My (light-hearted) thoughts on the United Kingdom, Scottish Independence, England and living in Wales
I was born in England, but I've spent almost all of my life not living there, having spent the better part of my childhood in New York and my adult life in Wales.
First a little bit about me…
I say I spent the better part of my childhood in America, not because it was the larger part of my childhood, but because it was, well, better. The English bit of my childhood had been frankly terrifying. I got mercilessly bullied by both schoolchildren and schoolteachers alike, and the only thing I can compare it to is that old black and white film of Tom Brown's School Days, where the bullies hold down poor Tom just inches from a blazing fireplace.
And although my bullies never went quite as far as roasting my behind on an open fire, I always suspected they might decide to do so at any moment, given the chance. Luckily I didn’t have to stick around to find out as my family was moved by IBM (which stands for I've Been Moved) on a five year assignment to New York.
So at age eleven I set off for the New World. Luckily for me, America welcomed my tiny, frightened, huddled mass into its vast melting pot. Once there, America comforted me and schooled me in new, kinder values, that consisted of such entrancing subjects as health class (which taught me to respect myself as an individual - as well as giving me lots of wonderfully useful 1970s psychobabble) and social studies (a curiously skewed account of history and geography that contained hardly any of the anti-communist propaganda of the time). It was all Telly Savalas, who loves ya, baby, Watchoo talking ‘bout Willis, designer sneakers and pop tarts for breakfast, and, baby, I loved it. It was cool! I was hooked and, more importantly, I was home!
Or so I thought. America then helped me up onto my sneaker-clad, ruggedly-individualistic, teenage feet and promptly sent me home when my visa ran out. That was a bit of a shock to be honest, because I'd really bought into the whole American dream thing they'd taught me and I hadn't noticed the small print that said 'Available to US Citizens and green card holders only. Terms and conditions may apply’. But, hey ho, no hard feelings, me and America have remained firm friends ever since.
So off I trotted back to England and, while they still didn't quite roast me, they didn't exactly welcome me home either. Students and teachers alike made fun of my American accent, my American ways, my psychobabble and my star-spangled sneakers, but worse still they told me I would have to try to fit in if I wanted to be English again. That really steeled my ruggedly-individual wool that, while I could lose the sneakers, the psychobabble and maybe the accent, what I really didn't want to be was English. So before they could stoke up the fire to roast my American-sounding ass, I quickly left home and moved to Wales in a wonderfully impulsive fit of teenage rebellion.
And I don't regret it for a minute.
Wales welcomed me into its hillsides, sat me down beside its warm hearth, which they neither seemed to want to roast me on or melt me with, which made a pleasant change. Then Wales suggested I drink some tea and have a bit of a think about things for a while.
And I did.
Which is why, thirty years later, as Scotland teeters on the edge of leaving the Union, I am sharing these, my thoughts, on all this nationhood, identity and individuality business.
Such conversations don’t sit well in the UK. The waving of flags is, at best, patriotic, and, at worst, racist, and therefore often best avoided as it’s all rather hot-blooded and can have too many confusing meanings, good and bad, which in turn might prompt uncomfortable conversations, that are, likewise, best avoided. But I grew up in America, so uncomfortable conversations are my thing. Undoubtedly, I will offend some if not all, but I grew up in America, baby, and offending people is no reason to not say things.
So let’s do this! Think of it as one of those conversations after a break-up where your best friend says ‘yeah, but, fair play, you did treat him like dirt for 300 years…’
To me, England has always had an odd, uptight, foreign feel, even as a small child when I was living in my birthplace. Not much seems to have changed. Class still seems to matter so much to people there, and even if it’s not exactly class, then a certain following of the rules, a keeping up of appearances, and the habit of giving undue deference to those who have the 'right' education, seems nearly as important. And if you don't have that education, or even if you do, then you at least need to be seen to be appropriately 'down with the people', with a set of faux grass-roots values that seem to sit very oddly on people that clearly have no direct understanding of life for the less educated and the less well-off, they just know they're supposed to sound like they do and feel guilty that they’re not. This is, of course, a mixed message. For how can you make money and keep up with the Joneses and the work ethic, whilst simultaneously acting as the lightning rod for all the middle class guilt that comes with doing so? Meanwhile the toffs, unfettered by all this angst, just get richer.
I’m not saying it is this way, just that it’s how it seems from the outside. It’s as if England and the English are perpetually stuck in that old Frost Report class sketch with John Cleese and Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. Maybe their positions have changed but they’re still playing within the same parameters …
Individuality in England seems frowned upon, just as much as stepping out of the grind of the middle class work ethic or not keeping up with the Joneses. I get still chided (which is a gentler form of bullying) by my 'posh' English friends for my unconventional work, lifestyle and values, why don’t I get a decent job/car/holiday?, why do I want to live in Wales? etc. However I get similar jibes from my friends who are, shall we say, lower down the totem pole, who do I think I am? why don’t I watch TOWIE, why do I want to live in Wales? etc.
