How am I British?

Budleigh

The first person I heard telling me that I could not be both British and Finnish was a prospective Conservative MP in 2009.  It was at a work event that had turned into a long lazy evening of summer-time drinking.  I was used to being professionally bi-partisan, and it was a charming evening with the sun setting over the mellow brick of one of London’s storied members’ clubs, and someone else was buying the drinks, so it was intriguing to find out how different my worldview was to his.  Labour was in power and had been for a long time.  Gordon Brown was exercised over problems to do with national identity which seemed rather academic to me, even though my organisation had been a bit involved; organising the launch event for Lord Goldsmith’s Citizenship Commission and going to meetings about the proposed “Statement of British Values”.  In retrospect, I see it was in the air.  I asked the future MP what had drawn him into politics.  “Well, in one word,” he said, “if you really want to know – MargaretThatcher”.  He continued to be adamant that it was literally impossible to be loyal to two countries at once.  I wasn’t worried or frightened that he and his like would change my life, or my standing in either country.  I saw nationalism as an interesting debate but one on the fringes in a nation with much bigger fish to fry because of the financial crash.

Seven years later, I woke up the day after the British had voted (narrowly) to take Britain out of the EU, and Nigel Farage was on the radio declaring it a ‘victory for decent people’.

So I was wrong about the importance of nationalism in British social life.  Nationalism played out differently among different Brexit voting groups.  The racism of the man who yelled at one of my relatives in a hospital is different to the protectionism of the trade union leader who said that his job was to protect British workers (forgetting that his union happily accepted subs from EU workers in Britain).   But when people on both left and right talk about sovereignty, what can they really mean except that their vision of the nation wasn’t being fulfilled?

Being both British and Finnish, the debate affected me differently to pro-Europeans who were only British.  I would remain an EU citizen despite the vote, whereas their rights are being stripped away.  But I felt my sense of belonging, of having a home, or homes, had been pulled out from under me.  I mulled a lot on what patriotism meant, how to think of my relationship to Britain while also being from somewhere else.  If not an ethno-nationalism of saying “the people here are better”, then what was it?  What did Britishness mean to me?

It was definitely landscape – the Yorkshire moors, the Scottish mountains nosing at the sky, the fields in Devon rolling towards the the fishing boats pulled up on pebble shores; the narrow old streets of London opening onto plazas of glass and steel tower blocks, and people from all over the world streaming through our streets.  And it was the food that came from these places: the fish and chips, the ploughman’s lunch with a  block of crumbling cheddar, and also the food from all over the world that those city dwellers had brought with them.  Britishness for 500 years had been exploratory, outward looking.  Not always to the benefit of those people Britain had looked outwards to, but that curiosity and ambition, both good and bad, had led, I  proudly thought, to Britain’s fairly decent foreign policy and its international aid programme.  In spring 2017 I stood watching clouds and sunshine chase each other over Glastonbury Tor, and thought  ‘Britain, such a beautiful country full of delightful, polite, people who make terrible decisions.’

And, to me, deeply, Britain was in its language. English (I don’t speak Welsh or Gaelic) – that wonderfully absorptive language, full of Latin and Greek and French and German, and loan words from all over the world.  The ketchup on my chips had come via Malaysia, once.  I studied English Literature at university and could never quite believe I was getting a degree for something so lovely to do as read books.  I engaged passionately and traumatically with reading.  I cried after my Medieval exam because I felt I had not been able to fully do justice to Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight, and spent much of that summer lying on the lawn meditating on the Middle English teutonic word ‘draumr’ meaning ‘joy’ which gave us our modern English word ‘dream.’  I nearly went mad dreaming my way into Ozymandias and felt I had tracked some important thoughts about post-Providential Victorian narratives through Shelley to George Eliot.  Twenty years later, for much of the summer of 2016, I hugged this thought to myself.  I was sure Nigel Farage did not love English literature the way that I did. It made me more British than him, in my head, for a while.  I felt that love gave me rights. I had a distressing moment on Twitter when Leavers Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell quoted Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins at each other over a photo of a landscape.  It was the poem my sister had read at my wedding.  They were on my turf.

There is something to say about what it means to be a re-migrant to Finland too, but I am still in the middle of that.  The only thing that has become clear in recent weeks is that Brexit or no Brexit, I cannot lose my Britishness.  People divorce their spouses but they rarely leave their children (my biological father did, but he was a shit).  For most people, there are ties that are too profound and too intertwined in everything about them to break.  My ties to both my countries are that.  I have two children, my love for one does not displace my love for the other.  The senses I have of both my countries sit happily inside me, they are not in conflict, whatever the future Tory MP thought about it. He was, I have realised, quite simply wrong.

