Divided loyalties: being Hiberno-English

A long while since (5th September 2008, since you didn’t ask), Malcolm put up a post on being Anglo-Irish. For some reason, that still attracts a fair number of “hits”. This, then, may be the logical  counter-part.

J’ai deux amours

Josephine Baker famously had two loves:

J’ai deux amours
Mon pays et Paris.

If Freda McDonald — barely two generations from slavery — had a hard life, growing up in St Louis, she found fame, fortune and a distinguished personal history as Josephine Baker in her adopted France.

Therein lies the rub

In this 21st century, many of us have two identities: one on the birth certificate, and one in the life we live. There’s little particularly “new” in this:

  • Arthur Wellesley got himself born in what is now the Merrion Hotel, Dublin — but is the archetypal English Iron Duke;
  • David Lloyd-George arrived in the world in the Manchester suburbs, but is forever “the Welsh Wizard”;
  • Éamon de Valera originated in New York, but re-made an Ireland in his own image;

— and so on.

Malcolm’s eldest has a surfeit of air-miles and is quadri-lingual in English and American, Tottenham and Noo Joisey. Even daughter number 2, the Earth Mother, manages to switch effortlessly between south Saxon RP and narrow-vowelled Anglian North Yorkshire.

Your nationalism quiz

Yesterday’s

Times

,

at its fullest fluffy Murdochian populism, was rattling on:

A new version of the Life in the United Kingdom handbook, published yesterday, aims to prepare would-be Britons for the citizenship test. The guide focuses on history, tradition and what it means to be British and has ditched more mundane sections on the practicalities of life in the UK …

The 180-page guide, costing £12.99 is unashamedly patriotic, with a red, white and blue cover and pictures of the Queen and of crowds waving the Union flag at the Last Night of the Proms and on the Mall. Sir Winston Churchill is pictured alongside quotes from his wartime speeches but only two post-war prime ministers receive separate biographies: Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

The new edition finds a place for Monty Python, Morcambe and Wise and Torvill and Dean, but migrants will also be expected to know about important figures of English literature including Sir Kingsley Amis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K.Rowling.

Pass the sick-bag, Alice.

On the other hand, the side-bar was a Commentary by Matthew Syed, and it went a way to re-entering normality. Syed refers back to background:

My father arrived on these shores in 1966 as a Muslim, Pakistani, and harbouring deep suspicions about British cultural assumptions. Almost half a century later, he is a monarchist, Radio 4 aficionado and just about the most patriotic Brit I know. With the exception of his Christianity, to which he converted, Britishness is perhaps the most important and cherished affiliation of his life.

My maternal grandfather, who died last week at 98, lived a very different life to my father. Born in the Rhondda Valley at the outset of the Great War, he worked down the pits from 14 then spent a lifetime serving others, first at a home for deprived children and then as warden of an old people’s home. the one thing he shared with dad was a deep love of nation, but he interpreted Britishness in a fundamentally different way.

Not deep. Not philosophical. But neither, reading between the lines of that Times piece, is Life in the United Kingdom [£12.99 at all good bookshops, or around £7.99 if you're Brit enough to order on-line — a nationality test in itself]. Syed scores by being domestic, humane, direct, down to earth — even dignified, in the best sense. All the good things the official line seems to miss.

For an example, today’s Clare in the Community (Harry Venning’s unfailingly reliable weekly cartoon for the Guardian‘s Society section) is an instant education in ‘Britishness’, and — unlike the nostrums in Life in the United Kingdom — transcends the regional cultural divides that Syed glosses in that final phrase above:

Clare in the community cartoon

What are little boys made of?

Everyone differs: we are an unregimented, frequently-bolshie and mutually-incompatible lot, each with our peculiar passions. What is it that makes Malcolm’s academic and professorial Little Brother traipse out fortnightly to stand with perhaps 5,000 other stalwarts and watch Notts County? The heterogeneousness is an essential part of belonging anywhere on this archipelago.

Unlike Syed, Malcolm was denied personal knowledge of either of his grandfathers: one tends his plot eternally in Doullens Communal Cemetery Extension No. 2; the other died of miner’s lung around the time the (first) Great Slump arrived. Did either of those have a deep love of nation, an overwhelming sense of being “British”?

As for the royalist thing, Malcolm recalls (and can date) 15th February, 1952. He doesn’t remember the funeral of George VI — apart from the oddest early-adopter, television hadn’t penetrated north Norfolk. He does know it was a day of national mourning, and so a Friday off school. Dear Old Dad spent much of the day double-digging the long vegetable garden, and none too chuffed. When pre-adolescent Malcolm murmured a triteness about it being “Sad about the King”, the parental snort was followed by “Why, what did he ever do for me?”

Was that the germ of a young republican?

Two loves? Well, two affections.

For Malcolm neither north Norfolk nor dirty Dublin quite amount to “‘loves”. The former has changed, not wholly for the better, over the years as the have-yotties and weekenders made the coast a transplant of Camden Town — Hampstead-by-the-Sea is further south, at Southwold. Dublin has changed even more, though there remain vestiges of the old scruffiness. West Cork has gone the way of the gentrified English coast. Once away from the “gold coast”, the rest of County Down is not wholly spoiled — but could one transplant and enjoy living there?

Despite all the confusions, that double pull recurs and endures. After all, when GCE English History and English Literature immediately leads into the Irish Leaving Certificate, a cultural trauma persists for life.

Par eux toujours,
Mon coeur est ravi.

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1 Comment

Filed under Britain, County Cork, Dublin, East Anglia, High School, History, Ireland, nationalism, New Jersey, Norfolk, Times, Wales, Wells-next-the-Sea, working class, Yorkshire

One response to “Divided loyalties: being Hiberno-English

  1. Pingback: The sky is falling! (selectively) | Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service

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