Saturday, 12 June 2010
Major sporting tournaments like the World Cup always give me pause for thought. All too often they split the UK in its individual countries and force people to re-assess their loyalties to more than just a team.
Born and brought up in Belfast by one Northern Irish and one Scottish parent, I think of myself as Northern Irish first and foremost, alternately describing myself as Irish around people who can't disintinguish the two parts of the island of Ireland. I hold a British passport and feel very British around the subjects of tea, manners and queuing, yet find it very odd to actually describe myself as British to people. I have lived in England for 10 years, made my home here and yet I would pitch a pink fit if anyone called me English...
Despite growing up a in a lovely middle class Protestant family, I somehow internalised some rather strong prejudices about the English. Throughout childhood, by dint of watching soldiers from the British Army on the street, listening to politicians in Westminster and reading lots of Enid Blyton books full of upper class types, I associated the English with being domineering and colonial with an air of terrifying self belief and confidence and a deep dislike of people like me. Combine these feelings with the fact the English in charge tended to carry some fairly heavy weaponry, but the English people who came to visit my parents were charming and kind and you have a very conflicted small child.
Several incidents with English kids when growing up that involved references to being a bomber or justifiable cannon fodder for Army rifles did little to dispel the feeling that the English hated the Northern Irish and thought them beneath them. A drip drip of anti-English propaganda from both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland didn't help. Nor did events like the shootings in Gibraltar in 1988 (I was 10. I thought the shootings were just because they were Northern Irish people...) Incidents like this had a real impact on me because even as a kid, it seemed inevitable that because of the Troubles, I would have to move away from Northern Ireland to attend university and have the freedoms my parents had missed out on and that London seemed a likely place to move to. I tried to reconcile the thought of moving somewhere everyone would hate me with the idea of staying somewhere full of violence I hated.
It seemed to work because when I was 18, all the universities I applied to were in England. Things had calmed slightly since the bad old days of the 80s despite all the bombings in England and I understood things more clearly than I did when I was 10, realising only some people hated you for being Northern Irish and they were probably assholes anyway. I figured I could always lose my accent and just fake my background if things continued like that.
Then joy of joys, the peace process really happened and suddenly Northern Ireland became quite cool and something to be proud of. Living there became interesting and optimistic, but I'd spent my whole life looking across the Irish Sea. It was too late to change my mind now and I moved to England in 2000. Apart from a real homesickness for Veda bread, I rather liked it. I liked seaside towns, wood panelled pubs, Yorkshire puddings and real life multiculturalism. It seemed to quite like me too with lots of attention on my accent, but very few jibes compared to before.
In fact I liked it enough to stay and not think about living anywhere else in future. But I still don't feel English at all. After 9 years, I do feel like a Londoner, but since most Londoners aren't English either it's quite a good fit. I've met lots of lovely English people and embraced a few English traditions like Pimms and generally rub along nicely...until there is a big football tournament.
As soon as the football starts, especially if Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales didn't qualify, those traits of superciliouness, superiority and blind self belief that I always associated with the English re-appear like a grown up reverting to teen angst on a visit home. It always seems incredibly unsporting, borderline belligerent and rather boring after several weeks of it. It also makes me feel very unwelcome while it's going on as if anyone who isn't fervently supporting England is to be viewed with suspicion and dislike. This makes me wonder how many people who come here feel the rest of the time without a British passport and innate knowledge of queuing to carry them through?
Luckily enough I go back to liking my adopted country well enough when the football is over (although it would be too soon if I never heard the words 1966 ever again) and everyone starts behaving normally again, including reminding myself my prejudices are just as bad as those I'm complaining about. It's too much to ask me to like football, but I am going to try very hard not to cheer if England lose in the next four weeks...