by Peter Latham
“Everybody hated the British.” The words of the Afrikaaner guide who took us round the Zulu battlefields still ring in my ears. The Zulus beat the British at Isandlwana, but British power still triumphed over the gold and diamonds of the Reef. My passport says I'm British but I'm not proud of it. Nor ashamed, as neither I nor my forebears did any of these things. I feel proud of my family roots among the cotton mills, canals, railways, coal mines and factories of Bolton and Manchester. Manchester – the city of Engels the revolutionary, whose reports of working class life in 1844 helped bring later reforms at state level, from public health to council houses.
I am English, but scornful of the Englishness of John Major with his cricket, fair play and warm beer – what rubbish. I'm conscious of being from the North and the culture that goes with it: Ewan McColl, and the Beatles, who were local lads from the other end of the East Lancs Road; Barry Hines, Nicholas Montserrat and the Brontës. Strange that one of the first feminist novels should be written by a conservative. Charlotte opposed the 1832 Reform Act and admired the Duke of Wellington, but that is “British” life for you. Elizabeth Gaskell thought that the Viking influence gave people similar character traits of loyalty, stubbornness, and determination on both sides of the Pennines.
Living in London brought me closer to the un-melting pot of races and nationalities. I used to cycle along Railton Road past Brixton market. There was a radical bookshop where I bought my cherished copy of the Communist Manifesto. Every home should have one. All this and more is my Englishness and if asked I'll say I feel proud of it, but I never use the word “patriotic.” I think nationality must be more cultural than anything, although like Gaskell other writers attributed some character traits to nationalities, as if there was an inherited component. I'm wary of this. Class relations probably play as big a part in character evolution, e.g. the buccaneering merchant class became the expanding colonialists.
Nationality is surely a journey: it is where you take yourself as well as where you come from. Nationalism is no help to me. I doubt if there is an international working class, at least not yet. The Russian soldiers who fought with their backs to the Volga saved me and my parents from fascism, and I admire them greatly. They have a different national heritage with a humanity of their own.
There is more to learn about the humanity of one's own nationality, and of other peoples' – from Shakespeare and Austen to Vaughan Williams and Delius, from Winston Graham's Poldark novels to the Caribbean heritage of Andrea Levy, or from Athol Fugard to Olive Schreiner of the Karoo. I don't follow sport, but others do. Solidarity – keep exploring, meeting people, learning, thinking and acting. It all counts.