On Being English



We attached ourselves limpetlike to Englishness on Saturday.

The girls and I.

They are more English than I; the girls They – at least – have traces of it coursing through their veins; their grandfather was English. Real-life from England. Not dislocated in the way their grandmother was. (English but born in a nomadic village in the Congo).   I’m not a bit English. I’m a Celt. Halfscottishhalfirish.   But I travelled here, to England, on my maroon British passport: courtesy of my father. Who never visited Britain in his life.

Funny old thing: patriotism.

See. I think it’s necessary. And necessarily it attaches us to wherever – and whatever – it is we call Home.

It’s hard to be patriotic about Africa when your skin’s white and your passport’s maroon. You can’t be white and an African. Everybody knows that.   The immigration officials at the border comment on my Swahili.

Where are you from?




Yes, but where did you come from?

I didn’t; I was born here.

Ah. But your father? Where did your father come from?


And – like that, their inquisition, my determination to prove I belong – we trek tediously back through one hundred years of familial history until we get to my itchy-heeled Scottish grandfather.

So we have learned, the children and I, to stick that need to be – and to belong – to whatever passing thing feels right at the time.

Saturday evening.  An open air concert. And a big English late summer sky. And warm beer and cold Pimms. And Union Jacks and St George flags fluttering on a light long evening breeze. And fireworks and Rule Britannia.   We didn’t know the words, the girls and I, but we stood up and sung-shouted the bits we thought we did. Loudly.



It was a good weekend to be English. We brought the Ashes home wrote my son in a text from his school in Africa.

Home? We?

From the same boy who is hopeful of a university place in Ireland.

Because that’s where he’s from. This week.

Sometimes I think our fractured identity is muddy and sticky and mires us in complicated equations.

And sometimes I think it is a useful camouflage to be whatever it is we think feels right. At the time.

And on Saturday night, being English felt right. 

Even if we didn’t know all the words.


26 Responses to “On Being English”

  1. Dumdad Says:

    Fascinating. It must be strange to have lived all one’s life in Africa but being white are made to feel not of there. Not quite fair somehow.

    And, yes, we brought the Ashes home!

  2. nuttycow Says:

    Sounds like great fun! A prelude to the Last Night of the Proms?

  3. R. Sherman Says:

    Outstanding post. I’m sure I’ve never contemplated the situation where a place is so a part of one, yet one really –for reasons wholly outside of one’s own control– doesn’t “belong” to it.

    As for you and “English-ness,” is it really a more “British-ness,” a residue of faded empire? Often, I’ve run into people from different places, i.e. the subcontinent, or Canada or S. Africa, which feel an odd attachment to Britain, even if they don’t like the historical manifestations of British, Kipling-esque colonialism.


  4. Jo Says:

    I can really relate to being ‘English’.
    I lived in the States for 10 long years and towards the end of my time here, the last 2/3 years, I craved all things English.
    I became addicted to BBC America.
    I’d Marmite on toast, drink tea.
    I screamed with delight when ‘we’ got the 2012 Olympics.
    It’s a strange existence being a transplant.

  5. Mud Says:

    Exactly – what makes one’s nationality as opposed to one’s ethnicity. How do they differ? Why are they important? A topic I could witter on about at length.

    Belonging is important to all of us.

  6. rosiero Says:

    Home is where the heart is.

  7. Miranda Says:

    “Where are you from? No here are you reaaaaally from?” Oh this tires me to my bones! I hear ya!

  8. carol Says:

    looks like fun!

  9. Tracey Says:

    You know “you English” never actually let the real Ashes out of the country?!!! There’s something not really fair about that!! 😀

    Ah… really interesting post! Made me think how, despite the longstanding sporting stoushes between England and Australia, and despite the fact that I don’t really know my ancestry (probably British of some description) and I’d vote for us to be a republic, as an Australian, in so may other areas I still feel strongly aligned to England… Britain. I’m staunch in my adherence to British spelling and terms (and fight the infiltration of American influences. And I am inexorably drawn to British TV shows. So I can imagine how incredibly strong the sense of patriotism in your situation.

    (Love your blog – mostly lurk and just admire your amazing ability with words, but you’ve drawn me out tonight!)

  10. Mom de Plume Says:

    Hmmm, I do not know where I belong. Zimbabwe is where my heart was for a very long time but even that has faded now. I do not ‘belong’ here in SA as I have a british passport and have only lived here for 5 years so to everyone else I am seen as a foreigner. Between my childhood in Zim and my foreign-ness in SA I have lived all over the place. Now my family is home, wherever we are 🙂

  11. Rummuser Says:

    This “Where are you from?” gambit is such a conversation opener, that I think mankind will never be able to make new friends without it. If you live in a country like India, every Indian asks every strange Indian this question before he allows any kind of warmth in his temporary contact with the stranger. Your case is unique as is your son’s.

    Bringing the ashes home is a great moment. There is not a cricket playing country, or fan who did not celebrate England’s win, barring of course the Australians. My nephew posted his photographs celebrating at the Oval, on FaceBook!

  12. Grannymar Says:

    I only live 125 miles from where I was born, yet it is a different country. I know the ‘out of place’ feeling very well. I seem to be neither one thing or the other. It is amazing how different the two parts of Ireland, North and South, can be.

  13. Merry Says:

    In a way, I can relate.

