Friday, 5 March 2010

Mind the gap

This blog post stems from a comment I made almost absent-mindedly in a email to Rob recently. I had been listening to a one-off program from BBC radio on the Miners' strike (it's here, though only available for another four days; also related is this good Pulp song), a topic which up to now had been of very little interest to me. Indeed, I wouldn't have known about the program at all if the G2 hadn't given it a glowing review (and it was indeed very good). But, as I said to Rob, I felt compelled to go and find it to learn more about this event, because there is so much I don't know about the recent history of what is now fairly certain to be my adoptive country, and I feel I need to somehow fill all these gaps.

But do I really have to? Is it necessary, upon acquiring a new home country, to get up to speed about all the events of the last 30 years that are impressed on the psyche of those who have been there all along, or is it pretentious (in a look-at-me-how-well-I'm-assimilating way) and futile (since obviously snatches of history here and there are not going to replace having lived through a particular period or event, even with videos and interviews and soundbites and all that)? I'm still trying to figure it out, and maybe writing about it will help me along the way.

To be clear, I am not talking about keeping up-to-date about current events in one's home country (however transient) - that seems to me to be a given, for any number of unsurprising reasons, such as feeling like you're somehow part of the wider community, being able to follow a conversation with your local friends and colleagues, knowing what's going to happen to the places or institutions around you, and maybe understanding your hosts better. It's why I made myself sit through the web-streamed State of the Union the other month, check this guy's blog more or less daily, and sometimes even get round to looking at the CNN homepage.

But what about what went before? On a very basic level, filling the gaps is good because it enables you to get cultural and historical references, in people's conversations, in films and tv shows, in songs. It's not a good enough reason, though. Sometimes I feel like I'm not really allowed to call the UK my home (ignoring for now all the other issues we were talking about a couple of months ago) because I have not lived through the same things that my peers have, big events like the fall of the Tories, the IRA bombs - I know so little about it all. Then again, I don't know that much about my own country, either - obviously there are events you live through and experience, but it's not like I could give anyone a reasoned and detailed account of Mani Pulite or the Red Brigades. Perhaps, if all this socio-historical background is really so important to me, there is an argument to be made in favour of learning more about where I come from before worrying about where I'm going.

Or perhaps I just have a very warped understanding of what makes one feel settled within a community, and a shared past is in fact not a key part of it? After all, one can very happily go about their day-to-day business without needing to know what O-levels are or why one hesitates for a moment when a Jeffrey Archer novel is donated in the Oxfam shop. But shared past, I think, is one of those things that make themselves known only by their absence, not their presence. Ultimately, if you are going to be living in a place for a long time, you want to feel you belong there - not to the point of losing your own identity, just to the point of feeling, understandably, at home and comfortable, without drawing attention to your 'otherness' all the time (just at crucial times, like the World Cup or the Six Nations or when being dragged to Pizza Express :-) ). And, of course, nothing singles you out as 'the other' as quickly as not being able to understand or share in the public reaction to an event (or the memory of one). Like when Gordon Brown had tea with Maggie Thatcher a couple of years ago and most people I know were livid: I could rationally understand their reaction, but I was just missing too much to have the same reaction emotionally.

I guess that, with time, these things smooth over and you end up acquiring enough of a back catalogue, in some way or other, that the issue ceases to be one. And then you can start worrying about losing your homeland identity...

1 comment:

superdinosaurboy said...

Hmm. I think you're right about it being difficult to acquire emotional reactions through historical knowledge. I was 8 when Maggie T went, so it's not like I had any kind of real grasp on the politics of the situation, or read about it in newspapers or anything. And I was lucky enough not to have been really affected by the pair of recessions and dismantling of the welfare state for which she is responsible.

But I did know she was evil, and it's that that shapes my emotional reactions to her now, rather than my subsequent increased knowledge of the history of the time (although obviously that has done nothing to change my views!).

So: in terms of fitting in, it's probably better just to absorb the attitudes/prejudices of those around you without too much research. But I think it's probably a good idea also to do the research, in order to have an intellectual grasp of how the country you're adopting has come to be the way it is.