Why Be British?

My wife and I have often commented on the fact that no matter how long we stayed here we’d always be foreigners – because of our accent, our cultural misunderstands and our inherited mythologies from America. Three words from my mouth was enough for someone to type me as an American and to ask, ‘How do you like it here? When are going back?’ Partly this has to do with the allowable range of accents that pass for British – from Afro-Caribbean to highlands Scot (but doesn’t include the elongated vowels which define, in the British mind at least, the American). The other implicit assumption, which probably is more significant, is that as Americans we’re certainly not staying here because, frankly, why would anyone from the US want to remain in Britain longer than the duration of a holiday or the contractual requirements of a job?

In America, if the situation were reversed, the assumption would be just the opposite. Having a British accent (which might easily be mistaken in some parts of the country as ‘New England’) would, at the most, define one as Anglo-American like the equivalent hyphenated fusions such as Italian-American or French-American. In the States, the question would be ‘How long have you been here?’ rather than ‘When are you going back?’ Because there the implicit assumption would be ‘why would you ever want to leave a place like this?’

So why have we stayed? And why on earth have we become British – on paper at least.

I suppose the short answer is that we’ve been here for so long it started to make sense, even if it just meant easing our passage through immigration when we came back into the country – not having to explain for the umpteenth time at passport control that, yes, we work here and yes, we have rights of abode, whenever we returned from even a day trip to the continent.

But there’s more to it, of course. Beyond the document confirming our legality, we have slowly come to the conclusion that we were here, for better or worse, and Britain had become our home. Getting the relevant document attesting to this, however, seemed to clarify the fact – as if to say the bureaucracy of Britain now recognized us as a fait accompli.
On the other hand, becoming ‘British’ did force us to ask ourselves how this had happened. It wasn’t really planned. Twenty years ago we didn’t come here thinking we’d become British. In fact the idea at the time seemed ridiculous. In my mind, you didn’t become British – you either were or you weren’t. It was as simple as that.

But there did come a point when we realised that we probably weren’t going back to the States except to visit family. And that some change, some process, had taken place where we had transformed into the proverbial stranger at home. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen.

I first knew of Britain through my father who had joined the Merchant Navy some years before the Americans entered WWII. He would tell me stories about the brave people he met there who withstood everything Hitler could throw at them while back home in America most people were doing quite nicely, thank you. As an official in the National Maritime Union he had a number of civilian contacts in the UK and when his ship docked in Belfast or Liverpool or the Thames Estuary he would try to bring gifts of hard-to-get commodities like butter and sugar to the friends he had made on shore. What amazed him, he later told me, was how reluctant people were to receive these gifts of food. Some because they didn’t want to be accused of black marketeering, but others simply out of a spirit of solidarity that was so remarkably strong during the early stages of the war. My father admired that spirit all the more as he found no such reluctance to accept his offerings at other ports of call. And through his stories I developed an early mythology of the British as solid, determined and incorruptible – an enduring image from the People’s War.

But Britain – England, actually – was an alien world. There were the images from my father’s stories and the spate of post-war films like ‘Passport to Pimlico’ which did the rounds of small cinemas in the early 50s. And then there was the literature – the classics we read in school – that spoke about another England entirely.

As a young man, in 1960, I visited London for the first time after living a while in Paris. I stayed somewhere in Holland Park and feasted on sausages and beans for six pence a shot in greasy workers’ cafes. I was struck back then by the civility of the people I met – the politeness and willingness to help a young lad of twenty. There was still a fondness for Yanks then as the war wasn’t that far away. In fact, there were even bits of London with gapping holes, bombsites where houses had yet to be reconstructed.

I travelled by train to Glasgow and can still recall the unique smell of the upholstery and the unending silence that, for an American, was so strange. Glasgow was still desperately poor back then – the old tenements hadn’t yet been cleared. I remember wandering down to Rotten Row, the worst of the slums - a place to avoid, I was told. Fortunately, I was told that after the fact because on the day I wandered through I was impressed by the difference between the poverty there and the poverty I was familiar with in urban America. It was just a quick glimpse, of course, just a mental snapshot, but I felt that the poor in Glasgow still had some dignity – they weren’t yet abject. The people I met had spirit and determination – just as my father had described. Economic deprivation might have been a fact of their day to day lives but I could sense a richness of community just as I had seen as a child in the New York tenements where my immigrant grandparents lived.

Some ten years later I retuned to England with my wife. We had left America in the throws of conflict. The black ghettos were erupting in the wake of the stalled Civil Rights Movement. College campuses were in turmoil as opposition to the Vietnam War grew more militant. Driving across country we heard of the shooting at Kent State that threw the protests into a new level of urgency.

