Recently a good friend of this site asked if I was too Londoncentric, and thinking about this led to a bigger question about patriotism.
We live in divisively patriotic times. Putin is attempting wholesale western disruption in the name of Mother Russia. The US President’s risky me-first strategy will either start a trade war that collapses whole economies or will buy him a second term. The French president wants French to be the lingua Franca, as it were. The Austrians are lifting the ban on smoking, using a bizarre argument about patriotism. And Brexiters have destabilised the country with fact-free fantasies – one LBC caller complained that the presenter was giving her facts to debunk Brexit myths.
When I talk to friends with family scattered from Ireland to the Far East I always feel a twinge of jealousy. I was born in South London and my entire family lived there. Nobody had any connections with the countryside. The first time I ventured into a rural area alone I was 26 and was thrown out of a field. I managed to go to the North-West and completely miss the Lake District. I’ve still never been. Great swathes of the country are missing to me. I would love to go, but heading off for a weekend into the wet countryside is much harder if you don’t know anyone who knows the terrain.
As a consequence I never thought of myself as English in the way that, say, people from Somerset or Manchester might consider their nationality. I was a Londoner, and the whole world was in London, therefore my identity was international. Without a family reason to go to York or Edinburgh I simply didn’t; life was hectic in London and I had friends from other countries rather than other parts of the country.
Patriotism mystifies me. I admire the Queen immensely, but have zero interest in the marriages of royals. I never had to fight in a war, I’ve never been caught up in national fervour – when Maggie Thatcher sank the Belgrano I was living in America, which is rather removed from the rest of the world. My knowledge of the shires mindset – in villages which Stewart Lee calls ‘a one-way system and a Pizza Bella’ – is zero. But I’ve been to most large cities except Newcastle and Liverpool, and can feel the anger at being ignored by the moneyed capital. It is outrageous that for so many years half the country has been denied equality, stemming from Thatcher’s ‘managed decline’ slur onwards.
In a country that’s nearer to Europe than to the rest of its own kingdom, claiming that the return of blue passports represents some kind of national identity is stupid and irrelevant. There is much I respect and admire about my country. There is much I’m ashamed of, too. When you look at both parties’ candidates and quickly start wondering if it’s possible to revive the Liberals, you know we’re in trouble.
One of my favourite SF/fantasy writers is Ian R Macleod, whose ‘The Summer Isles’ posits an uneasy alternative timeline for Britain which results in the adoption of Fascist ideals. It feels all too real; a sidelined country living out its dotage in a racist, repressive state. When does patriotism become totalitarianism? As long as the subject is relevant questions of of what constitutes patriotism will remain.