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Postcards from a small island

Encounters with Britishness, from Bernardine Evaristo, David Peace, Charlotte Church, Armando Iannucci, David Olusoga and more.

By New Statesman

Kamila Shamsie

After I became a citizen, I realised I could still be stripped of my passport

The first inkling came the day I applied for a National Insurance number. It was 2007, which feels like another era – then, Britain was still a country where a Pakistani could acquire residency rights under a “writers, artists and composers” visa. I had known London all my life as a place to visit, and in the previous decade had been spending several months of every year here. But applying for a National Insurance number made me recognise I had entered the system as something other than a visitor. I was a resident now, with more rights. It was an uplifting feeling.

Six years later, I became a citizen. It was becoming more difficult to enter and stay in the country, which meant my response to holding my certificate in my hands wasn’t further elation – it was overwhelming relief. Now, I thought, no matter how the rules change, they can’t tell me to leave. Britishness was very much a question of legal status and had little other purchase in my psyche.

Less than a year later, I discovered there was a process of “citizenship stripping” that had always been part of the law but which the home secretary, Theresa May, was using more widely than anyone had before. I could still be told to leave. I responded by writing a novel, Home Fire, with citizenship-stripping and a fictionalised home secretary at its heart. I thought it was a novel that sprung from an estrangement in my relationship to my British passport, but at a certain point I realised I was writing from within.

How else can anyone ever write fiction? This is a sound question – and, of course, you must always inhabit your characters and the space they’re in. But there is something else at work in a novel. Writing Home Fire, I felt deeply bound up with Britain – its laws, its public conversations, the shifts in its attitudes, its seasons, its neighbourhoods. And also I felt this truth: here is a country I want to write about because I am part of what happens here. I had written myself out of my visitor status and into the system.

Kamila Shamsie’s novel “Best of Friends” will be published by Bloomsbury in the autumn


Bernardine Evaristo

Our nation’s history is obscured by myth-making, but realism is what we need

There’s little consensus about what defines Britishness, an identity open to multiple interpretations and loaded with so much more meaning than the simple fact of citizenship. Before the 1980s when the culture began to shift, people of colour such as myself, born and raised on these islands, were not considered British, even though it was the only home we knew.

The concept of Britishness is wedded to British history, such as the empire that lasted four centuries, occupied a quarter of the world, and ruled over 450 million subjects, some of whom were entitled to become British citizens. With colonialism and slavery abroad and struggle for the masses and injustice at home, Britain nonetheless convinced itself of its own greatness through an incredibly effective myth-making machine. Even in these more enlightened times, the reactionaries and revanchists among us feel nostalgia for a halcyon past when Britain was great, they tell us, and white – even though the multiracial composition of Britain can be traced back centuries. These are the mythologists, and then there are the realists, such as myself, who want to challenge the fantasy of a lost utopia, while being and feeling no less British.

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If a single event in recent times exemplifies the division between the mythologists and the realists, it’s the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Colston was heavily involved in the Royal African Company that enslaved generations of Africans in the Caribbean and Americas. His huge profits from slavery funded his philanthropic ventures for the white people of Bristol, where he was born. A statue of him was erected in 1895 and many places in the city are named after him.

During the protests of 2020, however, his statue became the target of the racial justice warriors who pulled it down and dragged it into Bristol Harbour. People had lobbied to have it removed for decades but to no avail. While it was illegal to remove a public statue, it was morally illegal to celebrate an individual who was a perpetrator of such a heinous crime against humanity. I approved of its removal, although I was accused of aligning myself with criminals. Those who thought the statue should remain argued against “rewriting history”, as they put it. The mythologists declare themselves proud to be British rather than ashamed, and accuse those who want to redress the wrongs and whitewashing of the past as traitors to the nation. This is a simplistic and superficial kind of patriotism.

In my mind, the best and most robust kind of Britisher is one who acknowledges the contentiousness and complexity of this country’s history and wants to learn lessons from the past. It is only through self-examination that we will mature as a society.