On my return to Britain, I found a different London as well. Though the cultural revolution hadn’t divided the generations as completely as it had in America and France, there were echoes of the same turbulence. The post war economy had reached a new crisis point reflected in a popular upsurge culminating in massive mobilisations against the newly enacted Industrial Relations Bill. North London, where we had settled, was alive with energy. Squatters were taking over long abandoned buildings and turning them into organic communes, small theatre and film collectives were springing up from nowhere. Women’s groups were starting to emerge from a reluctant movement that also feared the Americanisation of its culture.

Looking back, I see those years as very much a turning point. London was exciting and electric. It became a magnet for the new, the experimental. And there was enough recognisable for me to feel a part of this emergence – as did many young people who flocked here from various parts of the world. Indeed, London had become a world city. Not just the capital of Britain, but a centre for an international interchange of ideas - especially for the English speaking world.

We took a part of London back with us when we left for America again in the form of an infant girl. America was still the country we called home. Our year in London involved with people who had a world view convinced us that our obligations lay back in the US. America was the challenge to our ideals. There was a great movement of people in that land who were struggling bravely for a change in direction. It was our sea in which to swim.

But the next decade saw a shift which made us wonder if we actually did belong there. The consumer culture which the idealists had tried to sidestep had been upped another notch. Money had become too seductive for those with the drive to pursue it. The end of the Vietnam War was the signal for many former activists to re-engage with their flagging careers, but where were those careers taking them?

I had gone back to do a postgraduate degree at university. Even though we lived in a vibrant and exciting community in San Francisco, I felt a growing unease and a certain sense of loss. Europe had captured my imagination. And why not? My roots were there. My father had been born in France and his parents were born in Warsaw. Most of the family remained in France when his parents emigrated to New York. On my mother’s side, her parents came from what was then part of the Russian empire. Their family had dispersed after the war, through most remained on European soil. But more than land was the territory of the mind. I had become more at ease, more fluent perhaps, with the European thought process. It’s a difference that’s hard to describe but has to do with a larger sense of history and a greater connection with life and ideas outside the narrow territorial boundaries of nation.

Every nation that has played on the world stage has its own mythologies. America’s have seeped into the international vocabulary, usurping certain words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’ The mythology of America is enshrined in its constitution and most especially in the amended Bill of Rights – a magnificent document that owes much to European humanistic thought which culminated in the French Revolution. But the idea in the American constitution, in the Bill of Rights, which is most striking and most enduring is the phrase that establishes the right of all ‘men’ to pursue ‘happiness’. If one were to point to the idea that most differentiates the American from the British mythologies – this, I would argue, is it.

Ken Burns, the great American documentarist, says that in order to understand how that phrase, ‘pursuit of happiness,’ is interpreted in America you need to put the emphasis on the word ‘pursuit.’ By so doing you have the image of Americans in search of an elusive prize – where the search itself is more important than the reward.

In Britain the concept of ‘happiness’ is hardly an issue. There’s something a bit suspect, a bit soft about the idea – especially as a goal. You might allow yourself the luxury of momentary bliss, especially after a few pints of lager, but it is an emotion seen as temporal and even somewhat dangerous. Living in Britain for a number of years, I have the impression that life is to be suffered rather than enjoyed. There are better times and worse times but if one actually sought out happiness it would only lead to disappointment.

Sometimes, this means that in Britain people are more willing to draw the line below which they refuse to sink – out of sheer bloody mindedness. In America there is no line that needs to be drawn. People, when faced with disaster simply attempt to re-invent themselves. In England, for most people, re-invention is not an alternative – the culture still pretends that you shouldn’t meddle with God’s will, even if you don’t believe in God any more. (Containing one’s imagination is also one reason why Britain produces such exceptional actors – where re-invention is actually allowed, the pent up orgasm is mind-bogglingly brilliant.)

In America people have the freedom to live many lives. However, one consequence of this permission is that they often don’t get a chance to know who they are – being too many things means they can only scratch the surface of self-understanding. In Britain the problem is reversed. People rarely get the chance to explore those aspects of themselves that are latent but have never been tapped.

One simple example of this is seen in education where very early on students are asked to choose whether they will study science or humanities (a rather questionable division anyway). Once the choice is made they rarely look back. Thus many adults refuse to participate in vital discussions of great social concern because they have somehow been convinced that they lack the expertise to form an opinion. This notion that someone is not qualified to discuss certain issues or render an opinion because of their lack of formal education doesn’t exist in America where people will express opinions on anything at the drop of a hat.

The mythology of America is powerful and compelling. The myths of Britain are unclear. America, as an empire still in ascendancy (perhaps), trumpets its ideas and the world listens willingly (or sometimes at the point of a gun). Britain, as a nation searching for its lost identity has myths that echo from former days, which means they are constantly being questioned.

There is much I love about America – the land, the energy, the diversity of peoples. But the mythology of America has often done more to fabricate a nation of true believers where real debate is often stifled because it is never allowed onto the national agenda except in the most marginalised forms. The mythology of America can hardly be questioned inside America itself. So that debate – an important debate, for America and the world – must continue elsewhere, especially in Europe which is most in danger of being swallowed by the worst aspects of this star spangled phantasmagoria.

