What the UK means to me: “Britishness oftentimes hits me in the face”
PUBLISHED: 11:23 24 July 2017 | UPDATED: 11:23 24 July 2017
The zealots who allow the Brexit fiasco to happen are diminishing the UK inch by inch, day by day.
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More than twenty years ago, when I became a citizen, there was no citizenship test.
That means that there was no official notion of what being “British” was. Not in the sense of what being American is.
Becoming a citizen in America, from what I’ve observed, is a process of construction and welding, putting together. Then you take tests, pass; swear the Oath of Allegiance and that’s that. The UK seemed to me to be a much more ramshackle, and in the end, confident place.
There was a visa process and lawyers, yes. But there didn’t seem – at least then – to be an anxiety, or angst about Britishness.
Maybe if I had arrived from Pakistan or Nigeria, Jamaica or South America, it would have been a different situation for me. I can only know truly what I experienced, and what I experienced was a nation whose identity was a movable feast.
America, being an invented country, is always moving toward some sort of “definition”, some place of rest. This can make the Republic deeply involved with itself, to the neglect and the detriment of anything outside. The nation’s self-involvement partly has to do with the fact that it is always “becoming”. The fifty states are little nations, sovereign in themselves unless powers have been ceded to the federal government under the Constitution and / or various statutes. Americans, therefore, hold on to the right to dissent, to be cantankerous. And there is always the possibility of reaching as far out as you can go, can imagine. The American mythos demands that you try.
The election of a television star to the White House was inevitable, and in fact, overdue. It had partly happened with Ronald Reagan, a TV cowboy who sold soap during commercial breaks. When Reagan won election as Governor of California and one of the leaders of the Black Panthers challenged him to a gun-duel on the steps of the statehouse in Sacramento, it all made a strange kind of sense.
This was American citizenship, an individual and personal invention. The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag was a pledge to your dreams and the collective Dream of One Nation Indivisible; “e pluribus unum,” etc. There was and is no turning back from that kind of pledge, made every day – in my time – at the beginning of the school day, in class. Constructing, shaping, forging, always “working” on America. Because if you don’t, it could disappear. As it almost did during the Civil War. Donald Trump is testing it to destruction, just as The Slave Power, in the reality of the Confederate States of America did, and in many ways still does.
Americans walk around with a movie in their heads, complete with soundtrack and that movie is called “My America”. Not yours. Mine.
From “sea to shining sea” is one big Dream Factory. The American Dream is your right. Yours and your family’s. The American Flag is a symbol of all of this. So, for me, it was a great relief to move to a country with, in comparison, no flags waving.
Twenty something years ago, (and maybe it’s still true) I was “invited” to take the Oath to the Queen. I had to find a solicitor – other than my husband – to administer the Oath. So I walked along the high street and found one.
He was finishing his chicken tikka sandwich and asked me to wait. This was the only moment that I was grateful for the alliance of Thatcher and Reagan that made it possible for me to keep my US citizenship after I had acquired my British one. My father and uncles and brother and brother-in-law all served in the US military. I couldn’t/wouldn’t stop being an American. Reagan/Thatcher allowed me to be British, too.
But for a few minutes I couldn’t take the Oath of Allegiance. It is a personal fealty to Her Majesty and her heirs. I thought that I would be taking an oath to the British people or to the Union Jack. But not to a family, a group of mortals who lived and breathed exactly as I did, and who would one day die as I will, and everyone else will.
It was like being in that moment in the rom-com when you don’t go to the altar and the church is filled and waiting. But if I wanted to be a UK citizen, this was what I had to do, and I took it. I chose the UK.
And so, every day, is an active choice. It’s the naturalized citizen’s privilege. Your choice keeps you awake, and oddly protective of your new country. You know that you know nothing, but yet you know everything about what it is to “become”. “Britishness” oftentimes hits me in the face. I’ve had to make conscious choices about my voice; my accent; the way that I see things.
There’s nothing uglier, to me, than a mid-Atlantic accent, that strangled mish-mash of vowel sounds; and intonations; that phony notion of “received pronunciation” that some Americans acquire. Madonna had that when she was married to Guy Ritchie, but I put that down partly to the fact that she’s a musician and her ear is sensitive. So I avoided Americans “over here” like the plague because of it and also if I had wanted to hang with Americans I would have stayed in New York City.
Yet our bond, from a certain era, is Lunar House, a Home Office passport and visa office in Croydon. Its anonymous rows of chairs; its overworked civil servants behind glass; the number in your hand and the waiting; the waiting to get your visa renewed is a nightmare that still lingers. It seemed that the people who waited the longest were women in hijabs; saris; African and Caribbean women, many sitting alone, waiting to be called. One lady I talked to had British children, but she herself wasn’t British. So she had to wait.
But after taking the Oath over the lawyer’s chicken tikka sandwich, my wait was over. I was grateful and thankful, and I think that if it is possible to love two countries, I can say that I love this one, too.
I spent this last Bastille Day in France.
Emmanuel Macron, who Americans are starting to call “The Trump Whisperer”, wined and dined The Orange One to within an inch of his life. There were times when Trump looked like Macron’s doofuss American uncle, over for a visit. When the Garde Républicaine rode into view, Trump‘s eyes popped out. The glitz; the gilt; Napoléon’s Tomb; the Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower – which has the nerve to be both mega-expensive and impossible to get a reservation in – all made available to Trump.
The pièce de résistance was not the military doing Daft Punk, dancing in march formation in front of an utterly clueless Trump, but Trump saying that he’d “think about” his refusal to be a part of the Paris Agreement. This was game, set, match; “chapeau bas” and a “joli coup” for Macron and for France. Whether Trump rows back or not, he’s got his buddy Macron. And all this nice stuff happened in the country that “my friend Jim”– Trump’s conduit to all things French – (and whose existence is doubted by 99% of people) – had warned him against. “Jim” lost, and something else lost, too: the UK.
Trump stood in front of the microphone at the press conference he shared with Macron and “explained” to the American people that France was the US’s oldest friend. That the bond between France and the US is unbreakable.
He told the folks back home in Paris, Arkansas; Paris, Idaho; Paris, Illinois; Paris, Kentucky; Paris, Maine; Paris, Michigan; Paris, Mississippi; Paris, Missouri; Paris, New Hampshire; Paris, New York; Paris, Ohio; Paris, Oregon; Paris, Pennsylvania, Paris, Tennessee; Paris, Texas; Paris, Virginia; and Paris, Wisconsin, that Paris, France was “beautiful” and just fine.
And what was his reported missive to Theresa May? Something equivalent to: she has to guarantee that his visit to the UK is “smooth”.
Europe is getting the measure of Trump while the UK spends cash on Liam Fox’s various excursions to the US to make “deals” with all the legal authority that I have. The United Kingdom is gradually being sent to the back of the queue that President Obama threatened but it is being sent there through the result of a referendum.
Churchill – who worked night and day to forge the “Special Relationship”, to bring onside a nation utterly dedicated to not being involved across the Atlantic again after the First World War – must be turning in his grave. France is not gun-running like it did during the War Of Independence. It has a young, extremely wily and bright new President who knows his history and who understands the importance of symbols.
Brexit becomes an opening and an opportunity to refashion the Franco-American Alliance while the UK is grappling with as many ideas of what leaving the EU means as stars on the EU flag. I adore France but I love the UK. And I know this: like they say in New York City “ Macron is eating Britain’s lunch”.
The zealots; True Believers; headbangers; and just plain nincompoops who allow the Brexit fiasco to continue are diminishing the UK inch by inch, day by day.
Many of us who have chosen to be British, are privileged to be British, can see it.
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