Features

English Bastard

22 September 2007 | Features
Originally published at Meat magazine

Being an Englishman in Scotland and being perversely fond of the fact is probably the UK’s answer to America’s ‘wiggas’. Whenever I accidentally utter a Scottish colloquialism (“Och, Aye”) in my Brummie accent I can’t help but think of decrepit, benign Hans Moleman on The Simpsons wheezing, “Cowabunga, dudes”. It’s tragic. It’s sad. It’s Neil Kinnock dancing to ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. It’s Richard Madeley dressing up as Ali G. “Is it ‘cos I is black?”

Despite the fact that I left England because its climate, people, diet, politics, history and scenery make me want to be sick into a big bag, the only way to avoid becoming the aforementioned monstrosity is to become more English. Sincerity is everything. So against all expectation, I have moved my accent half a degree south of its natural tendency and have taken up drinking copious amounts of tea. I have even started following Midlands football for the first time in my life: Up, may I venture, the baggies.

At the recent parliamentary elections, I voted for the Scottish National Party. It felt like a peculiar betrayal – peculiar in that I quite frequently masturbate, laughing, to the idea of England being hit by a massive asteroid and everything in it being reduced to dust and ash.

Back in Birmingham, I never identified with England. I was, like my hero Kurt Vonnegut, a man without a country. Perhaps I was too close to England and unable to see it without warts and all (by warts I refer mainly to ASBOs, skinheads, rotweillers, tabloid witch hunts and Johnny Vaughn). From here in Scotland it looks like a silly little BBC wonderland. I’m quite fond of it now. Through my binoculars, it’s is about David Attenburgh and Dressing Gowns and Doctor Who.

It’s a truism to say that you have to remain an outsider in order to properly understand a given place or society. I recently interviewed Judith Levine, author of the acclaimed book Not Buying It. I had asked her about the anthropological approach she adopts in order to study her own America; she said that she often felt divorced from her culture because of this approach but that it was necessary in order to act as critic.

I can’t help but feel something of a fish [and chips] out of water myself but at least it allows me to put some thought into my own never-before-bothered-about nationality. Whenever Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson appear in American movies, they are sold as being quintessentially English; while on British screens they assuredly come across as cultured, witty gentlemen but not necessarily grounded to any particular nation.

You can’t help but be an ambassador for your country when you visit another one, hence the recent media reaction to the yobbish behaviour of some English tourists in Spain. I didn’t even know I was English until I stepped off the plane at Glasgow Prestwick and got called an ‘English Bastard’ by a passing drunk.

When going abroad, you can’t help but take a bit of your atmosphere with you in a bucket. People are fascinated with diversity even in this modern globalized world of ours: they want to know about where you’re from, whether the stereotypes are true, what the difference is. When Scottish friends ask me how different England is to here; I tell them that it’s about the same as Scotland except that you can’t get proper haggis or decent medical facilities.

England, of course, is a complete myth. The only red telephone box I think I’ve ever seen is actually in the grounds of Glasgow University. In American movies, you can usually see Big Ben from the window of any British house, yet I only walked past it two or three times even when I lived for a spell in London. Tea, by the way, comes from China. Fish and Chips, if anything, are Scottish since the cheap fish required by the working-class dish comes from the North Sea where shoals of cod were abundant in the nineteenth century. Even the Queen is German. The only actual English thing I can think of is the humble faggot – a foodstuff which mysteriously never did well in America. Perhaps I’m being a tad glib – England gave us the World Wide Web. And Tarmac.

In spite of my ‘become more English’ strategy, I’ve actually taken up Scotts Gaelic lessons: surely a skill so Scottish that it would impress even the most hardened Scottish nationalist. In my first lesson, I was to be taught to say, “Hello. My name is Robert. I am from England”. But instead, I persuaded my teacher to change this to “Hello. My name is Robert. I am from Nowhere”. Since the concept of ‘zero’ didn’t hit the Scottish islands until the twentieth century, the Gaelic lingo has difficulty with negative words such ‘nothing’ or ‘nowhere’. So the best we can do is “Tha à Sasainn, ach chan eil ‘n àite sam bith“, which roughly means, “I am from England but not that England”.