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.