There came a time, after living in England for a number of years, when I began to feel that old sense of being at home with strangers and a stranger at home. I had been going back to San Francisco to visit family once or twice a year and was becoming progressively aware that I no longer had any real understanding of the changes taking place there since I left. The problem was both linguistic and cultural. Even though, as far as the English were concerned, I spoke American, the rhythm of my words and my vocabulary had changed as I had integrated more fully into society here. Without realising it, my accent had shifted somewhat, becoming more trans-Atlantic, so without being able to place it, people in the States heard me as someone who came from elsewhere.

Socially, too, there was a gap of understanding. Over the years I had absorbed the British media. I was familiar with the political and cultural shifts that work themselves out obliquely in curious manifestations rather than the (supposedly) straightforward, in-your-face manner of America. I also became aware that the sense of ‘community’ or even ‘nation’ is a constantly evolving concept that changes from day to day through a process that in the most part is invisible. America – the real America – had changed. I understood it less than ever. Even though everyone understands place and politic in different ways according to their experience, you need some sort of cultural handle to interpret them. My handle had cracked, so imbibing became more precarious.

Understanding Britain was a problem of a different sort. I was here and witnessed various evolutions but the past, the stories, the fantasies, the shared baggage that leads to social cohesion and the near subliminal process of understanding social cues was lacking.

However, I finally had to accept the fact that some part of me was becoming British. But I was also American. Once on a trip back from the continent, my son and I were going though passport control. He was still travelling on his American passport but had just received his British Nationality papers which he proudly presented to the immigration officer. The officer took a look at the documents and handing them back to my son, smiled and said, ‘So, Master Biderman. Now you can fight for two nations!’

Even though that statement was seeping with irony, it could never have been uttered by an American immigration cop. The idea of fighting for any nation other than America would be inconceivable. America, after all, is not a place, it’s an idea, or rather the embodiment of a set of ideas – a number of ill defined concepts such as liberty, democracy, equality which become mantras for the American religion.

So if America is just a state of mind, what is Britain? And why have I chosen to live here? In asking this question, I wasn’t alone. As the demographics of Europe were transforming so were the various communities. And I was meeting people who, out of circumstance, had the same difficulties I did. It became clear that the search for national identity, which I thought I could easily do without, was a problem for most people uprooted for whatever reason from their native soil. I remember some years ago meeting a Chilean family who had been in England for almost a decade. They were political refugees with a clear understanding of their circumstances. They had left as temporary exiles waiting for the government to change so they could return. But when the government finally did change, they still couldn’t go back to where they once called home. For everything had changed – they had changed as well as their county. They had raised a family in exile and their children were no longer Chilean. And in many ways, neither were they.

We talked about this one evening at dinner and I told them how hard it would be for me to see myself as English no matter how long I lived here. I wasn’t sure what English was – but whatever it was, it wasn’t me. But they had gone past that years before. It was absurd to even try to think of yourself as English, they said. Even the English have a hard time with that notion. But there’s another construct I could try – that of being British - not British-English, but British-European. Look, they said, we have many friends in the same circumstance. Some live in France, some in Sweden, some in Germany. We all have the same problems of national identity. We are not French or Swedes or Germans. But more and more we have ceased to be Chileans. So what are we? What is there to replace that sense of nation? It’s the idea of Europe – not as a community of states but as a community of people. And as we live on an island shared with various peoples from various cultures and that island is collectively known as Britain, it’s not too difficult to see ourselves as British. We are Chilean British Europeans. Perhaps our children will see themselves as just British Europeans from a Chilean background. And perhaps their children will see themselves as just Europeans.

This concept of British European made sense to me. It established place, yet it was outward looking. And didn’t parts of Europe run through my blood? I was only second generation American but my ancestors had lived in Europe stretching back into the deep vistas of time. The truth is that the peoples of Europe have always been on the move for one reason or another. Overlords came and went. Sometimes the peasantry remained, sometimes they were forced to move on. But the question of ‘race’ in an anthropological sense as regards to present European nations, is ridiculous. The mix of peoples that make up France, Spain, Germany or England is as rich and diverse as anywhere on earth and always has been.

It is true to say that Europe was defined more by religion than colour. Yet even that idea was constantly evolving. Portugal, Spain and Southern France had religious diversity and a tolerance unmatched in the modern world during their first millennium. And later the divisions within Christianity made the notion of a unified state absurd. What existed were power bases. And those loci of power only covered certain domains. The hinterlands of Europe were always rich in diversity – both religious and cultural.

Perhaps the New Europe, the one that I am now part of – as are my wife and children as well as a multitude of other immigrants who settled here from many different places and for many diverse reasons – can be a model for a more tolerant world, as America once was.


14 November 2006