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This Is My England
"Identity! Sometimes it makes my head hurt -sometimes my heart. So what am I? Where do I fit into Britain, 2000 and beyond?" Andrea Levy, a writer, is English born and bred. But her parents are Jamaican, and the colour of her skin not white. As a consequence, she is not always made to feel at home in the country she thinks of as home. In this article by her from The Guardian Weekend, February 19, 2000, she explores the question of identity, and its significance in a multi-cultural society like the United Kingdom.
I was recently in New Zealand on a literary visit sponsored by the British Council. At a book reading, a young white man asked me, "Where are you from?" England, I replied. 'You don't look English," he said. "Well, this is what English looks like sometimes," I answered. He laughed in an unconvinced sort of way. So I asked him, "What do you think an English person should look like. He pointed to another white person, a woman with fair hair, then to himself. Both of them were born and bred New Zealanders, but somehow they were more English than me.
This was in a country where, later, while speaking to a Maori man in his seventies, I was told that anyone with even the smallest fingerful of Maori blood is a Maori. No matter how tenuous the connection, no matter what country they live in, if they have Maori blood, then they are considered to be part of that culture.
Identity! Sometimes it makes my head hurt -sometimes my heart. So what am I? Where do I fit into Britain, 2000 and beyond? My dad came to this country in 1948, on the Empire Windrush ship. He was one of the pioneers. One of the 492 people who looked around the old British Empire colony of Jamaica, saw that there were no jobs, no prospects, and decided to chance his arm in the Mother Country. His identical twin brother had been in the RAF, stationed in England, during the war; and was returning to do a further round of service. My dad accompanied him, leaving behind in Jamaica his new bride, my mum, who waited impatiently for the call to join him.
I don't know what my dad's aspirations were when he arrived in Britain - he certainly didn't realise that he was making history at the time. But I do know that, when he boarded the ship, he knew himself to be a British citizen. He travelled on a British passport. Britain was the country that all Jamaican children learned about at school. They sang God Save The King and Rule Britannia. They believed Britain was a green and pleasant land - if not the centre of the world, then certainly the centre of a great and important Empire that spanned the globe, linking all sorts of countries into a family of nations. Far from the idea that he was travelling to a foreign place, he was travelling to the centre of his country, and as such he would slip-in and fit-in immediately. Jamaica, he thought, was just Britain in the sun.
There was a point when my mum had doubts about this emigration, on hearing stories of the treatment the first travellers had received. She wanted my dad to return. But it was too late; he already loved England by then. On the passenger list, the twin brothers are put down as having different ages, which might have been a clue. My dad wanted to be his own man, and England was the place to do it. (I've switched from saying Britain to saying England. Britain is the state. You're only British when you're outside the islands. When, for example, I'm in Europe or America, I'm British. It makes me feel somehow bigger. But as soon as I set my feet down on the land of Britain, I know I'm either in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland - separate countries without any doubt.)
My mum joined my dad in his one room in west London six months after the Windrush had docked. But they soon found that they were foreigners in England, and this shocked them. The things they thought of as quintessentially English - manners, politeness, rounded vowels from well-spoken people - were not in evidence. They suffered bad housing - by no means the plight of black people alone in those post-war days: the signs in windows read "no niggers, no dogs, no Irish". My dad faced incredible hostility when looking for somewhere to live because of the colour of his skin. He had a job with the post office. My mum, a trained teacher in Jamaica, had to sew to make a living here. She worked in sweat-shops with other foreigners, Czechs, Poles, Greeks, all fall-out from the war. She had one advantage: she spoke English. And one disadvantage: she was black (or coloured, as we were termed then).
It was when my brother, sisters and I were born that things began to get a little more complex. We were good citizens of this country (although the police did their best to thwart my brother in this). Never in trouble. Always polite. Never diddled the electricity meter. We lived in a council flat in Highbury, north London, next to the Arsenal football ground. In the world outside our flat, I was a north London girl. I went to the local school. Spoke like a cockney. Offered to mind people's parked cars on match days. Played rounders, skipping and two balls. I liked Mojos and gobstoppers; could blow a great bubblegum bubble. On TV I watched Coronation Street, Emergency Ward Ten, Dr Who. Cathy Come Home made me fear homelessness. The Sound Of Music made me long to be Julie Andrews. (I even convinced myself I looked like her - but no one else could see it).
At school, they taught me to read, write and do arithmetic (well, with the last one, heaven knows they tried). I studied Shakespeare and the Metaphysical poets. I learned to play the piano, and could sing and accompany myself to Greensleeves. I learned history - focusing on Gladstone and Disraeli - where at one time I truly did know all about the repeal of the Corn Laws and free trade. (None of this was unusual to my parents: it was what they had learned in their schools in Jamaica.) I was educated to be English. Alongside me - learning, watching, eating and playing - were white children. But those white children would never have to grow up to question whether they were English or not.
