On Difficult Identities and Cultural Explosions

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On the 9th April, 1990 I was born on an island I would later learn to call Great Britain. I was told that the city I was born in was called London and that I had been born within range of the Bow Bells, which made me a Cockney. Three years later we moved to a small town on the coast in East Anglia. Sixteen years after this I moved to Wales to study for three years. I then moved back to East Anglia for a final year, before taking a long train up to Edinburgh, Scotland.

When people ask me where home is, I struggle a little. ‘Where I was born?’ I ask in an attempt to clarify the question. Surely London is my home – it’s the city of my birth – but London is such a large place, with so many people being born there every second. Is that really a suitable marker for my beginning, or do we need to be more specific? Then again, I don’t remember much of London so can I really call it home? I haven’t a cockney accent, and I doubt I absorbed much culture in my three years there…

East Anglia, then. It’s a place I know well, but having parents from London I failed to adopt the local accent. From overhearing my parents talk about London I realised that the town we lived in was very small, that the country extended a great many miles in three directions, that London had fast trains and public transport, that people didn’t talk to each other on the streets there… I grew up comparing my small town with a large city I had never really experienced. What was extraordinary to my peers was ordinary to my parents, and I occupied an uneasy space between the two; knowing larger, greater things existed but never having experienced them. Never mind, we’ll go one up – I’m English, then. But wait…

We used to travel to Wales frequently on family holidays and I remember trying to work out where we left England and entered Wales. ‘We’re in Wales!’ my dad would announce as he swerved the car around another cliff-edged corner, but I didn’t see any signs to say we’d suddenly entered another country. There were no borders, just lots of ARAF painted on the tarmac and multi-lingual signposts. The landscape changed, slate became more apparent as a building material and the accents slowly thickened. The ‘border’ I had expected was no border at all, more like a transition of peoples places and materials, of sounds and landscapes.

In my youth I tried to pretend I was some Foggian adventurer when in Wales. I was an Englishman in the land of the Welsh. However, I quickly learnt that things weren’t all that different from moving from one town to another back in the East of England. These towns and villages – separated off from one another – had slowly become islands of their own; generating their own culture, dialect, art and music styles. It seemed too easy to identify artistic, political and cultural ideologies as ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’ when they spread so easily across borders, and the pride countries seemed to take in their athletes competing and winning trophies at various events around the world seemed unusual – did the fact that Murray was Scottish give him any physical advantage over any of the other players? If Murray had been born in France would he have lost that final game?

I have become a resident of Scotland at a very important and exciting time, but also a potentially dangerous one. Dangerous, how? I fear one of two outcomes should the residents of Scotland vote for independence; and that is the rediscovery of stale, traditional national identity or of  a more exciting, modern, freshly-forged one. This staleness is most apparent in London’s shop fronts; ragged Union Jack bunting, royal wedding memorabilia and the glazed stare of resurrected 1940’s posters. By embracing and encouraging dated cultural icons Britain is failing to recognise (and encourage) fresh voices, new creativity, and is alienating young artists with historical symbolism. Whilst the old has become ‘new’, it has failed to achieve a status above the level of nostalgic nationalist tit-tat. So, should independence be achieved, how do we forge a new identity that recognises the rich history of Scotland, of its traditions and it’s culture, but flourishes above and beyond the level of a mug? I think we could learn a great deal from the Nordic region, particularly Stockholm. ‘Why has the land of the bland become a cultural powerhouse?’ asks a piece in the Economist, ‘because new technologies are levelling the playing field […] thanks to the internet, somebody sitting in a Stockholm attic can reach the world’ but I feel the author hits the nail on the head here; ‘all true. But there is no point in giving people microphones if they have nothing to say’.

The author argues that this cultural renaissance is a consequence of ‘a closed society that was dominated by a single political orthodoxy (social democracy) and by a narrow definition of national identity (say, Swedishness or Finnishness) being shaken up by powerful forces such as globalisation and immigration. All the Nordics are engaged in a huge debate about their identity in a post-social democratic world.’ Sound familiar? Okay, maybe Scotland’s not necessarily being shaken up by globalisation and immigration but the independence debate has certainly put the issue of identity firmly on the agenda, and do the Scottish not share that narrow definition of national identity – that of being British, yet more specifically Scottish?

‘The region’s identity crisis is creating a multicultural explosion’ writes the author on Stockholm, and I can’t help but wonder if independence has the potential to do the same. In an independent Scotland could we also draw ‘inspiration from [our] growing ethnic minorities’ but also reach ‘back into [our] own cultural traditions’ and create new and inventive practices, art forms, and music? Could independence punch through the pessimistic ‘cannae do’ attitude and create a new, more optimistic sense of self? I’m unsure – there are no guarantees – but I’m encouraged by the optimism of those on the Yes side of the independence debate, and if, somehow, that energy were to pass on to others in Scotland (through the ‘cannae do’ attitude) it could only be of benefit to Scotland’s economy, psychology, and cultural and political identity.

Hayden Westfield-Bell
National Collective

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About Hayden Westfield-Bell

Hayden Westfield-Bell is a recent graduate of the UEA's Creative Writing MA (Poetry). He now writes, reads and performs in Edinburgh and was a featured poet of the Ash Sessions 'Black, Strong and Sweet' poetry series.

There are 7 comments

  1. Elliott Steven

    Nice piece – it contrasts with the silly season poll that suggested (by extrapolation) that 500K Scots would flee to England upon a YES vote. This is of course risible given that in the UK as a whole there are approximately only 450k job opportunities available and would result in the 500K ending up either unemployed, in poor work, or zero hour contracts. The reaction from most of the ScotNats who could be bothered to take this newest nonsense from the BritNats was, ‘Good then, 500K English can come up and share in the experience of our new independent country with a constitution and a government dedicated to the best interests of the people’. As the FM said, you are a Scot if you choose to live here and call Scotland ‘home’. And there is clearly no need to be concerned about identity – those English folk wishing to have dual British/English nationality are perfectly within their rights to have and enjoy both.

    1. Hayden 'Melvin' Westfield-Bell

      I guess it’s sort of a non-issue to those that think about it a little more in-depth than what’s thrown across the front page of the papers, though the independence question does raise issues as to our identity – certainly through nationalism – and I think this can make those from different countries feel uncomfortable depending on the way it’s phrased. For instance, if I walked into a Scottish pub and proudly claimed I was Scottish I’m not quite sure what would happen, but I think someone would point out my very English accent, and argue that my Scottishness, might be of a different kind to theirs.

      Identity and identity politics is a grey area, so it seems. It wanders between the personal and public, the physical and spiritual, geographic…

  2. Eilif Gustafson

    “British, yet more specifically Scottish” finally somebody is saying what I’m trying to say! Scottish and British are not two identities – Scottishness is a form of Britishness but more specific than the general one you get presented with down south (which many would argue is more a London identity). The point with saying ‘you’re British’ is to say you’re from (Great) Britain and as Scotland is part of at least the geographical definition then you are saying you’re British by virtue of saying you’re Scottish! In short why be general when you can be specific?

    1. Iain Macmillan

      ” Scottishness is a form of Britishness “. Not for me it’s not. In no way, shape or form have I ever called or considered myself “British”. I’m Scottish, end of. If other people want to associate themselves with “Britishness” then that’s entirely up to them but what that represents to me is invading and occupying other countries and all the other jingoistic, arrogant, Butcher’s Apron waving guff!

    2. Hayden 'Melvin' Westfield-Bell

      I’m not sure I’d say Scottishness is a form of Britishness – what I would say is that Britishness has influenced modern Scottish identity, and that there is Scottishness in British identity. You are very right when you say that Britishness includes Scottish (because it is Great Britain), but it also includes English and Irish identities, and all of these (Scottish, English, Irish) all have histories richer than that of Great Britain.

      I think the identification of ‘British’ has more of a political edge in Scotland and Ireland than in England, in the same way that to say ‘I’m English’ is different to saying ‘I’m British’, it’s more specific, certainly, but it also highlights the politics and opinions of the speaker. It’s an interesting area, one I haven’t quite come to terms with (there are a number of factors at play).

      For instance, geographically I’d be English, British – but I’m not sure I want to identify with the politics of the ‘English, British’ anymore (sometimes even ‘British’ is too much for me). I guess you could say I moved, therefore I take on a new geographic identity – that would make me ‘Scottish, British’ though I squirm at that additional ‘British’ at the end. I’d rather it just be ‘Scottish’.

  3. ChrisPaton

    As an Ulsterman living in Scotland, I’ve wrestled with identity for years, not least of which because as a child I was similarly on the move a lot – 3 days in Northern Ireland, 4 years in Scotland (Helensburgh), 4 in England (Plymouth) and 10 in Northern Ireland – before then moving to England again (Bristol) for 6 years for university and to work in the media, and then ultimately back to Scotland some 16 years back. I have a half Scottish/half Irish heritage background, and constantly refer to my identity issues as Straits of Moyle Syndrome. But I chose to make my home in Scotland because I have been so energised by the ‘can do’ ability of folk here. I worked for the ‘BBC in Scotland’ (not of Scotland), and got so fed up with the unchanging crumbs-from-the-table attitude of Glasgow’s relationship to London in terms of documentary commissioning that I decided I needed to do something for the sake of my sanity, and that was to walk away from the Beeb seven years ago and to start all over again. It was a tad scary, I had to put a lot of faith into what I believed I could achieve in my new career, but I haven’t looked back. That’s what I got from being here, this country is exciting, energetic and capable, and that’s why I’m staying. Independence provides a reset button, a chance to shape the future and not be shackled to an inherited past. I don’t doubt Scotland can do it, and very glad – and very proud – to consider myself a Scot today more than anything else. Even with my dodgy accent :)

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