration can be found in street names such as 'Spanish Row'. I suppose in truth the whole human family is related.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree wholeheartedly that we are all related. Did you see the Eddie Izzard programme the other week? That was the strongest message which came out of his journey back through what was revealed by his DNA.

      Delete
  13. When I was in my early teens I remember being genuinely angry with my Dad for not speaking Welsh or bringing me up to speak Welsh. Somehow being half Welsh meant a great deal, perhaps a desire to be different from my friends. I've never lived abroad, but have travelled a lot, and as an adult found nationalism really quite odd. I couldn't see why it mattered. Now, living in North Wales, hearing Welsh spoken (though not as yet by me!), I love the strong Welsh identity I see around me in the middle of all the middle class English incomers - and the huge number of scousers. I think I could happily live in Canada, but not the US, much as I love travelling there. I think like you I feel very European, and perhaps increasingly British, but I feel kinship with Scots Welshmen having spent considerable time living in both, so never quite English. And the European bit dissipates when I am confronted with the profoundly different cultures of rural France or Greece. Fascinating.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is an oddity, isn't it, this sense of identity? I read the comments of those who feel intensely English and I sort of understand that and recognise it. I suspect that reflects the importance of literature in my life and the way that so many of my literary points of reference are English. But somehow disconnecting me from England as I was growing up has left me with no strong sense of English roots. I am intrigued by your memory of minding the loss of Welsh. For so many of my Welsh friends here, the loss of the language in their childhood matters to them now as adults although their families doubtless thought that encouraging the use of English was doing the best for their children.

      Delete
  14. I feel very American, more so the older I get. When I was younger and we lived in Germany I thought I could live there forever, but now I know I couldn't . I love England and we visit there frequently and if we didn't live here it's the only other place I could imagine living.
    Here in the USA we often are more attached to our state than to the country as a whole. I've lived in 6 different states----California, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Georgia. But only 2 of them have a place in my heart, California where I was born and Georgia where we retired to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is a good reminder of the scale of America that some of those who have responded, like you, feel a strong attachment principally to their state.

      Delete
  15. What a fascinating post :)

    I was born in England but have lived in Wales, not so very far from you, for nigh on twenty years. I live closer to the border between England and Wales than you do though, and I've begun to feel as if I belong to the Marches, that place between that is both Welsh and English and yet neither, all at the same time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I understand that sense of the Marches. Perhaps that is part of feeling neither English nor Welsh, or both!

      Delete
  16. Elizabeth, I very much enjoyed your post, and have read all the prior comments, too. What an interesting topic. Where are we from, and how do we decide where and when to place the boundaries?

    Living in New York pretty much continually since 1967, most of my life has been spent in a very internationally-flavored city. New York is not only a city, but could almost be considered a country within a country. The rest of the States is such a different place, varied state by state, as well. I grew up in a southern state, Virginia, and still feel that early influence every day...some is positive, some less so. As a teenager, I began to think of strategies that would allow me to live somewhere else than within the traditional coda of where I'd grown up. Back then this was a bit revolutionary...but the 1960's were opening up all sorts of opportunities.

    It would be wonderful to actually be able to talk with you about this. I so hope that we will some day have this opportunity.

    Your blog posts are wonderfully varied, and always very welcome to this reader. xo

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with you about cities. London is a very different place from the rest of Britain and people will feel very intensely a Londoner, perhaps more than anything else. I would love to have the chance to really talk about this and all sorts of other things too!

      Delete
  17. I have been thinking about your post for the last couple of days and I knew there would be other fascinating comments here by the time I made my reply, as indeed there are. I think I can say I feel intensely English, because unlike many of your other visitors, I have no family background other than English men and women and have never lived anywhere other than in England. Much of my sense of Englishness comes from being steeped in history and landscape, from walking hills and fields and woods and learning about the people and places passed. I love poetry and find rhythms in the landscape. I have lived in many parts of England and do not call one part home any more, as I love the subtlety and variation of all places. I have travelled widely too and enjoy all the variety the world can offer, and could probably live almost anywhere, but England would be forever home and where the heart is.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I very much like your point about the importance of history and landscape. I think that and literature account for much of my own cultural identity but perhaps I call it British because I have a strong attachment to parts of Scotland and Ireland as well. Fascinating.

      Delete
  18. What a great post-- just wish I had time to respond to it as it deserves. I've lived on Canada's West Coast all my life, and culturally, I'm deeply Canadian in many, many ways. But I'm suspicious of nationalism as I am of sweeping declarations of what we Canadians are like, or the French, Indians or Chinese, Germans or Japanes. . . . I feel a deep connection to my English ancestry (my Dad was born in Middlesbrough, and most of his family are still in Teeside), and something keeps me heading back to France, which my maternal forebears left over 300 years ago. . .