In fact, on that totem pole there doesn't seem to be any spot anywhere on it where it's OK for anyone to just be, or to let others just be, living their lives how they see fit, making as much or as little money as they feel is right for them, consuming or not consuming products as they desire, living where they want, or generally being left in peace. Life in England seems anxious. Again I’m not saying it is this way, this is just that it’s how it seems to me, like there it is a continual scrabble to get higher - or lower - on the pole; no one seems happy to just let go of the pole and simply be themselves. Being myself is what America taught me to do. And Wales has been the only country that would let me stay there and do it.
One of my favourite phrases, that's used regularly in Wales, is 'Fair Play'.
You hear it a lot and it can be used in so many ways. It can be used anywhere from a reply to hearing how Mrs Williams' cat fell down the sewer and refuses to come out ‘because, fair play, it’s getting more to eat down there than it ever did from Mrs Williams’, to being the ‘Fair Play on Fuel’ rallying slogan for the fuel protesters who blockaded the refineries back when petrol prices went over 80p a litre back in 2000. (Which is a sobering thought considering the price is now over £1.30!) And sometimes it’s used in a way that doesn’t seem to mean anything at all, like OK or yeah. But fair play is not just about being fair and keeping things equal; it also speaks volumes about keeping it real. The word play is just as important in the phrase - reminding us that life’s just a game after all, so lets not take things too seriously here, eh?
‘Fair Play’ is a deliciously emollient entreaty that reminds us to look at things from both sides, and those two little words are one of the reasons I love Wales so very much, and why I consider myself to be Welsh rather than English. Welsh people might not agree of course, birthed as I was into England's home counties, but most of them are too polite or just too laid back to tell me so. They just smile and think 'Aah bechod, that Saesnes thinks she's Welsh, but we know better. Still, fair play to the old girl, she seems to like the place quite a lot, so let's not bust her bubble over it.'
In fact, in Wales it's not really considered the done thing to talk about this English/Welsh/Britain stuff at all, and if there's one thing that does mark out my Englishness here is my willingness to do so. It's much better to say 'Let's not talk about our differences, let's talk about how we're the same - or better yet, let's talk about the rugby'.
But nevertheless I do talk about it in Wales … with my friends, my colleagues and my hairdresser. I try to find out how they really feel about it something which so supposedly defines them - their alleged hatred of the English. I listen to hear if Welsh people really do start speaking Welsh whenever English people walk in. English tourists so often bemoan this switching of languages as some kind of pointed snark at them, but I can assure you, Welsh speakers were speaking Welsh long before you got there. And when they do switch to Welsh it's just because that's the language they feel comfortable talking to their friends in. Just like you may speak Spanish on holiday in Spain, but switch back to English when talking to your travelling companions. Yes the Welsh can speak English as well, but they switch fluidly between the two languages, often mid-sentence. Even to first language Welsh speakers, some things are easier said in English. You may know a fancy little-known Welsh word for ‘deforestation’, but if the person you're speaking to doesn't know that word then you probably say that word in English. It’s easier that way.
Getting your point across is more important than language purity, so guessing plays a big part in communication in Wales - guessing which language someone speaks and how well they speak it, guessing if you're on holiday or not (you can get asked this when you were born just in the next village!) and lots of other little guestimations designed to ease the flow of communication. I also listen to what is said and, trust me, Welsh speakers are really not using the language to talk about you. The Welsh have a language they are proud of. It's lilting and warm and lovely and what's not to love? It's not a threat. I wish English tourists would just enjoy it. Welsh is a living, breathing piece of the heritage of these isles, every bit as much as Shakespeare, the Royal family, bucolic villages, majestic castles and mysterious ancient ruins.
I am familiar with the tensions within the Union, primarily because being prejudiced towards the Welsh seems to be an acceptable form of racism that I hear often. I hear anti-Welsh comments both from tourists who assume I don't live here and from English friends who know that I do. Sadly, I hear it from my Scottish and Irish friends too, and that chafes perhaps a little bit more, because they don't seem to realise they're like the older brothers Wales looks up to and yearns to share that Celtic kindred spirit with. Wherever you are, it seems anti-Welsh sentiments are acceptable verbal currency everywhere in the UK. Even when discussing Scottish independence in a pub in Glasgow, as I was recently.
What bothers me most is that for some unknown reason people seem to think it is OK to share these views with me. Perhaps this is because I have the leftover of an English accent that I can't seem to shift (mixed in with my mid-Atlantic drawl and, annoyingly, any other accent that happens to be within my earshot). Or maybe they feel it's alright to share the bile because I'm too polite to say anything to correct them on my self-perceived nationality. Instead I just smile and think 'fair play to them, they think I'm not Welsh, but let's not bust their hump over it'.
