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17 November 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

The allegiance that I can’t quite pledge

Identity - Benjamin Markovits, once described by a schoolmate as half-American, half-English and hal

By Benjamin Markovits

Every morning at the beginning of school, we stood up and said the Pledge of Allegiance. I lived then in Austin, Texas, where I turned the corner of 1980. The pledge is burned into the minds of most Americans: I pledge allegiance. To the flag. Of the United States of America. And to the republic. For which it stands. One nation. Under God. Indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.

I have punctuated it as we spoke it, the sense broken down into its component nonsense to ease along the rumbling, staggered recitation by a classroom full of sleepy ten-year-olds. The US Supreme Court had ruled that no one could be forced to repeat the pledge, but the justices offered only distant and abstract support. On the whole, it seemed better to listen to Mrs Goebel, an awkwardly named but otherwise kindly young woman who used the pledge, sensibly enough, I suppose, to drum us into line first thing in the morning.

Occasionally, she hauled some kid to the front of the class for his conscientious objections. These usually involved objection rather than conscience; it was mostly the boys who were always getting into trouble anyway and found the pledge as good a place to start as any other. I used to mouth the words, silently. That was the kind of ninny I was: too much of a coward to protest publicly against the silliness of it, too stubborn (or buddingly pedantic, careful about the things I said) just to go along with something because everybody else did. Most of the kids, I suspect, rarely thought much about the words: to the extent that we did, we knew they were absurd. The syllables tended to get swallowed up. Indivisible slipped into “invisible”. “For which it stands” acquired the totemic suggestions of a single word, like “dawnsearly”, that wonderfully fused adjective from “The Star-Spangled Banner”. My silent mouthing protest became as much a matter of habit as reciting the pledge was for others.

But I grew up under many flags. Another flag cast a thin shadow over us. The school was named after Robert E Lee, the Confederate general who eventually negotiated the southern surrender in the civil war. There was a certain embarrassment about the name at the school – embarrassment may be the wrong word, rather a certain consciousness that something extra had to be said about him, a kind of apology made. I know this because during my fifth-grade year all the students took part in a competition to write the school song. The winning entry began: “Robert E Lee was courageous, he was generous and kind,” and then launched into an account of his conflicted loyalties as a southerner and an abolitionist, though I’m not sure he was an abolitionist and everything I know about him is worth at least a shaker of salt, considering the source of my knowledge.

That school, as it happens, was mostly white and I could walk home from it. When I reached seventh grade, school zoning laws determined to bus my neighbourhood of kids to a school in the predominantly African American part of Austin, to the east. When I made the basketball team, I learnt to appreciate the full reach of our southern roots. We played matches against small high schools outside of Austin (towns with names such as Copperas Cove), and when the black kids on our team (who made up about half the squad) saw Confederate flags hanging from the gym rafters, they knew to expect a rough night. We got to the bus pretty quick after those games.

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My chequered upbringing made me generally suspicious of “joining in”. I spent several years in English schools, mostly Church of England – a cross not a flag hung idly over the school day. Assemblies were ushered in by songs, about love, or Jesus Christ, or both; and, as a stubborn young Jew, I held my tongue whenever God crept into the music. My Jewishness wasn’t a simple matter: my mother’s being a German Protestant meant that many of my Landsmanner (as she refers affectionately to the tribe she married into) wouldn’t count me as a Jew at all. I always used to feel very Jewish in Texas, there seemed so few of us around – and I got to be fairly proud (or defensive) about standing out. The trouble was, I couldn’t always tell at the beginning of a song if He was going to slip into it, He moved in such mysterious ways; but the second I sniffed Him out, I shut my trap. Nobody, I thought, was going to make me say or sing anything I didn’t believe in. (Traditions are easier if you don’t have any reason to think about them.)

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I also spent two years in Berlin; my German was good enough for me to struggle along at the local Gymnasia. The Germans never made me say anything; they had far too many hang-ups about authority, and would have been horrified by the thought of saluting a flag. But there were other, subtler public expectations; other sentiments demanded their salute. The first Gulf war broke out during my last year at school, and the students organised an impromptu rally. We sang songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and the day’s classes were cancelled. By this stage, I was fairly reluctant to sing along with anybody, regardless of the virtue of the cause. I preferred the sillier ones: the pressure to join in seemed greater when it meant something. It also struck me that none of the students around me had anything to overcome. When they did, they proved less enthusiastic. That was the year of unification; my West German schoolmates regarded the prospect of a united democratic Germany with about as much excitement as they would extra homework. Which is more or less how they thought of it: longer lines at the supermarket, higher taxes, harder to find jobs.

An English kid once tried to work out my nationalities. “Let me get this straight,” he said: “you’re half-American, half-English, and half-German.” He wasn’t far wrong. Mostly, I feel American; the rest he got spot on. Gertrude Stein wrote, “America is my country and Paris is my home town.” I’m beginning to feel the same about London. Yet there is a sense in which I am nothing at all: I was the kid never sent to take a note to the school office. I didn’t know where it was; there were too many schools. I know that the danger of exclusion is that it breeds smugness: the smug face is one of the less pleasant aspects a child puts on to countenance feeling left out. Why couldn’t I just say along or sing along to pass the time? I could have. But the question makes less or more sense depending on where you ask it from. Would you stand up every morning and pledge allegiance to the American flag? An English kid might be forgiven for keeping quiet. A kid without a country might be forgiven for keeping quiet everywhere.

I have probably made the internal contradictions appear stronger than they were. In fact, I more or less make sense as an American. “I am vast, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman declared. I’m smaller, but there is still room for what Byron, with a more English modesty, called his “two or three within” – either arithmetic suits me. For what it’s worth, my Americanness is starting to lose the numbers game, if you reckon my nationality in years spent. But that’s the great thing about origins: they don’t have to justify themselves over time. And, more specifically, one of the comforts of America: I never got the sense growing up of being any less of an American for being any more of anything else.

And England was always a great part of my Texan upbringing: English literature, English television, English music featured heavily in my sense of place, of childhood, in spite of the hot nights around me and the sharp-tongued grass of the watered lawns, and the slow burn of the local accent. On Thursdays, public television played Rumpole of the Bailey and Inspector Morse. On Sundays, Masterpiece Theatre, introduced portentously by Alistair Cooke, offered A Perfect Hero and Brideshead Revisited. My friends and I grew up reading Wodehouse and Forester and Betjeman: I wasn’t unusual in these respects. I remember the shock on the face of my English girlfriend when my high school buddies and I sang Bertie Wooster’s “47 ginger-headed sailors/Coming home across the briny sea” – driving through an empty highway on a blazing summer day, that broad Texan barrenness to left and right.

It was only when I got to England that I knew anyone who cared much for Roth or Hemingway. I suppose that is the best lesson I learnt from my peripatetic childhood: cultural generalisations are always wrong, only their local sources have a chance of being true, the best you can do is collect particular observations. “What is actual,” as another Anglo-American once wrote, “is actual only for one time, and only for one place.” Consequently, and unhappily, my own ideas about my home are likely to be false by now, and growing falser by the year.

Benjamin Markovits’s first novel, The Syme Papers, will be published by Faber & Faber in February