6 Jul 2014

Where to call home?

The count-down to the Great In/Out Referendum has been disturbing me for eighteen months now. I’ll be glad when it’s over, though the consequences whichever side wins are likely to take the country through rocky waters. What really irks me is the emotional turmoil it causes me. I try to understand why I feel so very involved without having, as far as I know, the tiniest strand of Scottish ancestry in my genetic make-up. 

Truth is, the whole stramash has brought to the surface the anti-English feeling Scots have been nurturing for generations. My children and I arrived here to live 27 years ago, in response to an inner imperative that this was a good place, the place I wanted my children to experience, where they could have a real childhood with physical freedoms impossible in a city, where my compromised lungs could breathe clean salt air, where we could walk on almost empty beaches under wide skies, where there was room to be all we could be. It was the landscape that drew me and the relative dearth of people. I was not put off by travelers tales of Scottish racism and bigotry. I hardly thought about the indigenous population, but if I did it was to appreciate the friendliness of shopkeepers. 

I had lived thirteen years in Brussels, suffering the palpable rudeness of shop-assistants,(One told a friend of mine with long arms that it wasn’t a different style of coat she needed but a surgeon!) Nurses, school teachers, people I met socially and invited to my home all struck me as blunt and outspoken to the point of rudeness. Belgians have an intrusively inquisitive, almost aggressive way of asking questions that made my English soul quail. It wasn’t wholly that we were incomers, ex-pats in a country ridden rough-shod over by many nations in the course of  wars having little or nothing to do with the peoples of the land between themselves and their goals. Divided itself for centuries by language and culture, and now uncomfortably united, Belgium has its own problems from which I was largely cushioned by a wide circle of friends from other European nations in the EU, especially the Germans, Danes, Italians, and the French. There were coffee mornings with other English women recently arrived and happily delighted with the restaurants, the wonderful choice in the hypermarkets, the patisserie, charcuterie, chocolatières. Gastronomically Belgium was a wonderland to us poor Brits. We also met Australians, New Zealanders, Americans. Lots of Americans. They were for the trade contacts with the new Europe and of course for NATO. I met the wives of diplomats of all nations. My husband bought a book of cocktail recipes. We lived well. 

I had babies in Brussels. I might never have had babies in England, on the NHS. I needed hormones injections to kick-start my body into reproduction. In London I was told ‘W don’t like messing with lady’s hormones.’ Well, no, they probably didn’t but they probably also found it expensive. There was no such prohibition in Belgium where if you had a good insurance all was possible. Once started my body seemed ready to go on for ever and we had three much cherished babes before stopping it again. It was these babies who, in their beauty and purity, eventually made me want another place for them to grow. That and the asthma.

Brussels is a long way inland. It is also in a kind of bowl which often causes temperature inversions during the winter when the air at ground level isn’t able to rise and blow away. Within a few months of arriving the asthma which had been my lot since infancy, Kicked in. Even living just outside London in the built-up areas of Thornton Heath, then Blackheath, it had been in total abeyance. Possibly there were psychological reasons, but chiefly I think it was the bad air. After the first baby arrived it increased uncomfortably and after the second it was incrementally worse. After the third our doctor was called several times to administer adrenaline injections and, once, to accompany me into hospital. there were days I could hardly walk across our bedroom and nights were terror-filled and long when I woke unable to draw breath and bargained with death, with a god I don’t believe in to be allowed to survive to be with my babies. Long spells of bronchitis followed and general exhaustion couple with the side effects of brutal medicines that made me jittery and more emotional than ever. 

It was not a good time, yet through it ran the joy of having the children. We also discovered, as can happen at crisis times in lives, a new way of seeing life. We discovered the Findhorn Foundation and the New Age. Although I believe that for both my husband and myself this was something of a diversion on a pretty road, it did open my eyes to the existence of other levels of perception. Eventually it led to our separation and the end of a 21 year marriage.That was, for me, a tragedy, but it gave me something in return. It gave me Scotland.

Returning to Brussels after an earlier stay of about five months in Findhorn, mostly in the real village, our eldest daughter, who was by then eight, asked more than once ‘When are we going back to live in Scotland? I want to live there before I’m too old to enjoy it.’ I returned with them two months before her eleventh birthday. She is still enjoying life here. The three of them finally began their real childhood. One owned a pony, one learned to sail, eventually had a dinghy and set course for making a life around watersports, one found friendships and experiences that she still writes about in her poetry.

I have much to thank Scotland for.

But - and does there always have to be this dark side to paradise? (Well, of course there does.) My initial happiness with the friendly ways of shopkeepers was eroded bit by bit by small incidence, mostly experienced by the children at school and in the street. Generally it came in the form of comments from bitter men, drunk on their morning tinny, making stupid remarks about the English voices of the children in front of them in the queue. My second daughter, a very sensitive soul, has never felt at ease here since the first of these experiences although she, like me, loves the landscape. She had a best friend who would talk in the most disparaging tones of ‘the English’ whilst (and I think it was genuine) forgetting the essential Englishness of our family. None of us picked up a Scottish accent. To me that would have been a falsity. Two young German boys who came to live here when they were seven and eight however became more Scots than the Scots. They picked up the accent along with the language. They also had their problems. There was, memorably, the old man invited to speak at the Academy prize-giving whose rambling and thankfully boring speech strayed into a diatribe about the Germans, defeated so heroically by the brave Scots in WW2. Sigh!