Bernardine Evaristo’s novels include the Booker-winning “Girl, Woman, Other”


A couple in Handsworth, Birmingham, 2009 from the series “Across the Sea is a Shore (The Last Days of Summer)” by Andrew Jackson. To see more please visit https://www.andrewjackson.photography/

David Peace

Britain is at the end of a corridor, unable to recognise the day

Britain is at the end of a corridor, in a room of their own, in a bed, a special bed, unable to walk or to recognise the day, who lived most of their days in the service of others, in places and weather that never make the news, without bells or whistles, pots or pans, no song and dance, never shouting, never screaming, even now, even here, talking with the dead, their own mum and dad, their brother and a cat you never knew they ever had, about footballers and actors, all of them dead, suddenly turning to you, looking through you, laughing and saying, still here then, sobbing and saying sudden odd and terrible things that might be true, that might be false, that wound, that hurt, that true or false they break the heart, suddenly waving bye-bye, calling goodbye to the invisible dead at the foot of the bed, then smiling, now crying, hands out, fingers stretched, reaching for books on shelves in a room in a house no longer here, no longer theirs, in a place called a home that is not their home, cleaned and cared for, washed and fed by hands they never knew, from places they’ve never been, latter day saints who seem used to the smell, the sudden odd or racist thing that makes you wince and snap, why you talking like that, shouldn’t say things like that, but then fills you with guilt as their eyes tear up, staring at the ceiling, the strange marks on the ceiling, but the carer and cleaner with an accent from afar just laugh, don’t worry, they’re lovely, always polite, a real lady, a true gent, we like to listen to the classic music, don’t we, and you thank them again for doing things you should be doing, you know you should be doing, but now you’re checking your watch, turning up the radio and saying goodbye, bye-bye, and love you, love you, and you just keep eating, keep getting stronger and then I’ll see you again, bye-bye, knowing one day soon, so the doctor says, they’ll not be here, in the bed, the special bed, this room another’s room, and you’ll be walking back down the corridor with a box of their things, never knowing who they ever were, what and where we ever are.

David Peace is the author of 11 novels, most recently “Tokyo Redux” (Faber & Faber)


Armando Iannucci

A 1970s Christmas in Glasgow: an Italian feast, Morecambe & Wise on TV 

Christmas Day, some time in the mid-1970s. Various Italian families in Glasgow have come together to feast all day and into the night. The setting is a restaurant run by one of the families, and it’s closed to the public so we can all gorge raucously. Pasta dishes start being flourished around 11am, but in terms of quality and quantity, pasta is just base camp. For the next 14 hours or so, glorious soups and platters, meats and puddings, and even vegetables like aubergine – made more delicious than they have any right to be – emerge from the kitchen at 60-minute intervals.

What can possibly be wrong? There isn’t a telly; that’s what: and Morecambe & Wise is on later. Thankfully, one of the families lives just down the road from the restaurant, and a few of us slip out at 6pm to watch Eric and Ernie do their stuff. I can’t remember if it was a classic. Watching Morecambe & Wise now is a disjointed experience; moments of terrific originality and matchless timing clash with reams of disappointing innuendo. But I can remember at the time thinking something I still think – that I’ve been lucky to grow up in a country that has such a highly developed sense of humour. For a kid obsessed with comedy, being British meant it wasn’t completely ridiculous to think I could maybe have a career making jokes.

I can’t think of any other country that would have come up with, and then broadcast, something as metaphysically playful and comedically insane as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

For me, though, the most classically British element of that Christmas isn’t the TV show, but the gathering in the restaurant. I like to think that, despite everything certain groups want us to believe, Britain is an open and generous country. I certainly felt that then; that we were all happy celebrating our Italian heritage but happy too that where we were was home.

Armando Iannucci is a screenwriter and director. His works include “The Thick of It”, “In The Loop” and “The Personal History of David Copperfield”


Magic Horse, Cwm Cou, Wales from the series “Behind the Scenes” by Ilona Denton. To see more please visit http://www.ilonadenton.com/

David Olusoga

The Union Jack – adopted by neo-Nazis, punks and Britpop – holds multitudes

Growing up in the north-east of England in the 1970s and 1980s, Britishness and its symbols sometimes felt out of bounds; unavailable to me and people like me. I have two strong childhood associations with the Union Flag; the first positive, the second negative. One is from 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, when the classrooms in our crumbling, red-brick, Victorian-era school became an ersatz production line, as we painted hundreds of flags that were then strung together to decorate the school and the terraced streets around it. As a seven-year-old, sat with my friends and siblings at Jubilee street parties, it never occurred to me that the national symbol we had painted with such care would one day be turned against me.

The second association came in my teenage years in the 1980s, by which time the Union Flag was firmly in the hands of neo-Nazis like the National Front, who openly hawked their ideology and its iconography from stalls, set up on high-street corners, and terrorised black and Asian people with violence and threats of violence. Their message – delivered with such menace – was that I, as a black person, had no claim to Britishness and no right even to be in Britain.

By the 1990s, when the tenor of the times had changed again, a generation of black people, who for the most part had been born in Britain, rejected efforts to exclude them and began to identify as “black British”. In doing so they turned what had been a tick-box on monitoring forms into a living identity with its own imagery, heroes and history. To many, Britishness seemed a more accessible identity than Englishness, Scottishness or Welshness.

At the same time the Union Flag was wrested from the grip of the neo-Nazis and rehabilitated, another reminder of its bizarre versatility. It is a national symbol that speaks to multiple forms of Britishness seemingly at odds with one another. The same symbol that was co-opted by neo-Nazis, and that flutters over royal and military events, was incorporated into the iconography of the mods in the 1960s, punk in the 1970s and Britpop in the 1990s.

Yet as black people found a form of Britishness that worked for them, the broader meanings of Britishness began to shift. Shared identities only function if people from different traditions are willing to share in them and Britishness as an identity – irrespective of race – is not as universal as it once was. The rise of Scottish, Welsh and English nationalisms, combined with changing demographics in Northern Ireland, have weakened affiliations to Britishness as a collective identity. Fear that the 300-year-old Union will not long survive is the political corollary of those attitudinal shifts. Where such seismic changes leave black Britons is unclear.

David Olusoga is a historian. His works include “Black and British: A Forgotten History” (Pan)


Laurie Penny

One Saturday, 150 bigots met 2,000 people dressed as badgers. And Brian May

It was a sticky Saturday in June nine years ago. I had come to Parliament Square to cover a far-right rally that planned to march through Westminster. The British National Party had come out for a fight, and were prepared to bellow boring racist slogans till they got one. A crowd of anti-fascists had come out to stop them, and the Metropolitan Police had come out to do what they do best: keep large crowds of lairy people from kicking each other’s heads in. What nobody had remembered is that on that same day, right in the middle of what was now the riot zone, there was a scheduled demonstration by the various British associations for the prevention of cruelty to badgers, led by the rock star and wildlife enthusiast Brian May. They were nice people. One of them gave me a flapjack.

Picture the scene. Ahead of us, parliament, blocked off by a wall of steel barriers and riot vans. Coming up from the left: 150 furious bigots wearing flags but no sunscreen. Coming up from the right: 1,000 Londoners who know you don’t just let neo-Nazis march through your town. And in the middle: 2,000 people dressed as badgers. And Brian May.

The Badger People did not have an official opinion on fascism, but they were very upset about an upcoming wildlife cull. They had come from the Home Counties with pamphlets. As the two crowds came closer, the Badger People did not leave – after all, they were the only ones who had filled in the proper paperwork to hold a protest that day. They had sandwiches in foil, and points to make about the management of charismatic megafauna, and they were not afraid. And no one else had a clue what to do about them.

Things get weird quickly when the sort of people who hate a fuss feel obliged to make one. Badger People, much like actual badgers, are mostly content to hang out in the woods eating, shagging and squabbling over territory – until something disturbs them, at which point you realise just how fast those things can move.

According to folklore, it’s bad luck when a badger crosses your path, presumably because you are about to meet 10kg of muscle and teeth in a deceptively stupid outfit. They may look like they’re about to invite you back to their cottage for tea and crumpets, but will gladly disembowel anyone who interrupts their routine. They are about the most bloody-minded woodland animal on Earth.

That afternoon in June, with the police, anti-fascists and neo-Nazis bristling for a brawl, the Badger People suddenly found themselves having to pick a side. They didn’t want to. They were nice people, the sort that Britain is full of. Nice people are not necessarily kind or clever or even competent. But when they are all three, you want them on your side. And that day, with no apparent discussion, the Badger People picked antifa.

Badgers are unpredictable when disturbed. I watched them help the anti-racist activists hide among their ranks, handing out spare striped masks while others altered their chant to“Cull the BNP, not the Badgers!”At one point some young women dressed in alarmingly skimpy badger costumes got carried away and started chasing neo-Nazis. They got away with it, too – the police can and do crack down on left-wing protest with extreme prejudice, but no officer wants to be seen arresting a sexy badger.

A lot of ugly, unfair things have happened in Britain since that day. But I still believe the country I was born in is at its best when it embraces its own silliness. We are a country of divided loyalties, frightened of our past and facing an uncertain future, but we are also, just as importantly, a country where not so long ago, neo-Nazis were chased through Westminster by women dressed as badgers.

It was such a lovely day.

Laurie Penny is an NS contributing writer and the author of “Sexual Revolution” (Bloomsbury)


Trip to Margate, part of an archive of British sketches by Tommy Sussex. To see more please visit https://tommysussex.com/

Anna Burns

I’d been caught musing on loaded symbols in public. My Belfast past kicked in

Years ago, on the way home during rush-hour, the crowded train paused outside Clapham Junction. Opposite me out the window, on the other side of a big railing, was a pub. At the top of this pub were flags. There was a Union Jack, an Irish Tricolour, and three or four other flags as well. It was windy and the Union Jack kept wrapping itself around the Irish Tricolour and the Irish Tricolour kept flicking it off.

At first I watched idly, then realised how vivid and violent this movement was. This wrapping and flicking continued to draw me in and it was only with a jolt I realised I was being spoken to. “What is it?” said a man, and I saw that he, along with others, who moments before had been engrossed in novels and newspapers, were staring now at me. Then they turned, curious, to look out the window too.

Quick! Think! said my panic. What was my identity at that moment? I’d been caught, musing on heavily loaded symbols while in the middle of an indeterminate crowd in a confined space. My primitive conditioning from those interface roads in 1970s Belfast kicked in. I mean the routes which touch upon and incorporate the edge of one side of the religious divide with the edge of the other. Although you’re not known on them, chances are you’re being watched to see where you’re going to put your foot next. If you step, say, from that last interface flagstone, which at some point you’re going to have to do in order to start in on your homeward Protestant flagstones or your homeward Catholic ones, you’ve declared. And depending upon who’s doing the watching, there’s a chance you’ve had it if your side’s not theirs. You could find individuals you’ve never met before in your life hating you for your existence. Slurs of “Fenian” or “Orange bastard” is a mild version of what to expect.

I said “flags” to the man on the London train, even though in most cases he wouldn’t know what I was talking about. After a last glance towards the flags, then back towards me, all the commuters turned back to their novels and newspapers. The flags went on wrapping and flicking. As we got into Clapham it went through my mind that it might not even be windy, really, out there at all.

Anna Burns is a novelist born in Belfast. Her works include the Booker-winning “Milkman” (Faber & Faber)


Katy Shaw

Like many northerners, my identity is stacked in complicated tiers

When someone asks me where I come from, “Britain” is often third on the list, after Newcastle and “the north”. These regional and national layers stack like delicious, complicated tiers to form my sense of a British “tridentity”, one that is stronger for its composite parts. Like many people in the north, I had to “run and return” – leaving the region for education and employment, before coming back in later life.

My accent maps these travels through its bastardised mishmash of RP southern consonants and flat, frank northern vowels. My sporting allegiances (Toon Toon Toon) and cultural reference points (don’t start me on Greggs) are as much about my Britishness as they are my black and white blood.

This is because culture is key to helping us understand what it means to be British today, and for thinking about what being British might look like in the future. If we want to reconceptualise the Union for the 21st century, we would do well to utilise the unique power of our culture – through the BBC, the British Council, sport and our cultural heritage organisations – to begin new conversations about devolution, identity and power.

The strength of Britain lies in its diversity and its people are its most important stakeholders. By examining the costs and benefits of our country, we should facilitate an open conversation that is ongoing: because the Union is a live relationship, not an inevitability. Any future vision of the UK must be built on a union of consent: when people have a voice and a say, they have an investment. Because British identity is strongest when it is chosen.

Katy Shaw is professor of contemporary writings and director of cultural partnerships at Northumbria University


Outside the Wimpy restaurant, Limehouse, London by Tommy Sussex. To see more work please visit https://tommysussex.com/

Kathleen Jamie

In Scotland, Britishness is no longer unifying – it shut me out some time ago

Is a genuinely British event possible now? The last I recall might have been the miners’ strike, so we’re going back 40 years. That presented as a class-based struggle, with miners from across the UK making common cause. But they lost, and then came the sweeping privatisations that sold off so much that we co-owned and held in common as a British people, till now there’s nothing left. Then came the Scottish devolution movement, with a cultural wing that produced self-identified Scottish work. Then the poll tax, which the Thatcher government trialled first in Scotland – so not much “Britishness” in evidence there. Then the re-establishment of the Scottish parliament.

Since then, Britishness has been a “melancholy, long withdrawing roar”, at least in Scotland. People my age remember calling ourselves British when young, but now it just means an increasingly embarrassing passport (if you’re fortunate enough to travel) and no EU. The younger generation of my family don’t know what “British” means.

