Sometimes, to see something properly you have to stand a long way away from it.
On the morning of 29 July 2012 I watched the opening ceremony of the London Olympics on the Internet. I watched as soon as I got up, around 7.30am, without my usually reading of the morning’s news over breakfast, to avoid any spoilers since it had gone out live the night before. As a piece of spectacle and theatre I thought it was really fantastic; even though I had problems with bandwidth and the playback was stopping and starting all the way through, like many people I found the whole thing tremendously satisfying and moving, and I felt very pleased and proud of what creative director Danny Boyle had achieved. And, along with a large proportion of the folks back home, immensely relieved that the UK had avoided embarrassing itself while the world was watching.
Since I had been in India for 18 months at that point, reflecting on this led me, inevitably, to think about being British.
What follows is a rather rambling attempt to join the dots of what I was thinking then, and more generally what I’ve been thinking since I arrived in India…
The idea of “Britishness” is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, like many of my countrymen. The first problem being that Britain isn’t a single nation… it comprises England, Scotland and Wales, and each has its own distinct identity, languages and culture—although it’s often said the English struggle to find an identity in the way that the Scots and the Welsh do. I was born in England, and while my passport describes my nationality as “British Citizen”, it also says that my sovereign state is the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. So I can choose between being English, British, or “from the UK”.
Meanwhile, back at the Olympics, all the athletes are described as being in “Team GB”, even though those from Northern Ireland are not actually from Great Britain–causing inevitable resentment.
Anyway, lots of things in the Opening Ceremony resonated with me, as they would have with many people back home, starting with the singing of Jerusalem, based on William Blake’s poem And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time. Variously described as an “English Anthem” or a “Socialist Hymn”, it is commonly associated with elite English schools, but it also was the school song at my own high school, even though it was a very ordinary comprehensive in Rochdale, Lancashire. During the Industrial Revolution, in that part of England, and especially around Manchester and its North-West satellite towns—Bury, Oldham, Blackburn, Burnley and others—the rural communities in and around the Pennines grew to become pivotal parts of the global Cotton industry. At school we all used to love singing Jerusalem. Apart from the rousing tune, I think that being in that part of the world we could all strongly relate to “Dark Satanic Mills” set in “England’s Green and Pleasant Land”. (It also includes the line “Chariots of Fire” which has obvious connections to the Olympics.)
Although I’d always assumed that Danny Boyle is Irish, it turns out he was born in Bury, about 7 miles up the road from Rochdale. But there was no doubt in my mind over his intended meanings in the performance of a pastoral, green countryside being ripped up by Brunel’s factories and smoking chimneys.
Danny Boyle is well known here in India as the director of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and the Indian press avidly reported on his opening ceremony. Rumours are that he had all kinds of plans for the event that celebrated the South Asian contribution to British culture, including music by his slumdog collaborator and Bollywood soundtrack maestro AR Rahman, but this got cut when he was told to lose 30 minutes from the performance at the last minute. I hope this lost segment sees the light of day sometime.
As a young lad in Rochdale I enjoyed climbing trees, bird-watching, fishing, and walking on the moors. As I became older I began to realise that the town was actually becoming a bit of a dump… a once-prosperous mill town that, like the rest of the region, had been in decline throughout the 20th century. The cotton industry had once been a key driving force of the Industrial Revolution itself, even exporting to India. But the seeds of this decline were later sown by none other than Mahatma Gandhi, when he led a boycott on the import of Lancashire cotton as part of his independence campaign, promoting home-spun Khadi instead. The connections between Lancashire and India run very deep.
Like its neighbours, Rochdale became a multicultural town, with large waves of immigrants from South Asia arriving during the 1950s and 1960s—ironically, many coming to work in the textile mills. At school I had friends with names like Aftab, Boshra and Krishan, and it never really occurred to me to think about why they were different. South Asian culture was an integral part of the local landscape. I can still vividly remember the first time I ate a home-made Samosa.
Unfortunately this part of Britain also became known for racism. The racist, anti-immigration National Front and British Movement became established in the 1970s as immigration grew, and the neo-nazi skinhead-dominated marches they led through Rochdale and nearby towns often ended in violence. Although their contemporary incarnation the BNP seem to have been mostly vanquished in elections in recent times, many of the members seem to be re-grouping behind the so-called English Defence League. These days, Oldham and Burnley have become synonymous with racial tension in England. And so, sadly, the scapegoating of immigrants and the cycle of violence continues there.
