Monday, 16 November 2015

Origins

If people think of me in terms of a nationality narrower than British, they usually think of me as Welsh. I’m known at The Welsh Whisperer in some poetry circles, and my immediate family still makes a home there. It’s the country I support most viscerally in rugby, it’s the language I occasionally dream in (despite it being only my second, and no-one else in my family knowing more than a few words).  You can tell by the way I pronounce “tooth” and hear it when I get tired, drunk, or particularly emotional (“where to is that?” “tidy” “I’ll just get my daps on").

Some people know that I have Scottish family.  My mother was born there; the majority of my surviving blood relatives are based in central Scotland, after all, and the accent (and some of the dialect) comes pretty easily to me; some words are permanently Scottish in my pronunciation, unless I concentrate (“decided” sounds like “decideed”, I call things “wee”, I use “uh huh” in a way that confuses people here).

But not many people know that I was born in Belfast, in the mid-70s.  This isn’t a conscious hiding on my part, it’s just something that no longer really comes up now I no longer have language lessons (ges i ngheni yng nGogledd Iwerddon, je suis né en Irlande du Nord, natus sum in septemtrionis Hibernia, etc.).

But it’s still something that I think about, especially in weeks like these, because it’s something that formed who I am now.

Eight weeks after I was born, my folks fled - first to the Continent (Holland), then to South Wales, so that my brother could be born in the UK.  They moved quickly on both occasions, seeking some control over decisions other people would have imposed on them based on notions of borders. We were never meant to be this Welsh (i.e. more than genetically, on my father’s side), my brother and I - it just turned out that way, a legacy of other people’s fears.

My mother told us very few stories of the handful of years running up to us leaving Belfast... at least, not until we were in our late teens and early twenties.  I never quite understood why she was so jumpy, viewing with a particular type of scorn her exaggerated responses to explosions on television, backfiring cars, the way - now I come to think of it - she would walk around her own vehicle before getting in. I only learned when she did, almost too late, that PTSD might have informed the extent of her OCD, her inability to say goodbye simply and quickly, her skittishness, her agoraphobia. My mother was an adventurer, until adventure came to her, and until children gave her even more cause for obsessive fears.  Who knows if my mother’s fear and my father’s rage would have manifested themselves so strongly if it hadn’t been for those years?

My parents survived car bombs and bomb threats at work, facing down barricaders in the dark, learning which words to say and not say where, when to back down or face up, and when to whistle, mimicking blissful ignorance.

And through it all these two nominal Protestants continued to treat people as people.  My mother persisted in hiring folk regardless (“But, Mrs. Roberts, she’s - you know -” a sly gesture, a flick of the left wrist... “However, she’s the best person for the job.”), and my father in treating folk regardless (labour pains don’t take much consideration of religious history).  Maybe the pressure to draw lines was what pushed them out, as soon as I was big enough to shift (that and the sniper fire that lunchtime my mother had just sent off to discover if she was actually pregnant with me, etc.).

And that was something they explicitly passed on to me along with the accidental phrases that still pepper my sentences (“catch yourself on!” “what all do you do?”), peculiar pronunciations when I’m exasperated (“C’mawn noy!”), and a tendency to speak softly. My father taught me, aged 5, that all terrorists are idiots; violent, hidebound idiots - he didn’t care which side they were on: they were all wasteful, stupid, misanthropic bastards. My mother told me that - IRA or UDF - they were both making the same mistakes, perpetuating the same tired old arguments. Nominally Orange, we had more in common with Catholics who had buried old hatchets than stubborn drummers shouting “Fenian scum!”  The Glorious Twelfth my arse.

And this has carried on my whole life - applying this model across borders and colours and creeds. Catholics aren’t terrorists. Muslims aren’t terrorists. Cultists aren’t terrorists. Atheists aren’t terrorists. Socialists aren’t terrorists. Capitalists aren’t terrorists. Syrians aren’t terrorists. Iraqis aren’t terrorists. The Irish aren’t terrorists. Kyrgyzstanians aren’t terrorists. Vegans aren’t terrorists. Meat-eaters aren’t terrorists. Straight people aren’t terrorists. Gay people aren’t terrorists. White people aren’t terrorists. People of colour aren’t terrorists. Women aren’t terrorists. Men aren’t terrorists.  And yet terrorists have come from all those groups and more.

Terrorists want us to fear. The clue’s in the name - another thing my father discussed with me. They feed off chaos and confusion and the breakdown of general, societal trust (yep - they wanted this understanding instilled in me from a young age, in retrospect). The extremist, violent people on both sides of any conflict have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of those they claim to represent - they want the violence to continue; the rest of us don’t. The rest of us, on a hourly, daily, weekly, whatever basis, do not give a monkeys about the religion, culture, first language, sexuality, gender expression, ethnicity, nationality, ancestral origins, or any such demographics of the people around us. We care whether they will treat us well. Are they foe or neutral? Are they going to give us what we need, ignore us, or beat us around the head? While some of the former demographics may affect our assumptions about the likelihood of the latter actions/ character traits, we honestly don’t care, as long as people treat us well or leave us alone.  Left to ourselves, we seem to just get on with things, and get on with people.

But some folk just love borders, just love to ramp up the otherness factor of those on the “other side” of them. And my parents got some things wrong: they were still passing on the myth of the stereotypical Englishman (posh or common, they were all greedy, thoughtless thugs); they were frankly a bit racist (ethnic discrimination was a terrible thing in theory until their daughter started dating a person of colour); and they could be a bit condescending about people with disabilities, or people of a lower educational status than them, or unemployed people. I had to re-educate myself rapidly as my life changed and I started meeting people from, well, every walk of life, but I was helped in that constant adjustment by that template of “everyone’s the same, really, and all terrorists and hate-mongers are fighting for the same side” which persisted with me.

You know that when angry imams slam the whole West as corrupt and sinful that it’s ridiculous. You know that when scornful aristocrats dismiss everyone of a “lower” socioeconomic status as them as “proles”/ “scum” that it’s meaningless. You know that when the Daily Mail declaim, well, pretty much anything that it’s ludicrous. So think about it - the people vehemently generalising in the opposite direction, away from you - are they any more accurate?

I’ve not known what to say about the events in Paris. They were awful - yes - and far too many people’s lives have been snuffed out or permanently altered by the fear-driven, anger-driven, appetite-for-chaos-driven actions of a handful of people.  Each and every life lost or altered is its own tragedy, and is no bigger or smaller than any other across the globe. And people across the globe have been suffering as a result of those who kill and maim in the name of control and the strengthening of borders. To me, the outcome in Paris is no different from those in Beirut last week, or Belfast last millennium, New York in this one, London last decade, Boston in this one. It’s closer, yes, but it’s exactly the same. It’s always exactly the same.  And each crisis has exactly the same solution: compassion, understanding, dialogue, reaching out, an abandonment of weapons, a recognition that we all need the same things: food, water, shelter, security, love, a place in society, fulfilment. And that compromises can be reached, and that we can all, actually, inhabit the planet (and any others we might like to aim for) together.

And that’s difficult. It takes overcoming the angers and scorns and fears embedded in us by our fathers and mothers, our teachers and politicians, and all those who pass on hate like an heirloom; it takes relearning - ourselves and others - and deliberately forgetting the prejudices that prevent us from just getting on with things, and with people, reaching out.  Start small and do it today and teach at least two other people how to do it. It’ll be worth it - I promise.

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