One thing that is being brought to the fore, what with the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, the recent Brexit vote, the nationalistic surge in Europe, and the electoral inferno across the pond, is the question of nationhood. Particularly the question of the so-called greatness of a nation (Trump: America needs to be made great again; Clinton: America is already great; the Brexiteers: anyone who disagrees about the means and kind of Brexit is a traitorous lefty commie bad loser who doubts Britain’s manifest greatness).
So, I wanted to think a little about how artists relate to their nation – not exhaustively, because I’m tired, but you know vaguely and broadly, until it degenerates further in a mist of thoughts. Part of this relation has to do with a tradition, a national hoard that in Britain might have as its earliest acquisitions (literature-wise) in Beowulf and the Mabinogion. Of course, the problem with such a hoard being termed national is that nations and the places they occupy and the people that live there and the languages they speak are all super in flux. Furthermore, it’s suggestive that artists stick to their ‘own’ hoard – which they don’t. Artists read and borrow internationally. All the time. To take England as an example, Vaughan Williams, the most English of composers, gathered folksongs from across the country, but also drew in a French influence from Ravel. (Vaughan Williams actually had a lot to say about the idea of ‘the English Composer’ that I can’t go into here.) Vaughan Williams’ correlative in literature (roughly) might be Thomas Hardy, a novelist and poet of profound Englishness and locality – his work was criticised by early critics for being too French. And of course, people themselves have a genetic hoard that doesn’t respect national boundaries – my surname, according to one hypothesis comes via the French Huguenots.
Despite these confusions, we can’t deny the strangeness of a sense of belonging (if this is the right word) – Vaughan Williams’ music feels English, Thomas Hardy’s novels feel English, I feel pretty haplessly English.
I also feel pretty European, which is why I voted the way I did in The ReferendumTM, and part of why the result feels painful. But we haven’t left Europe they tell us – the island is exactly where it was yesterday: an archipelago that is part of the European continent. Though this is to misunderstand, perhaps, what it is to be a citizen (perhaps because there is a dislike of people becoming citizens), the joy that many have from becoming a citizen – and now of course, we will, in a few years time discover what it is to lose one’s citizenship.
One of the most striking and troubling comments of the last few weeks was that of the new Prime Minister Theresa May at Conservative Party Conference: ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’
A citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere. The world is, naturally, nowhere in cosmic terms. Way out in the stellar sticks.
Another way of saying nowhere is utopia. Nowhere is the ideal place William Morris writes about, in his News From Nowhere. There is a way in which May is right: people come from somewhere (sometimes complexly, but still somewhere.) But at the same time, her words are a divisive scapegoating tactic against those who feel European (in the context of the Referendum) and/or feel a broader connection with the world – those cosmopolitan urban liberals and traitors of the worst kind. What she doesn’t see or doesn’t care to say is that this nowhere is one to which we should aspire: a utopia in which we can broaden our empathies and sympathies. That doesn’t mean abandoning a kind of localism or love of the Near, but it does mean seeing that Near is relative, and those things that seem Far (whether in space or mind) aren’t wrong simply because they may be different.
The truth is that I am a British writer (insofar as I can be called a writer), and a English writer too. Whatever that means. It means something nebulous, necessarily I think. It is to do with an atmosphere. A set of people who live in that atmosphere. We are marked in ways I don’t think we even know, the way an accent can be invisible or unheard by those who speak with it. I live, we live, in a town in the heart of England – there’s a tree that once was thought to mark the centre itself. There are old regency buildings, a bandstand more often smoked around than music played at, and roam to the north, or the west, and you will likely find the Avon, or to the east the Leam that runs into the Avon, and the Avon runs onward through Shakespeare’s hometown – somewhere very English indeed. And though, I accept that label of Britishness or Englishness – it isn’t defining or limiting. Being considered as one thing and one thing only – that is one of the faults of nationalism: that exclusionary logic. You are this, and not that. If you are this, you can’t be that. If you are English, you can’t be black, if you are gay you can’t be Christian or Muslim. It is the kind of logic that surfaces in other places and makes it so women writers are only compared with women writers, gay writers with gay writers, Scottish writers with Scottish writers – narrowing their field of action, tightening their horizons, and lassoing them. The kind of logic that says – as the xenophobic sticker we found stuck to a traffic light near where I live, here in the heart of England – stay back or we’ll kick you back.
It is clear that England, along with many other places across the world, is suffering from heart trouble. Which makes it all the more important, perhaps, to say I am proud to be a British citizen, a European citizen, and a citizen of Nowhere.
I look forward to your letter that analyses extensively Ronald Firbank's somewhat neglected novel Vainglory (1915).
Yours from Nowhere,