I was embarrassed that my parents were not English. One of the reasons was that no one around me was interested in the country my parents came from. To them, it was just a place full of inferior black people. They asked - oh, they asked all the time. "Where are you from?" was as constant a noise as a ticking clock. But if I answered "Jamaica", lips would curl or tongues would tut. They didn't want to know about the sun, the sugar cane, the rum punch. They didn't want to try our rice and peas. I remember a white American girl coming to school. You'd have thought that Doris Day herself was now a pupil. Everyone wanted to be her friend. To see her toys, to hear her parents' wonderful accent, to try their food with an "Ooohh isn't it lovely". America was a great place to come from.
Everything from Jamaica was odd to me. We got a parcel sent every Christmas. (Were we the only family who received parcels from Jamaica and not the other way around?) A gooey Christmas cake from someone called "my mother's mother". A bow tie for my brother and hand-stitched dresses for us girls. But we kids preferred English Christmas cake with white icing that cracked your teeth. Woolly jumpers would have been better; we said. And my brother sulked that the bow tie was guaranteed to get him teased beyond endurance.
We had a tin of sweetcorn in the cupboard that had come from a Jamaican parcel. I remember my mum opening it and us kids running around excited. Not because we were keen to try it, but because it was so weird. I tasted a niblet and spat it out, saying it was disgusting. (This was the early 60s -bear with me - salad was exotic.) My dad liked a thing called guava and got all sentimental when he thought of it. I didn't know what it was. But I did know the lyrics of a song that went something like, "Rub it on my belly like guava jelly", and got very embarrassed when he mentioned it again. And both my parents danced about like lunatics when Miss Jamaica won Miss World.
I wanted just to fit in and be part of everything that was around me, and these strange parents were holding me back. Then I grew up. More black people emigrated to England from the 50s onwards - from the Caribbean, from Africa. People came from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uganda. People from across the old Empire coming home to the Mother Country. After all, didn't she owe us? Along with this immigration - this safety in numbers - came a new interest for me in the country my parents had left. I was gaining a fledgling sense of pride in having a Jamaican heritage. Tentative at first - Bob Marley records, saying the word "feisty", practising sucking my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. Until it grew into a need to visit Jamaica.
My mum had recently been back after 40 years away. She came home telling me what a bloody awful place it had become. Hot, violent, poor. It was not the place she remembered. She still had family there, but most had now emigrated to America or Canada. My dad didn't want to go back, even to visit He preferred his memories and told me wistfully that he had no one there now - no family, no friends. He had made his home England He didn't want to miss the football. And without much problem he could now get his beloved guavas here.
Jamaica is an island where - apart from the aboriginal population, the Arawak - people were brought as slaves or indentured labourers. The white people there owned plantations and their workers. Some worked as overseers, the famously cruel bakra. Jamaica was a place of hard labour. The Jamaica I found was a brochure-beautiful island. A place where the colonists had left but, as we used to say in north London, "they'd taken their ball home with them". Taken the wealth, leaving an economy struggling with debt and trying to diversify so as to compete in a global market
However, the jewel in this island for me was my family. In Kingston, they welcomed me like a prodigal daughter. They told me that I looked like a Jamaican, even when I embarrassed them with my English ways - my liking for sitting in the sun, my insistence on making tea in a teapot and shivering in my woolly jumper, complaining about the "Christmas breeze". When I left, I wanted to know more about the people who formed me.
It is hard for anyone to research their genealogy; but it is even harder (though not impossible) for someone with my background. Most of the records are incomplete or unavailable at best; destroyed or non-existent at worst. I discovered it would take a great deal of time, patience and expensive travelling for me to put together my definitive family tree. So I did the next best thing. I talked to my mum.
It was simple. I asked her to tell me everything she knew about everyone she could remember. My mum claims that when I was little I wasn't interested in her family background. I claim that I asked her all the time, but that she wouldn't tell me. I got the impression that she had come to this country to gain a future, not to dwell on a past. Whatever the truth of it, at some point, thankfully, we merged. I was interested and she was willing to tell.
I learned about her grandfather - my great-grandfather - among many others. A man from Scotland who had flame-red hair. A fisherman who could turn his hand to anything and who liked to wash his money every Sunday. What was he doing so far from home in Jamaica? Where was his family? My mum didn't know - she only knew of him. I had to look in the Scottish history books to find that, like a reverse image of my dad's story, many men left the hardships of the Highland life to chance their arm in the Caribbean. This Scottish great-grandfather of mine left behind him the flaming hair, which my brother inherited and which got him teased beyond endurance.
My father's father fought in the first world war with the British West Indies Regiment.
He was born Jewish. His family had been in Jamaica for generations, but originated from North Africa. My grandfather had "married out", to a woman of Indian/African/Spanish descent and had taken the Christian faith while fighting in the war. His Jewish family disowned him and all his issue.