    I grew up in Silicon Valley. During the Dot Com craziness, people would ask me where I was from, and I’d say “here.”
    Blank stare. “Well, were did you grow up?”
    “Huh? Where were your parents born?”
    Even blanker stare, as if I’d just confessed to be the lovechild of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

    Somehow, people could not seem to grasp the concept that it was a place were people were born, grew old, and died.

    Then again, some people move to a new place and blend in, while others are simply determined to always be From Somewhere Else, thankyouverymuch.

  14. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you Dumdad. and for acknowledging my sentiments: it’s not quite fair …

    it was nutty: great fun.

    Mr S: kiplinesque colonialism – how lovely!

    I agree Jo: strange being a transplant. Like you, I’m a marmite addict

  15. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Mud: those are very interesting questions. and you’re right: we all need to belong. but that’s about the head and the heart and not necessarily the colour of your passport?

    Precisely Rosiero: that’s probably Africa then …

    Thank you Miranda! It makes me want to scream sometimes.

  16. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Tracey. For lurking and reading and kind words. (And for the Ashes!)

    Hello Mom de P: I empathize with both the geographical confusion and the belief that what is most important is where those you love are.

    Thank you Rummuser. Where are you from? … even children ask it. And when i was little that opening gambit was followed with ‘why aren’t you black then?’ …

    Grannymar: neither one nor the other, neither here nor there … I know what you mean.

    Thank you for reading and for commenting, Merry. It’s really interesting how this ‘where are you from’ question manifests in so many lives regardless of geography or age or ethnicity, isn’t it?

  17. Hadriana Says:

    I’m intrigued by this feeling of ‘englishness’. My head wants me to live in France, Spain and Italy (and I speak those languages with varying degrees of fluency). My heart wants me to live here: wild, Northern England right on the Scottish border. I do feel very English. Even when I was in Egypt that feeling was prevalent at all times. I think about it very second of every day.

  18. Hadriana Says:

    every second of every day.

  19. Rummuser Says:

    I could not stop laughing at your response. Keep it up. We need all the humour in the world to keep our sanity.

  20. Iota Says:

    I’m displaying pathetic Englishness here, as I can’t even think what you are celebrating. Not St George’s Day (that’s 23 April, my sister’s birthday), not Last Night of the Proms I don’t think. You couldn’t have known England would win the Ashes, and the pics look like a planned event. What was the do? Help me out!

  21. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thanks Hadriana, funny how the english abroad can supercede the abroad. definately about the head and the heart and not the geography of the moment.

    Iota. I’m not sure. entirely. Althorp. English summer’s evening. battle of the proms kind of thing. cannons and faux french pitched against the english. the english won. obviously. and the compere couldn’t say his r’s which made the fwench fighting the bwits absolutely hilarious. as you can imagine. x

  22. guineapigmum Says:

    I hate that question too. Where are you from? My children are clearly Scottish, I’m clearly not. Here and there is my usual reply.

  23. Kate Kayes Says:

    How many times I’ve had that same discussion about being African but having a white skin? Like answering the endless “why” of a 3 year old, every answer is met with “but where are you from, ORIGINALLY?”, until two weeks ago in Luangwa chatting to the Zambian safari guide who asked where I was from. Ah ha, born in Zim, grew up in Malawi, 17 years in Kenya, 2 years in Tanzania.. and before I could finish claiming my right to belong he floored me by stating “So you’re African”. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that response, and it was as if I’d at last been handed membership to the exclusive club.

  24. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Here and there. I think that’s probably just about right, guineapigmum. That’s probably best too.

    Hi Kate. How lovely to see you. Thanks for commenting. Perfect. Just perfect. I’m glad he acknowledged as much. x

  25. sharon cowell Says:

    Wonderful, I love the writing nomatter the subject.

    My daughter, Kelly, born in Nelspruit (no longer called that) in SA, spent 2 nights in hospital in SA then Swaziland/malawi/cape town/zambia/malawi/tanzania/kenya. She did the 3 year repeated question for 17 years “what am I”, I am clearly not South African! Then the aha moment hit her ….I am a white african and she happily skipped off with her many hue’d friends in Nairobi. A beautiful rainbow of young people who are all one. Never to look back.

    The irony!!! Kelly applied for a ID document, at 17, the gateway to anything adult in SA. bank account/drivers license/club entry (NB)… waited 3 YEARS for this vital doc, Had to fight a war with Home affairs, BUT I AM SOUTH AFRICAN and you have removed my constitutional right to the exremely important recent vote. Apart from 3 years of major admin you have to laugh. You have to laugh. Stolen at birth (is a message in this bottle???) All the years of adamantly saying I am not a South African even though I have the green cover.


    Keep on blogging Memsahib. excellent stuff
    From Sharon in the Yala Swamp Western Kenya, Nyanza Province
    PS/while you are debating, in your British way, the hoo’s and ha’s of what you are I am surviving life as the very reluctant lady who made a choice to live in a swamp. Swamped by life!

  26. gaelikaa Says:

    I’m Irish married to an Indian and living in India. My kids look like me. Once, the mother of one of my daughter’s schoolfriends teased her (my daughter), calling her a ‘white rat’. I couldn’t help wondering what would be the reaction if that woman’s daughter lived in Ireland and was called a ‘black rat’ or a ‘brown rat’ I had to tell my daughter to do what the Bible says and ignore the insult like a sensible person.

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