A Question of Identity

By James Cameron. Originally published in the <em>New Statesman</em> on 7 May 1965, selected by <str

The card of identity: I seem to have lived with it forever, yet its meaning continues to elude me. I cannot remember how many I have had, and carried about the world, and still carry - the name, the definition, the picture, the antecedents, the accreditation, the purpose, occasionally the fingerprint, always the number; the piece of paper that establishes one's right, in certain absurd and special circumstances, to work or even to exist.

Without the piece of paper one is reduced to ordinary proportions, groping outside; one cannot, for example, use the Delegate's Toilet. I look at about 200 cards of identity: buff and blue and white and laminated and endorsed and bedraggled, scrupulously and meaninglessly explaining in a dozen recognisable languages: this is Mr C.; he works in the world; allow him to do so.

The common denominator of all these passports and permits and laissez-entrer should amount to a kind of certainty and confidence, you would think; if so many vigilant authorities have sieved one through and found one real, one must surely be so: distilled to the bone. The Russians let one into Russia, the Americans into America, the Chinese into China, the Jews into Israel, the Arabs into Arabia, the newspapermen into Fleet Street, one's friends into their homes, one's acquaintances into their confidence, one's lovers to their beds; some require more endorsements that others, but everyone wants something.

What a piece of work is man! Observe his photograph, his number, his code-index, his yellow-fever certificate, his sign-manual: that is he. Thus I am inscribed on the forgotten registers of something like 70 countries, sovereign states to a man, and every time I turned my head there was another one, demanding an even greater abundance of identification. Personally I never knew yet quite what I was nor where I slotted in; I suppose I was ready for total identification somewhere, but never where I happened to be. Cogito, ergo sum. That satisfied Descartes; it never satisfied the lowliest immigration clerk of the meanest of states. It never satisfied me.

In the first waking moments before the dawn the great thing is to remember first who you are, then where you are; for years this has not always been easy. It seems to me that I was quite young when these eerie moment os suspense first came, unanchored and adrift in the dark, groping through a helpless sequence of reasoning to resolve the supreme problem of where I was. These moments still come at the precise transition from sleep to life, lying there in a trance of doubt: what is this bed, where is this room, what lies beyond it, when must I move and what must I do? London, Cairo, Peshawar, Peking, Damascus, Moscow, Chicago - there have been so many places so often; any of them could be the background for this foolish vacuum.

In the next moment, of course, it is a room by a familiar sea, or a taxi mourns by in a ruined street; here we are and off we go. I have no roots at all. I am the end-product of one exiled and disorientated tribe of an anarchic aberration of the middle class. In my mind I identify myself elsewhere, but this fact cannot be denied. I would far sooner have been the by-blow of a ducal tyrant, or the onest end of 18 generations of persecuted ploughmen, since either of these backgrounds would have helped me to rationalise my tiresome but incurable dissatisfaction with both the rich and the poor. I deplore my equivocations; in self-defence I become dogmatic. I should have been reared in either a stately home or a slum; instead I am the eventual residue of a decently eccentric Scottish family who, as far as I can discern, asked little of life but rather more than enough to read and drink. It produced two exceptional men, who will be remembered awhile where quality is value, but that process stopped with my father.

I have no religion, and I am bad at politics. I can recall no time when I was not a socialist; that is to say I can remember no conversion from anything else; from the moment when politics were anything more than a word I accepted socialism without any particular reasoning or argument. This was commonplace and inadequate, and all my life I have been exasperated at an insufficient grounding in the scientific basis of what I profess to believe. I imagine it is true that most people feel no compulsion to define what they intuitively comprehend, but they are better off if they can.

I survived part of adolescence in the despair of Dundee, that industrial graveyard of the Thirties. All I could grasp, or more accurately assume, was that this sort of class structure was unnatural, and therefore to be rejected - not at the time necessarily to be opposed! I knew no way of opposing it. I could only equate class with poverty - not individual poverty, not the knock-kneed, hunchbacked poverty of one old jute-mill reject in the Overgate, but the poverty of what seemed an endless background of morally exhausted people: the poor who are always with us.

Class existed, and was expressible in material terms, which were hateful. What made my own indignation especially feckless was my inability to establish myself in the pattern at all. I was extremely poor, frequently to the point of desperation and hunger, but still I lived in the part of town inhabited by the less poor; I had few friends, but those I had were not millworkers nor foundrymen. If the conditions of one's life counted for anything I was working class, since I worked excessively hard for little pay; so much so that it left me forever thenceforth with a nagging compulsion to work, a dread of being hard-up, a self-defeating inability to relax. But it did not give me entrance to the confidence of true workers because - for one thing - I spoke wrongly.

The epithet "education" was ironical indeed, since there was, and is, no company anywere in which I am not invariably and technically the least-educated of all. Such schooling as I had was sketchy and erratic to the point of fantasy, taking place as it did (for reasons too complicated to explain) in a series of French village schools where I learned probably less than the ordinary pupil of today, however deprived, would believe possible. I will not go into the bizarre processes of a rural Breton externat between the wars; let it be enough to say that I emerged from this process knowing virtually nothing about everything. I am not exaggerating. My ignorance of all the conventional matters was truly outstanding. Of history I culled a few myths about Charlemagne; from time to time I was persecuted and beaten for having been party to the burning of Joan of Arc; sometimes we prated doggerel about democracy; current affairs were defined by a madly schizoid mutilé de guerre who once, to make a point, hit me on the head with the artificial arm he had acquired at Verdun; a truly memorable event.

I there developed not just an ignorance but a positive, active horror of mathematics; I never learned even to multiply; I still recoil from the very look of figures. I think I must be the last person of my generation who did sums on a slate. I can smell the bloody thing still.

Even this barren business came to an end when I was 15, when I entered the great world of letters filling paste-pots in the branch office of a very provincial newspaper. It was inevitable that someone of my abject and total non-scholarshiop should finish up in this undemanding trade, and there, for 30 years, I stuck.

Education my backside.

All these considerations are hard to define on the card of identity. Even the straight facts are suspect. For example: my mother had the unusual feminine name of Douglas; on every occasion when I have been obliged to nominate my parents and fill in: son of William, and Douglas, it has raised conjectures so peculiar that they have been inexplicable, and I sooned learned to call my mother Margaret. Nobody every knew or cared. Indeed I was myself 25 when the first sight of my birth certificate revealed that my own name was other than what I had supposed all my life. So much for the fiddling accuracies of the bureaucrats.

An inability to define oneself makes it nonetheless interesting to observe the manner in which one is defined by others. I have a ticket from one Asian country calling me a "Sojourner". Another, with cryptic intent, calls me "Male, for a week". A South American passport clerk stamped my page: "Admitted, he is Passing On". The worst is a document from Ethiopia cataloguing me for all time in the chilling phrase: "Temporary Person". I feel all these things to be true.

Once I reached Dar es Salaam on the day of a census, the only time such a thing befell me; it is therefore a fact that the only place on earth in which I have become an official statistic is Tanganyika. And even that, as a state, no longer exists. A Temporary Person, sojourning in a vanished country; male, for a week. But ah, what a week! It is part of the whole sad business that I have already forgotten where it was.