How am I British?


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.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s