You could probably argue that one of the many forces driving these abhorrent kinds of behaviour is the struggle to express an English or British identity, and certainly the Union flag of the UK, or the English cross of St George, would always be very prevalent on these marches. (The flag of St George was also used on the crusades, so there’s quite an old precedent for this.) This meant that when I was growing up, to me these national flags represented violence and intolerance, or at least right-wing politics, and even now I can’t really imagine myself having any use for them.
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The Indian subcontinent itself has similar naming issues to those in the UK. What was formerly known as British India was partitioned (clumsily, and with disastrous effect) by the British in 1947 into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan—which itself then went on to have its own war of independence and emerged as Bangladesh in 1971. Lower Burma was also part of British India for a time as well.
So “South Asian” identity can be equally tricky to talk about. If someone was born in Lahore for example, you would need to know their date of birth. If it was after 15 August 1947 then they are technically Pakistani, and if it was before that then they were born in British India, under the Raj. So if, say, I talk of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan‘s music while discussing India, even though he was born in Pakistan in 1948, it’s because he represents 600 years of the Qawwali music tradition, rather than what was written in his passport.
Even the term “South Asia” is not fully defined. Apart from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh it often—but not always—is used to include any combination of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma and the Maldives. Some organisations also include Tibet and Afghanistan. There are almost as many variants as there are countries you could include.
So arriving in India to live and work has been problematic for me in some ways. As a British expat, I wonder and I worry about what Indian people will think of me because of where I come from. When a stranger, usually a rickshaw-driver, asks me “Which country, sir?” I usually cringe a bit and then answer “UK” or sometimes “England”. I often add “Manchester” because everyone has heard of it thanks to Manchester United being a global brand. I say I cringe because I’m never really sure to what extent Indian people might still resent the British. Of course, what my forefathers might have done to their forefathers (and vice versa) is outside our control, but resentment can last for generations.
Somehow answering “UK” sits better with me, given that I lived in Scotland for 10 years and consider it my spiritual home in some ways, and many of my friends live there. (I’ve never really felt homesick very much, but when I have it’s for Scotland! I’ve never really understood why. I usually feel like I’m missing people rather than places.) I also have some French blood, going back to the Huguenots who arrived in East London in the 16th century, working as weavers. And since my paternal grandmother’s name was Griffiths I guess I must probably have Welsh blood too. It has been said that everyone living the UK is either an immigrant, or is descended from immigrants.
Identity is a complex thing, which we actively choose and construct, and which changes over time. While living in the UK there was never really much need to think about my nationality, although for a time when I was 18-21 or so I thought of myself as “British European” in an Eddie Izzard kind of way, probably because I was backpacking around Europe by train during my summer vacations. (Eddie Izzard himself being a perfect example of constructed identity on several levels.)
But since I came out to India, I have been more defined by my origins whether I like it or not. Especially at work, where for the last year I have been the only British person, and the only native speaker of English. And although the non-teaching staff in the college are all local, the lecturers are from all over the world: currently Mexico, Portugal, Belgium, France, Latvia and the Philippines as well as India. Working with such a mix of people has been really interesting; even the stereotypical “in my country…” conversations are fascinating. One of the reasons that travel broadens the mind is that you learn that there are so many different ways of seeing the world apart from the ones you were given as you grew up in your homeland. But when you’re the only one, I guess others will inevitably define you by your nationality, and in a way you feel obliged to live up to that.
So, although I never really had much need to think about my nationality—or my national identity—before, it has somehow risen to the surface while I’ve been in India. I was quite surprised that the Olympic ceremony made me feel a little bit proud to be British, probably for the first time in my life. The other side of this coin is that coming to India has made me feel slightly uncomfortable about my origins, or at least has driven me to learn more about the atrocities of Britain’s colonial past.
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I wrote most of this post the day after the opening ceremony in July, and have tinkered with it on and off since then. It’s a very complicated issue, and I was never really sure whether I was going to publish this, just let it simmer, or maybe keep it private. As I often tell my students, one of the reasons for writing is to find out what you think. And what I think about my identity is still evolving as I spend more time in India.
But I do feel very comfortable here. The culture was already familiar to a large extent when I arrived, English is widely-used, the food is wonderful, and the people I’ve met so far have been warm, friendly and charming. I think the challenge–and the fun–for me now is to keep digging deeper.
I’m looking forward to Chapter 2.