For me the erosion came little by little. In Belgium I had learned that I was English. This is so undeniably true it makes me blush, but I had never thought of myself as being anything in particular. I was a world citizen with a strong ideal about unity in Europe to be brought about by the brain-child of a good man, the French Foriegn Minister of the 50‘s, Robert Schuman. My family was not politically aware or inclined whereas my husband’s father was a Greek Communist and every bit as idealistic as Schuman about the enrichment of humanity, he just had differing ideas as to how it should be brought about. He was a good man too. In my family the Germans were spoken of with sympathy (and it has to be remembered that my parents lived through the war and the heavy bombing of Chelmsford with Marconi Marine where both of them worked as the target. They had experienced the war first hand, my mother working at night on the ambulances.) 

Soon after we arrived in Brussels my insular world view was shattered. We met a family from Pennycuik who were Catholic Scots and had chips on their shoulders about both allegiances. It isn’t going to far to say I was baffled by their attitudes, though they were nice enough to me. They made their feeling about Maggie Thatcher very clear and seemed to equate the rest of the English nation with her, quite forgetting that English miners suffered too; that English poor had to pay Poll Tax, lost the daily milk allowance for children and so on. 

They were a gentle introduction to the sort of racism I would come up against later. Soon after we moved here I made a friend who was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow and had escaped to South America as a young man. He was frequently vituperative abut the English systems and this has hardened into belligerence as he has aged. 

Someone once told me that most Scots don’t know their own history (it was a Scot who said this.) I have found this to be true. Over 400 years they have ignored the facts of clans fighting and massacring each other. Somehow all defeats, disasters and outrages have always been the fault of the English, especially the Clearances (Note the capital. They are an important part of Scottish justification for hating their neighbour.) Clearances happened in England, Wales and Cornwall long before they happened in Scotland ad a result of an increasing population and changes in agriculture and land use. It was for rather different reasons that the lairds decided to supplement their coffers with the income from sheep farming and ousted labourers from their cottages. Most of these lairds were Scottish, absentee landlords, living the high life in London but they called in the English militia to help them so - it was the fault of the English. Some lairds had put in place help for resettlement. That is conveniently forgotten too. 

Whatever the truth, it all happened a long time ago. The English are also blamed for killing off the Gaelic language. In fact, from local books, (written by locals) I have come to understand that in order to promote commerce with both the English and the Norman French, English was seen as an important language to be taught in schools. Tales of beatings given for speaking the native tongues (there’s more than just gaelic) could most probably be rivaled by beatings administered for failures to pay attention in class during other subjects, for behaviour and failure to produce good work but they are not remembered with such a sense of injustice and there is a handy place to alot blame.  There was undoubtedly suppression. The warring and rebellious clans were a trouble to the Kings in London, kilts were forbidden in an attempt to curb the wild Highlanders and so forth (brought back later by another King who fancied showing off his legs.). 

It all happened a long time ago. It’s wearying just thinking about it. But every English outrage is still seen as a rallying cry. My erstwhile friend has availed himself of every drop of acrimony, and charged his batteries on it. Our friendship is damaged because of this. His partner, South African, told me she had suffered the same hatred from the English when they learned where she was from, blaming her for Apartheid. I recently saw the film ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.’ I cried at the terrifying ill-treatment of the blacks, the arrogance and cruelty, the sheer stupidity of the Whites. Who wouldn’t. Through it all I thought: ‘S- equates this with the English-Scottish relationship across the years? How can she? It’s really not the same. The Blacks were treated like animals. The Scots are respected the world over- and in England too. How many English are proud of their Scottish ancestry? Were they segregated from the English in trains and restaurants? Did they still live in poverty in townships in the eighties only seen as necessary livestock to be employed as servants?’ No. They weren’t.

The Scots (it is impossible not to talk in generalities) seem to feel they have ‘lost their nationhood.’ I have never come across a nation so sure of its own identity. As far as I can see the very presence of the annoying neighbours has given them a reason to find that cultural identity and make much of it. Other countries have helped them in this. The Highland Games are celebrated more in the USA than they are here. The kilt, itchy and hot as it is, is worn with pride in Canada, Australia, America on Burns Night and at ceilidhs. Whereas the English are not quite sure who they are any more. The achievement of the English nation (and I am NOT using ‘English' where I should be using ‘British') is huge. Go to the Wikkipedia page to see that list.) We have always punched far above our weight and not always with the help or support of the Scottish nation. 

I knew the SNP was originally a Nationalist party that admired Hitler and many of its members refused to fight the ‘English war’ running away to Ireland when trouble started. The Irish didn’t ant them and sent them back again. Even the Irish who equally hated the English went to willingly to war against Hitler. I was shocked to read the words of a famous Scottish poet, Hugh Macdiarmid: 

 Now when London is threatened
With devastation from the air I realise, 
horror atrophying me, That I hardly care.’

This coming referendum is stirring up stuff. The last time I spent an evening with my bigoted friend took me a while to get over. I was hurt. He said as he left my dining table: ‘Perhaps you know now how it feels to be a Scot.’ Utterly unjust words that shook me. I have never looked down upon anyone from another nation. I have mostly despised stereotypes as lazy thinking. I do not feel responsible for perceived oppression. He considers himself an intelligent man but in this he shows only a painful lack of education and insight. Most sadly he has done three things for me: Firstly he has become the personification of the emotionally-driven chip-on-the-shoulder, find-someone else-to -blame Scotsman. Secondly he has made me proud to be English. 

Thirdly, and I say this sadly, he has also made me unsure I want to stay here if the Separatists get their way. 

I still remember the moment when driving into Findhorn with three excited young children ready to start their new life, I felt an almost physical shift as though I had been existing somewhere slightly to the right of myself and in that moment everything came fully into line, so for all the pain of separation from my husband (and it was intense) I never felt I had done the wrong thing. Now, however much 'they' say it isn't about hating the English, emotions are running high. For me it is the idea of waking up one morning to find I am living in a foreign country. I'm British. 

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