But the anti-Welsh jibes do get to me. Until recently at least I had never heard that stuff said about Scotland and certainly saying that nastiness about any other group or race would just be wrong and I'm quite positive those self same 'down with the people' middle Englanders would think it politically incorrect to say similar things about ethnic minorities, races or creeds. Whenever I have been bold enough to ask why it seems OK to people to be openly anti-Welsh the only excuse I've heard is 'well the Welsh do hate the English, don't they?' said in a ‘well they started it’ kind of way.
But the Welsh don't really hate the English. It's just that, from this side of the border, everything starts to look a bit uptight over there. It can seem like everyone is a bit John Cleese on the English side, either rushing around beating up their car with a stick or marching round with a bandage on their heads, insulting German tourists.
You just get the overwhelming urge to say 'sit down, take a load off your feet, have a cuppa and stop taking it all so seriously for a minute’. I mean just think about it. Do the Tories in Westminster really need to be lining their pockets quite as fast as they do? Do the Labourites really need to be quite so nanny-state? Couldn't the toffs forget their status for just a minute? And Middle England, how about you stop polishing your car and fretting about your house prices and just relax, enjoy the view, enjoy what you've got - middle class guilt free! - at least for long enough for the wax to dry. There's plenty of time for a bit of a sit down and a think.
There that's better. Welcome to Wales!!
Because it is good to savour what you've got. It's alright to enjoy it. Sure the newspapers want to keep you frantically John Cleesing all over the place, but you don't need to listen to them. Hand the guilt back to the Guardian and the Daily Mail and say 'no thanks, mate’. No matter how bad things are there's always something to feel good about. So what if you're not an empire any more and America makes you feel inferior? So what if Europe gets a bit pushy sometimes?
And so what if Scotland is thinking about leaving you?
All good marriages go through times like this. Let's face it, you have been strutting around like a frantic, overworked fishwife for a good while now, issuing orders and getting, well, a bit overheated. Relax. Maybe it's just a spat. A mid-life thing. Maybe he won’t actually leave you…
But if Scotland does go, you'll find yourself quick enough. Wales is here like a kindly auntie to calm you down and give you a cuppa and a bit of a sit down. It will probably all work out for the best in the end. You just need to chill out. It could be the best thing that ever happens to you. Scotland needs to figure out who it is and what it wants.
The best unions, like the best marriages, are when they are the joining of two whole people. (Emphasis on the whole here, not the two, as there's actually four people in this particular marriage, but we’ll put that on one side for the moment.) It's all about having a sense of identity. Being whole. Being yourself.
And you DO get a bit bossy sometimes and forget that we aren't ALL English and that you are just ONE part of the United Kingdom.
Fair play now, England, you do DO that.
We don’t all have to change in order to fit in with you. It’s about cooperation. Letting go. Letting be. Working together.
So right now Scotland's half way out the door, and like the wife that's belittled and bemoaned her husband for years, you've realised you're not quite the big shot you thought you were, once he's packing his suitcase with a bulk size carton of condoms and a new pair of Saltire boxers. But, no matter. Everything's all right. It's not the end of the world.
So Scotland doesn't like you and all the other countries, well, they do make fun of you quite a bit. But after the rampage of an empire you’ve been on, with all that 'sun never sets' nonsense, well, it's not really surprising, is it?
It's OK. You're England. Remember, you know how to play up to your own sense of dignity and make it look funny! Bring out your inner Hugh Grant. Bluster, blink a few times … and laugh it off!
Whether or not Scotland goes and there’s a divorce, it's time to settle down and have that little think I was on about.
Don't get all jumpy and nervous and start tarting yourself up and going down the disco to flirt with new ideologies. And don't forget that Wales and Northern Ireland are still here - for now at least - so don’t start acting like you’re the only one here. No bringing new boyfriends home and making out on the sofa like we're invisible, coz that's just going to make the rest of us get up and leave the room. Because you might think you can go it on your own, and get all big and bad and you don’t need nobody, but, c’mon… we all need a fireplace, a family and a sympathetic ear sometimes.
You just sit down there and have a bit of a think, while I put the kettle on.
A bit of soul-searching is, well, good for the soul. And if the break up brings you down a peg or two, that’s OK. If it gets you off your high horse, knocks off the sharp corners, well that just makes you a bit more human all round.
I'll just go fetch some more hot water and some Welsh cakes…
(Whispered to Northern Ireland: I’ve got England in there on the sofa. Right mess she is. Fair play to her though, the old girl’s been through a lot.)
Here's a video of Historian, Dr John Davies, who was a guest speaker at the YES Offices to give an historical perspective on Welsh and Scottish politics and why Scotland should vote YES: