Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - on being British

One of the things that used to confuse me as a child was the distinction between English and British.

Growing up, my close identification with my maternal grandfather meant that I identified strongly with Scotland because he did. At one level, this did not make a lot of sense. Both my paternal grandparents were born in England, my maternal grandmother came from English stock, so the Scottish side through one set of great grandparents made me at best perhaps a quarter Scottish. However, it was a matter of emotional connection.

The link was emotional, but it was more than that.

I was a reader, and my grandfather used to give me books. One of the first more serious books I read as a child was H E Marshall's Scotland's Story (first 200px-Sir_Walter_Scott_-_Raeburn published 1905). I read Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), and browsed the books on the clans and tartans of Scotland. (photo: Raeburn's 1822 portrait of Sir Walter Scott).

I had a Drummond tie, while my mother and all my aunts had clan broaches with the Drummond motto Gang Warily. While I was at primary school my grandfather gave me a copy of John MacDonald MacCormick's Flag in the Wind (1955), the story of the Scottish National Movement. This book resonated since I was already a strong New England New Stater, so I became a Scottish nationalist by sympathy. We wanted self-government, so did Scotland.

As an aside, all this reading had one odd, later, outcome. Many years after this I was at a cocktail party at the British High Commission in Canberra. Some of the younger staff I was talking too were puzzled about the rise of the SNP, Scottish National Party. I realised that they were all southern English and actually had no idea of Scottish history. They saw the SNP as a strange aberration.

This was well before devolution, the creation of Scottish and Welsh parliaments in 1998. A slightly odd conversation followed, which saw an Australian public servant explaining to British diplomats something of Scottish history and the possible constitutional implications for the UK!

This Drummond and Scottishness of my early childhood was, in retrospect, quite intense. It led my father to complain bitterly once that he was sick of hearing about the Drummonds. What about the Belshaws?

All human beings are quite capable of multiple and indeed sometimes conflicting identities. As a child I was a nationalistic Australian. I was also prepared to claim a New Zealand connection (Dad was born there), I was Scottish, but also British. Since much of my family was English, I did recognise the English connection. The one thing that I was not, nor am I now, was a New South Welshman in other than a purely legal sense. I remain a New Englander.

One of the things that puzzled me at a very early stage was the apparent confusion between English and British. It was all clear to me: English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish all referred to major groups within the British Isles. British referred to the varying collective entity and included all those within the broader Empire and Commonwealth with connections back to the mother countries.

From my perspective as a child, the Irish were always a bit confusing. They were British, then they weren't. The Irish were meant to be Roman Catholic. How, then, did I fit in all those Protestants who also claimed to be proudly Irish? What was the relationship between some English speaking Australian Catholics I knew of Irish descent who fulminated against the evils of the English/British Empire and the Gaelic speaking Irish Protestant from the Republic who was proudly proclaimed his Britishness and attacked the Republicans as a blight on the landscape?

All this was a bit too hard to understand. But what was more confusing still, was the way in which English was conflated with British when it clearly wasn't. The English history I first studied, some of the popular books I read, that were meant to have a British flavour did not. Where were my Scots?

I put many of these things aside after I left university. There were too many other things to worry about. However, once I started writing a biography of my grandfather I was drawn back to these issues.

This was another of those times when I had decided that what I really wanted to do was to research and write. As now, I read widely around my topic.

I had always been interested in the Bloomsbury set since first reading Harrod's Life of Keynes.

Keynes fascinated me because he seemed to me from Harrod's writing to be the archetypal intellectual all-rounder, combining thought with the capacity to make money. I loved the idea of sitting in one's bath in the morning thinking about the markets, then getting up and placing the orders that made his College so much money, before going off to reshape the international monetary system! A slight parody, I know, but it captures the flavour.

Keynes was a member of the Bloomsbury set, a group of London based writers and intellectuals from the first decades of the twentieth century. All the male members of the Bloomsbury set with the exception of Duncan Grant were educated at Cambridge. This was a family connection, because Uncle Horace Belshaw did postgraduate studies at Cambridge under Keynes. Cambridge life fascinated me not just because of Horace, but also because I had grown up in the personally intense world of a small university city that combined the intensely local and parochial with the global.

This Cambridge period centred in part on the Apostles, a university group linked in some ways to Keynes and the other men within the Bloomsbury set. Left of centre, contemptuous of current mores, the Apostles nurtured the most famous group of traitors - Philby, Burgess, MacLean and others - in modern British history. Among other things, the Apostles gave the USSR the atomic bomb.

I was fascinated with Cambridge, the Apostles and Bloomsbury: the intellectual debate, the idea of reading parties, breaking free from conventional mores. Yet when I came to research them, disillusion led to distaste. I had200px-LyttonStrachey nothing in common with this narrow and blinkered set of people.

Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) was the turning point. The painting is a study of Strachey's face and hands by Carrington.

Strachey was one of the pioneers of English biography. I was interested in him as a biographer and as a member of the Bloomsbury set. Yet as I read Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey I turned off.

My research had drawn me into the Imperial British world of which Australia formed a part. This was an expansive, outward looking, world. Now I contrasted this with the world of little England of which Strachey and indeed most of Bloomsbury were deeply embedded. I had nothing in common with that world.

In Train Reading - Norman Davies The Isles: a history 1 I gave an initial overview of Norman Davies' book on the history of what I would have called the British isles.

Like me, Davies writes from an outside perspective. Davies writes from a perspective of a Welshman, I write from the perspective of a New Englander and a country person. Neither of us are inclined to accept current metro centred views.

From my perspective, Davies' exploration of what what it means to be British is very important because it explains why I feel so confused about British and English. His exploration of the development of Britishness, of the continued expropriation of British by the English establishment and the little Englanders such as the Bloomsbury set, of the evolution of the inner empire (the Isles), is remarkably well done.

To be British is to address some hard questions.

I am Australian. Looking at Australian history in the context of the Empire, the damage that was done to the Australian Aborigines beyond the impact of first settlement was not the fault of London or Empire, but of the settlers who were evolving into Australians. We did it. We cannot blame others.

Like Davies, I find the Empire to be a generally good thing when set within the context of the times. The simplistic post-colonial models distort. The reason that I have so much in common with Ramana, for example, is that India and Australia were part of the same constitutional and historical entity, the Empire.

It's not just a shared love of cricket. It goes far deeper than that. It's shared experiences that bridge very different worlds.

Again, to be British is to address hard questions. My current boss is Nigerian who, by one of those historical connections, is Cambridge educated. He want me to read a book on the impact of British colonisation on what would become Nigeria. I will do so.

I would not do so were I not British.

My children who are just modern Australians, I am deliberately using the word just, have no interest in Nigeria. They do not see the linkages. They have little interest in India or Pakistan, little in Canada, far less in Africa or the Caribbean. I doubt that they could find Zimbabwe on the map, would have no idea of the historical links with Malaysia. Their immediate world has shrunk.

I think that this is a bad thing. But then, I am now somewhat old fashioned.

Finishing on a purely professional note.

Note how I have attached dates to references in this post. In trying to cover a very broad canvas, Norman Davies inserts dates in brackets after particular events. This actually very helpful because it makes it easier to see threads.

Davies also reminds me of the need in writing about New England to break out of the purely Australian context. The people and stories I am writing about are not just Australian; their links extend around the world.

Note to Readers: for a full list of posts in this series see Train Reading - Norman Davies The Isles: a history 1.


marcellous said...

I've never thought that the Irish were British: cf the United Kingdom of Great Britain and [later: Northern] Ireland.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a very interesting one, Marcellous. Neither had I because of the conflation of British with English.

One of the things that makes Davies' work so fascinating is the way he explores constitutional forms across the Isles and the language linked to them.

As an example, after he became King of England on the death of Elizabeth, James wanted a single title, King of Great Britian. This was blocked by the English dominated Parliament, so James after calling himself King of Great Britian once again became King of Ireland, Scotland and England.

Because Davies writes outside the conventional frames, he actually manages to critique a remarkable number of conventionally (and passionately)held views in all the Kingdoms/states.

So in a formal sense the Irish were Irish for much of the period, but were also formally British for part of the period!