And, further back, my "mother's, mother's, mother's, mother" was born a slave. She had children by her white English master, who probably had several other children by his slave women and by his white English wife. I don't know what happened to him, but maybe some of his other descendants are reading this now.
The stories that I learned from my mum I pieced together into what I call a fictional family tree for my novel Fruit Of The Lemon. I tried to place those stories in context -where they belong - at the heart of a history that Jamaica and Britain share. There is a tendency to believe that the recent immigration into this country started by my intrepid dad and others, was where our relationship began. But nothing could be further from the truth. There was an excellent programme on Channel 4 recently about Britain's slave trade, which showed the extent to which many of England's aristocratic families gained their wealth through slavery. Cities such as Bristol and Liverpool were built with the money from the slave trade. What the programme also showed was that not only do black people have ancestors who are white, but also some ordinary British white people are connected by family ties to the black people of the Caribbean or to the estimated 20,000 black people who settled in Britain as a result of the trade. The history of Britain is inextricably linked with that trade, and therefore with somewhere like Jamaica. Indeed, without the trade in slaves Jamaica as we know it would not exist.
When you look at family trees - anybody's family tree, people's individual histories, not the winner-takes-all history of nations - the question of identity becomes very complicated. It would be nice and simple if we were all pure. If we all came from where our parents, grandparents and beyond came from. If we all just took on our forefathers' culture. Wouldn't it be nice if we could say that all Africans are black and all English are white? Wouldn't it be simple if, when some racist (as many have done in my time) shouts at me to go back to where I came from, that I got an image of Jamaica in my head instead of thinking that I must go back to minding cars outside the Arsenal? It would make for easy argument - it would help the bigots' cause. We would all fit into our separate boxes, and in times of change, such as those that we are now living through, we could retreat into them and lick our wounds. But it is not like that. Any history book will show that England has never been an exclusive club, but rather a hybrid nation. The effects of the British Empire were personal as well as political. And as the sun has finally set on the Empire, we are now having to face up to all of these realities.
Empire is over and, as Britain is being devolved down into its component parts, there is a loss of identity that has settled upon England. Darcus Howe, in his recent Channel 4 programme, White Tribe, went on a journey to find English culture, which so many believe resides only in the white population. Many blamed the multi-cultural nature of England for the country's plight. But this sense of loss was always going to happen - losing something as powerful as an empire will always hurt. It was going to happen even if my dad had not set sail on the Windrush; it was going to happen even if Idi Amin had not expelled the Asian population from Uganda. But perhaps the vitality of multi-culturalism is now the catalyst that is speeding up a necessary period of soul-searching.
I am English. Born and bred, as the saying goes. (As far as I can remember, it is born and bred and not born-and-bred-with-avery-long-life-of-white-ancestors-directly-descended-from-Anglo-Saxons.) England is the only society I truly know and sometimes understand. I don't look as the English did in the England of the 30s or before, but being English is my birthright. England is my home. An eccentric place where sometimes I love being English.
When I hear that the surge of energy needed after a good television programme is because everyone is getting up to make a cup of tea, it makes me smile. I, too, was there with my teapot after the last episode of Only Fools And Horses. I love that our national dish has become curry. And the view from London's Waterloo Bridge just takes my breath away. I hate being English when I hear what happened to Stephen Lawrence. When every day seems like a battle against racism, and hatred, and the quiet, polite hostility that holds many black and Asian people back from fulfilling their potential. I want to belong to anywhere but this place where I am made to feel like an outsider - not welcome, definitely not welcome at all.
Saying that I'm English doesn't mean I want to be assimilated; to take on the majority white culture to the exclusion of all other. (I cannot live without rice and peas. I now dance like a lunatic when Jamaica win anything. And I will always make a noise when moved by emotion.) I will not take up a flag and wave it to intimidate. And being English will not stop me from fighting to live in a country free from racism and social divisiveness.
There are many white people here who are appalled that someone like me could be English. And there are many black people with similar backgrounds to mine who do not wish to be called English. But national identity is not a personal issue. It is political. It cannot be decided at the whim of the individual. Englishness must never be allowed to attach itself to ethnicity.
The majority of English people are white, but some are not. If we say otherwise, it is in tacit agreement with the idea of racial purity, and we all know where that dangerous myth can lead. Let England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland be nations that are plural and inclusive.
Last year, I was in Scotland reading at the Edinburgh Festival. I was telling the audience about my great-grandfather with the flame-red hair. After the reading, a Scottish woman came up to me, held my arm and whispered, "You know, I could just tell you were Scottish."
Andrea Levy has published three novels, Fruit Of The Lemon, Every Light In The House Burnin, and Never Far From Nowhere.
The Guardian Weekend, February 19, 2000
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