    I linked to you today, thinking about Retirement . . . would love to read your thoughts, should you have anything to add that wasn't in your helpful post on the topic a little while ago.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do find that my friends in America, Canada and New Zealand share your sense of identification with both the country of their birth and their countries of origin. I agree entirely about a suspicion of nationalism. It has been the cloak for far too much aggression and dispute. As Paul says above, we are all ultimately part of the human family.

      Delete
  19. I would always think of myself as English rather than British. I live in South Africa now with my family, my husband is South African and my children feel South African, but like you, I feel I belong to my family rather than to a country or place now. I think my English identity is more a thing of culture than patriotism, woven of English country villages, green hills, English sense of humour and the language in all its intricacies and layers of meaning. And a sub-culture of other English/British people who have lived abroad and gained an extra perspective by doing so and being slightly outside.
    Thanks for raising this subject - it's fascinating reading everyone's different thoughts and feelings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do recognise your attraction to people who have lived abroad and have the different perspective that brings. I think that it is probably not an accident that the person who I have made a close friendship with here was born and brought up in Wales but then spent all her adult life in a variety of different countries as an expat. She has lived back in Wales for ten years or so and would probably describe herself as Welsh (I don't know, I have never asked)but that mix of experience resonates with me.

      Delete
  20. Cymro/Welsh 100%. European: yes. British: no!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting that many of the respondents from the UK feel English, Welsh or Scottish and not British. I think it perhaps reflects a fairly mongrel background - Scottish grandfather, Welsh grandmother, English grandparents. I don't want to identify with one part of that and ignore the rest so British gets closer to it.

      Delete
  21. I have thought about this so much, having moved from England into Wales and found that uncomfortable for many reasons - one, of course, being the antipathy of many of the Welsh to the English, and the other the English cultural cringe in relation to the Welsh. Much based on inaccurate history. I wrote about some of this in The Bad Tempered Gardener.

    And also I identify so much with Threadspider - my love of England and sense of Englishness are rooted so much in place, landscape, history. All of which are so very important to me so that it is strange to belong so closely to the Veddw and feel its foreignness too.To feel alien here and wish to be buried here too.

    But fundamentally I have come to believe that these feelings are rooted deeply in the people are are born as.Some of us identfy so closely to place, suffer any separation from it. Others are by nature wanderers with no understanding in their psyches of such feelings because it's simply not who they are.

    Recognising that could make us all more tolerant??

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting. I am fascinated by the combination of deep attachment and "foreignness" you describe in relation to Veddw and can imagine how strange that must be. Perhaps there are as you suggest both "place" people and wanderers, although clearly there are people who along as well as at both ends of the spectrum. Some of the "place" people have written interesting responses to my question about country and identity. I find it much easier to have a strong feeling about a place than about nationality while some of the responders clearly feel very strongly English, Welsh, American or whatever. They are presumably expressing a cultural identity as well. Your tolerance point echoes Paul's comment about the human family with which I feel very much in tune.

      Delete
  22. I'm very interested in this post. I feel very rooted to Edinburgh, where I've lived all my life, so feel Scottish; but I really feel at home in the Highlands and Islands too. But rootedness is a blessing (I belong) and also a curse (I don't feel I could ever live somewhere else). I often wonder how I'd feel if my roots were somewhere - oh, very industrial or very hot or cold or unscenic. Would I be so attached to it?

    I do enjoy your blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is hard to know what makes you feel rooted as you say, and it is possible, as Anne does above, to feel profoundly rooted to a place you were not born in. Thanks for commenting. I do love to know that people are reading and to hear their thoughts.

      Delete
  23. Wow, I have just found your blog and have read your post about belonging. I also went to NZ in my 20's, I still live here 28 years on. I can really identify with not belonging anywhere. I am English, but don't belong in England, but I also don't identify with being a NZ'er although both of my children are. I am sort of a waif and stray belonging no where. Strange though I don't feel bothered by it. When I ring home, I am told 'blimey love, don't you sound like a kiwi" but here when I meet new people they say "are you a kiwi?'' can't quite place your accent. My daughter is still shaking her head when her friends say "didn't know your mum was English'' because of course to her I have never sounded any different to how I do now. Life is a bit weird really when you think about it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sometimes I think the not belonging anywhere is also the belonging everywhere. I am pretty sure I could find a way to fit in in many places. It is a mixed blessing!

      Delete

Comments are great. Thank you for taking the time!