A couple of Saturdays ago I was late to a friend’s baby’s first birthday party here in Helsinki. I explained my truthful reason for lateness, that my baby had been wild-eyed and screaming for 24 hours since a bad flight from London – but I was touched to find people ask me in reply if I had been able to watch the Royal Wedding, as if gently allowing me to reveal the truth behind a little white lie, making space for my Britishness.  And I had indeed watched the wedding on my phone on the tram, sobbing a little at Meghan Markle’s beauty as she entered the church, weeping quite freely on public transport during Bishop Curry’s rousing address about how love could change our world.  I’m sentimental about weddings anyway, but I’m sure that there was something about the Britishness that pulled me in.  The beautiful spring weather, the arches of flowers over the antique stone chapel, Britain coming face to face with our new bi-racial campaigning feminist American actress Duchess, revealed from under her magnificent veil which had been embroidered with symbols of all the countries of the Commonwealth – and a Californian poppy, for her.  We didn’t know before now that the Queen’s Prebendary is a black woman – the Church of England has been changing for a long time but now the world knows.  When I became British I had to swear loyalty to the Queen and her heirs, and I’ve never been sure what that meant.  But when I read the next day that Piers Morgan in the Daily Mail was warning Meghan off from talking about feminism from the palace, because she has servants there (as if he ever cared about intersectionality before) I felt a call inside, saying “find me my sword of words, I must fight with my Duchess!”.   Britishness evolves, and will continue to.  It’s a thing of wonder, complex and rich.  A few weeks later I lay on a hot afternoon in a hidden little corner of a Finnish forest against a smooth granite rock, amid birches and rowan blossom and the white flower called Solomon’s Seal.  It made me think of Bishop Curry’s words about love at the wedding from the Song of Solomon: “Place me like a seal upon your heart”.  I felt drenched in sunshine and love and language, and extraordinarily happy.

sdr

 

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I haven’t wanted in the past to write a blog about personal resilience, as it seemed self-indulgent.  Yes, lining up the pace of the course against client demands and life with a toddler can be hard, but it’s a choice I made.

But this morning, for the first time in my life, I had writer’s block.  I thought writing up the dissertation report would be the easy bit.  I’ve written and re-written hundreds of documents at speed, to demanding standards, throughout my working life.  But this one is different, because it signifies the end of the course.  It doesn’t quite, actually, as there is still an e-module to go, but in terms of the self-directed piece of the course, the bit where I have tried to find the subjects that would put rocket boosters under my career, this is the end.

It’s a perfect early summer Sunday  in London and my husband is taking our daughter to an outdoor swimming pool.  I am looking forward to having my life back.

The wordcount looms over me.  I have no trouble spinning words like yarn, but identifying the 15 – 20  key statements that form the core of the dissertation, that will be hard.  I gave that a go last weekend – I used Anthony Haines’s report planning  tool to force myself to say in one page of boxes and arrows what it is that my dissertation is about.  I have a catch up call on Wednesday with someone from the industry whom I interviewed, and wishes to hear how I’ve got on.  The timeline, and the world is urging me to more specificity.

But to be specific requires acres of background.  I am sitting with my 30 pages of extracted quotes from the literature review, with my transcripts floating ethereally over my head, with notes on methodology.  I have to catch sentences from the air and truncate them, squeeze them til their meaning comes out in one short gasp, not several long, flowing lines.

I proofread my husband’s latest blog last night and he admitted that his punctuation can be baroque.  He’s lucky though, he’s a scientist.  He has been trained for clarity.  The last time I was in academia I was studying Creative Writing, and before that, English Literature.  I trained my mind through work to be precise and concrete, to spout clichés to staff like ‘what we need this document to do is tell our donors WHAT we are going to do and HOW we are going to do.’

I was foolish in the process of my dissertation. I let myself enjoy exploring a new world.  But that is not what study is for, that is what life is for.  Study is for the disciplined pursuit of a well-reasoned methodology, in the interests of finding an answer to a tightly defined question that should be useful to a well defined group of people.

This is only for a few more months.  A few years ago, after 10 years of physical inertia, a friend persuaded me to run a half-marathon.  I did not do well. But I finished.  I can draw on my Finnishness, on the Finnish ‘Sisu’ – the ability simply to persist.

The writers’ block should have gone now.  I need to write down one of my sentences and squeeze it till the meaning pops out in one gasp.

It was never about the money, really. Only about what it did.

Some of my  family asked what I thought about the bad news at my former employer Save the Children, so here is what I think.  The recent news is that Save the Children has stood down from applying for DFID funds, as I understand it, to earn back trust following the disgrace of the sexual harassment scandal involving Save’s former CEO and his former Deputy.  To me, that’s like standing down every doctor and midwife in a busy hospital because of what happened in the CEO’s office.  Different punishments would have been possible.  However this is the one that is happening  and it’s not for me to say whether it is right.  But all the press talks about is the loss of £100 million a year, and not what it does – so I want to add a little drawing in the margins to show what it meant to me.

I ran a team that worked with country and technical expert teams at Save the Children, and cutting the jargon, we pulled together bids for large and complex programmes and helped them start up.  So I feel very sad that Save will have to sit on its hands next time it sees an opportunity to save children with DFID funds.  For some, this seems a peripheral issue, what are a few bids here or there, that’s just money.  But the programmes that we got funded really did matter and I wonder who will really pay the price for the transgressions of the men at the top.

The UK public often has a perception that there are a lot of development NGOs and that the market could probably be culled without too much damage.  I think that perception arises because public fundraising in the UK is indeed frenetically competitive – however the globe is big and the distribution of NGO activity across some parts of the world can be pretty thinly spread out, especially in conflict affected or very remote areas.  Save  had made strategic decisions about focusing more on exactly those fragile regions.  Not every organisation could make that decision, as if you don’t have the networks, legitimacy, and security systems to work there then you are taking risks, at worst with peoples’ lives.  But those that can, like Save and Oxfam, felt that they needed to support people in those places.  So if Save and Oxfam cannot be funded to do work, there are certain districts or provinces where it is extremely unlikely that any other organisation can step in, certainly not with any speed or scale.

There were times that we at Save were really uniquely well-placed and I have no doubt that lives were saved by our work because we were there.  I won’t identify specific programmes as I do not speak for Save, but just one example I know well.  In Country X, we were one of only three organisations present in the region where most child deaths were happening, and where an opportunity arose that would enable us to treat 100,000 child patients a year for acute malnutrition.  One of the other organisations was smaller than us but we worked closely with their excellent experts to harmonise technical protocols and agree how to coordinate our work.  In the acute malnutrition programme Save had worked on jointly with them, we had a 90% cure rate. The third  organisation in the region had a 50-60% cure rate, and although they had other important strengths that we wanted to see deployed, you can imagine how strongly we felt that the approach with the higher cure rate had to be the one delivered – you can do the math yourself on what that means with 100,000 seriously ill children.

The nutrition advisor told me how she used to go up and down the queue outside the clinic, among women queuing with skeletally thin children in their arms in hot, dry air; and she would look for the children who were hours rather than days from death and get them to the front of the queue for therapeutic food treatment.  Oh fuck, I thought. We wrote in sophisticated technical language but it was oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck  that drove the work.

Actually, we brought all three organisations together, and got over the tensions to become partners.  The overall programme we were part of was worth about £45m and we helped shape the whole, it ran on a plan that we sat and bashed out with some aggression and fierce honesty.  It would have been easier to ‘know our place’ and ‘stick to our knitting’, implementing what someone else told us to, but it was right to speak out for children.  Those were our values.

A lot of money?  Yes, it needed money.  But the bit that momentarily floored myself and my colleague Joe, walking down the steps after it was signed off, was saying that it was likely that 100,000 children’s lives would be saved over 4 years.  And if the world had another 80 programmes at that scale, mass child mortality would be at an end.  Of course it doesn’t really scale like that but never before had I worked for an NGO and seen the resolution of a global challenge within that achievable order of scale.  That country changed me, it made me profoundly optimistic about the future for a while. Over the next few years I was privileged to watch my growing team work with our colleagues on education, livelihoods and health programmes that would reach many tens of thousands of children more.

I wish people in NGOs talked about impact targets instead of fundraising targets.  We did talk about results and quality but in NGO-world if you are successful in securing large amounts of money, people assume you are driven by money. But, no, not really.  It was never about the money.  It was only ever about what it did.    And that’s why I believe that it’s a tragedy that Save is not going to be turning DFID funds into therapeutic food, science equipment for schools, making orphanages safer, helping refugee families to survive, and all the other very many things it does for children.  I hope that this period is short, and that it can get back to its job of transforming children’s lives very soon.