By Mark Jackson
My accent was overheard and I’ve been told: ‘Go back to your fucking country.’
He was the stereotype. I wish he wasn’t. Tall, thin, mid-twenties, track suit, hoodie, staffie, pink of skin like me, white of trainers, nervous, anxious, angry. He probably has a reason to be angry. No doubt he’s been let down by many people and many institutions.
We’ve all been let down by those who claim to speak for us and our institutions.
While I’ve been formally a citizen of the UK for over twenty-five years, I’ve lived here in the UK for nine years. Both of my parents were born here, one in the borders in Peebles as the war ended, one in Aberdeen long before the war started. Both sides of my parents’ families go back into the mists of time on:
…this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demo-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world…
My mother, born in 1945, grew up on the northeast coast of Scotland. She moved to Canada in the late sixties. My father, born in 1922, fought for five years in one of the wars to end all wars. He was stationed in Burma, India, and Ceylon, as he always called it. Typhoid, diphtheria, malaria, and war nearly killed him while he was there. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of eighty-six in 2009. I was born in Calgary, Canada in 1970 when Dad was forty-eight. He emigrated in the late sixties to be with my mother, whom he met when he worked as an architect in a small firm he started on the northeast coast of Scotland. At the beginning of the war, Dad volunteered rather than being conscripted. Volunteering meant, he said, some choice about what he wanted to do. He was smart, and had succeeded in school. As a result, he was asked to sit a military entrance exam on volunteering. He did well in the exam, and was subsequently offered a choice of postings: the artillery, the air force, or the royal engineers. From a child Dad had always wanted to be an architect. He also reasoned – sensibly – that the artillery and air force were high risk. You got shot at. A lot. He chose the engineers and, after training, was sent on a troop ship that crisscrossed the Atlantic to the coasts of Canada and the US, down West Africa, and around the Cape of Good Hope, to the Indian theatre. The convoy took a few months to get there. It zig-zagged the oceans to avoid enemy submarines.
In Burma he built air-strips, bridges, roads, and pontoons. We still have some of his manuals and log books, together with a flesh coloured silk scarf printed on both sides with a map of Burma. My mother keeps them in a small safe at home in northern British Columbia where she now lives. The scarf was a map that he kept hidden in his boot in case he was ever captured by the Japanese, or got lost. It is still stained with him. Brown sweat stains trace body lines that ghost roads, rail lines, and territory. My brother and I played in his uniforms, one dress and one khaki. We wore them out marching around the wood behind our house, playing imaginary soldiers, cowboys and Indians. Badges fell off, holes warn through knees, one of our dogs might have had puppies unexpectedly early, curled up in the blue satin of his dress jacket. Mice ate them as they gathered dust, but they couldn’t be thrown out. They spoke of something important, immense, unfathomable to us as children. Which is why we played in them. Dad didn’t allow us to play with his silk map.
Hit by numerous infections, and nearly dying from typhoid and malarial fevers, my father recuperated for a period in Calcutta. He said a pretty nurse took him for walks in a wheel chair on the Maidan. He also told us that he was not afraid to die because, while he lay failing with fever, he had an out of body experience. He looked down on himself from the ceiling of the ward and chose not to die. I sat beside him when he did eventually die in the farmhouse in northern BC. His palliative doctor, Biz, now a close friend of the family, asked him if he was afraid to die. He said no and smiled. He wasn’t afraid to die; he’d done it before.
After he recuperated, Dad was sent to Colombo to work on Mountbatten’s advisory council. It sounds grand, but, as he said, there were hundreds of people on the advisory council. I was eight when Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb while fishing with some of his family and friends. Amongst those killed was Mountbatten’s fourteen-year-old grandson, Nicholas, along with a fifteen-year-old friend, Paul. Nicholas was the name of a son Dad had in a first marriage. Paul is the name of my brother, another son he had with my mother many years later, two years after me. I recall Dad’s face when the news of Mountbatten’s death was read out on the CBC. We were in the kitchen. He told us that bad men had done something terrible to a great man and innocent children.
I saw that look on his face again, when one day he taught us to shoot a gun. We lived on a farm in central Alberta, and would sometimes go out to target practice far from the house at the curve near the front field. Dad wanted us to know how to use an respect a gun properly, and so he taught us how to hold it, how to carry it safely with two hands, load, use the safety. “This”, he said demonstrating, “is how you carry it with two hands. Muzzle always up. This is how we carried it in the forest when we were hunting.” “What did you hunt, Dad?”, I remember asking. He had told us stories of monkeys throwing their poo and sticks at them as they passed below in the forest. Little boys think of hunting monkeys and tigers. “Men” was his reply. The look on his face was the same as in the kitchen. It’s the kind of look that marks you.
After the war, Dad was slowly demobbed. He was a major when it ended, and officers were demobbed in reverse order of rank. He had a couple of years of not doing much, and he stayed on in the territorial army. The TA helped to pay for some of his education at the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield. He delighted in telling me that, while he was waiting to be demobbed, he attended lectures at Oxford. How else should one spend one’s time than learning about the world? After a Masters in Architecture, he taught for a few years, and worked on modern housing projects in Glasgow. The thinking, then, was that, in order to help those who lived in inner city slums, new projects with green spaces – with space – would be built into which people would be moved, for their benefit. Dad was always incredulous that people didn’t want to move to these lovely, modern, new builds. They weren’t the ugly high rises that dot the city today, but they were different; people didn’t want to move. The Gorbals were home. They were the expected, what people had known all their lives. Change on that intimate and large scale brought fear. Many years later, he said to me one day in a truck during a thunderstorm in south Calgary – it was around the time my brother got married – that that episode in Glasgow taught him something about architecture. Architecture is not about what you build; it’s about the spaces that are created between what you build.
A failed marriage and much water under bridges I have no idea about, Dad moved to Canada, where he and Mum married. My brother, Paul, and I grew up in Western Canada, on a wonderful farm, another Eden and demi-paradise, a quarter section not far from Edmonton where we went to school, and where Dad worked as an architect. His parents died in the 60’s before we were born, but my mother’s family were always close, despite the Atlantic and continental distances that separated us. We would come back to Scotland to visit Mum’s parents, our cousins, uncles and aunts, friends. I remember when we were very little, Paul, maybe two, was swept into the cold North Sea on Christmas morning. Nothing serious, just knocked over by a wave on the shore. But cold, and a long scramble up a steep cliff before being warmed by a coal fire. My grandparents didn’t have central heating then. It must have been 1974.
We continued to visit Great Britain on and off for years. My extended family still live on an ancestral farm in the north east of Scotland. It is one of my favorite places. An uncle and aunt live in Edinburgh, various cousins here and there in Scotland, Netherlands, Italy, France, Denmark. Some of them learned French and Italian, married and divorced and remarried continentals. They are fluent Europeans. I wonder how they are feeling now. We don’t communicate much, and I haven’t seen some of my cousins for years, but they are family. I recall them growing up when we were all children of various ages. When I see or hear of them now on social media, I am proud of their lives and their struggles. They are blood, but more importantly, they are good people.
I was prevented from donating blood in Canada for many years. The reason: I had eaten beef while spending too much time in the UK after the mad cow and CJD scare. My blood was touched by different, potentially dangerous, soil. The Canadian Red Cross didn’t trust it or me or here.
The UK is not my home. Home is Western Canada; it probably always will be. I miss the trees and sense of space. The sense of being alone. But, it was not until moving here to the UK that I realized how acutely, what we now call Canada, my home, is a settled place. My family and I are white settlers. We grew up on a farm hewn from the bush much less than a hundred years before we arrived. For decades I did not know the Aboriginal names of the places where I lived: Hmi-Hmoo and Metewew-sakahikan. We called it ‘Wizard Lake’, and we lived on ‘Conjuring Creek’. I didn’t see First Nations people, except as they came and went from reservations.
I am, and am not, ‘from’ Canada, whatever ‘from’ means. An aboriginal person has never said to me: ‘go back to your country’. But they could, and perhaps they should. I’ll never forget the thrill as a child, looking out the window as the plane would come in to land at Prestwick in southwest Scotland. The green landscape below parsing itself from between whisping cloud breaks, its stone bordered fields, and a sea lapping below, so different from the prairies where I lived, but also so familiar from family story and kitchen table talk. And there family would greet us, and drive us to my mother’s home where she grew up, several hours east, in the town below the farm on the hill, and a short walk from one of the world’s loveliest beaches.
So, by birth and growth from different soils, my voice sounds not of here, of England. And it is not. I am not. But neither, some would say, am I of the prairies. I am a settler, a foreigner there too. A foreigner who needs to learn so much more about what he spent years not noticing. I learned French (badly) and Spanish (also badly) but never Cree. It never occurred to me until university, but I wasn’t good at languages, or that’s what I told myself. What is Cree when Europe beckons? I live in the South West of England now, where the accent is rare; some lament its decline and soon disappearance. I can’t say I like its burr. The Welsh poesy lilt sing-songs, but Doric’s what I wish. My brother, Paul, has always been a good mimic. He can roll his ‘R’s’ and sound like a proper Scot. I can’t. Never could. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t sound like someplace here.
Not that I particularly want to. Here I’ve always been an outsider. My association with this ‘happy breed of men’ is centuries old. Even in Canada, I’m associated with here: Edmonton, Alberta, Victoria Day, the pledges to the Queen when I was in Grades 1 and 2, seeing, with my mother, the Queen at the Opening of the Commonwealth Games in 1977. There is a freedom that comes with being an outsider, but also a price. These are not my people my nationalist leaning Scottish family might say. I hear now my mother’s curse of the ‘wicked English’, being taken as a child to have my picture taken next to Robert the Bruce astride his horse, a bronze overlooking downtown Calgary, next to the art college where my brother, and my wife, both went to school.
I’m not going back to ‘my country’, mate. Not yet, anyway. Partly because I’m also of here, this island, even though I don’t sound like it. More importantly, I’m not going back because none of us are from here. There is no ‘here’ that makes us a particular kind of thing, one whose territory marks it as better or worse. None of us. Being from a place sometimes called ‘England’ doesn’t mean we should win, whether at trade, at geo-politics, or at football, just because we are from ‘England’. Being from ‘England’ or Canada or Scotland doesn’t mean anything. To win, as at football, means being organized, playing hard, being smart, taking risks, and lucking out now and then. And, having the humility to know who you are: a football player first, then from ‘England’. ‘England’ doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a name. That’s what Iceland taught us – yes ‘us’ – this week. And that’s what we will also have to learn if we leave the EU. We’ll need to learn to have the humility to know who we are in a world that has always been within blood and soil and distance but always so much more than nations and states.
My wish? I’d like to live in a place that meets with others in a spirit of compassion and openness to all our earthly vulnerabilities. Yours too, pal. Your vulnerabilities, our vulnerabilities, they stand ‘Against infection and the hand of war’. Not my country or yours. Our fragilities, they connect us. They’re why we’re both, in different ways, angry and hurt.
Part of me – I’m laughing; I know I shouldn’t – wants to say: ‘Read your Shakespeare.’
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
I’m not going anywhere, mate. You and me, we’re together in this shit we’ve created.