Now there are gey few Scottish accents in UK government. Fewer on the BBC than there were. What about the BBC? The final of MasterChef – that might be “British”, I suppose.

It’s not a neutral term now, not a simple description of nationality. No publication based in Scotland could now run a feature on “Britishness” unless they wanted to announce themselves as out-and-out unionist, and it would be a sort of game, a provocation. That’s another word for British now: unionist. It’s ugly and veers too close to Northern Irish nomenclature for my taste, but that’s where we are.

If there was an actual tipping point for me, it might have been the run-up to the 2014 referendum, when David Cameron announced there would be no full fiscal autonomy option on the ballot paper, no option for further devolution. He decreed that Scots must choose between the status quo, with much – too much – still controlled from Westminster, or complete independence. Suddenly it was binary, and that was the moment I felt pushed. Not wooed by nationalists, mark you, but shut out, by a Conservative and unionist prime minister, from “Britishness”. OK, I thought. So be it.

Kathleen Jamie is a poet and essayist, and Scotland’s Makar (national poet)

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Charlotte Church

The Nuneaton statue defenders embodied a hollow patriotism

Nothing in the last few years has exemplified to me the absolute state of Britishness more than when a group of inflamed patriots, following the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in June 2020, rushed to the defence of the George Eliot statue in Nuneaton. Liberal patricians the country over (but mostly in the south) looked on and squealed with scorn-soaked glee.

The self-importance of the Nuneaton memorial patrol – with their blustering bigotry and spit-flecked outrage – made this an overtly silly scene, but a tragic one too. Looking at images of the display, I felt a prickling sense of danger, as if at any moment one of these unstable players could throw a fist – I imagined a bottle smashing, a police officer reacting, and the scene ending in a violent instant. That dry-gunpowder atmosphere hasn’t gone anywhere.

It’s difficult to empathise with these pants-on-the-outside vigilantes: heady with beer-belly machismo, they thrust themselves into an issue that did not belong to them and that they didn’t even attempt to understand. Unaware of the cultural relevance (and personal politics) of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot (as of 2018, one of only 27 non-fictional, non-royal women immortalised in stone upon these isles), their desire to play martyrs only serves to illustrate how decades of poor education and worse economic management primed many Brits to bark when a dog-whistle is blown.

Just as undignified was the response of well-heeled Europhile Twitter users, who fell over themselves to lampoon the group for their ignorance about the object of their protection. Yes, there is a palpable cultural deficit in modern Britain, but why would George Eliot hold significance for middle-aged white men in the 2020s anyway? The Nuneaton patriots were uninitiated, scared little boys, who had never had good role models and were looking for a fight. What could be more British?

By needlessly revelling in meanness we perpetuate culture wars, and get no closer to winning them. The reality of institutional racism is too important an issue to lose sight of, yet by behaving like jackals we diminish our own humanity – no one’s crossing the aisle for that. Worse, these culture wars are often proxies for more insidious political games, and we are played like chess pieces.

This Britishness is bleak and cruel. No Paddington Bear or lady Doctor Who here. And until a political leader can show us a solution to the ever-widening schism in our national values, we continue to live with the powder keg.

Charlotte Church is a singer-songwriter, actress, TV presenter and political activist born in Cardiff


Kae Tempest

I love you when I see you this plain: your salt coast, foul wind and old ghosts

Ancient
Slick clay, rock-formed, wet sand, moss-borne
What came before
And what will come after

Beneath the orderly queues, the bad moods, the nice views,
The have-nots and have-twos, the night shifts in flat shoes,
The discarded masks, the empty tubes
The colds, the flus. The Reds the blues. The Buy-to-let. The Play-to-lose. The White Ace, the Grey Goose, the Michelin-starred, the fast food. The straight lies, the strange truth –

I can hear the deep rasp of your laughter. Joyful.

Beneath the stifled resentments
And micro-aggressions
All part of the fabric. The tension woven so tight it defies its dimension.
The see-but-don’t-feel
The know-but-don’t-mention

There you are; Hedonistic, self-destructive, insecure.
Trying to get away from the mistakes you’ve made before

You got out from underneath the weight of Suffer and Obey
The tyranny and hate of Britannia Rules the Waves
And now you swing your hips as you go strutting down the lane.

I love you when I see you this plain;

Your salt coast, your foul wind,
Your old ghosts, your scrap tin.
The browning of your leaves,
And the greening of your rain.

Kae Tempest is a poet and singer-songwriter from south-east London. These lyrics are excerpted from Tempest’s song “Salt Coast”

This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.

This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain