Yesterday, along with 20 other people I was handed a Certificate of Naturalisation with a welcome letter from Amber Rudd and details on how to get a passport, all in an envelope with the heading ‘Being a British Citizen’.
It was a strange moment, me, smiling, holding the hand of the Mayor of Lambeth , Councillor Marcia Cameron (who incidentally happens to be councillor for Tulse Hill where I live). Her, smiling back.
Am I a British Citizen? The Certificate of Naturalisation says so. The £1400 I spent says so. Home Office says so. Does it mean I belong then?
Because of my strong North American accent, my British citizenship will be, to most, a total surprise. Unlike Lyse Doucet, I don’t have a ‘could be from anywhere’ accent. I sound like I’ve just arrived from whatever the reverse of the Mayflower might be (Octoberfruit?). I took a call the other day and couldn’t help but smile at the ‘so how far did you come?’ and ‘how long are you in town?’. I sound like someone who doesn’t belong.
I have a European double barrel name so unless I marry a Smith who insists its impractical for our children to have 30 letter last names noone will ever guess I’m British.
Perhaps noone will ever think of me as British. But I think of me as British. Not because I spent the money and I’ve lived here for 10 years but because of the small things that I’ve adapted to and have completely become part of me.
The deep understanding that Brexit really will happen because the will of the people is about justice and fairness, not practicality. It’s about understanding that on these isles, principles and concepts are stronger than practicalities. Otherwise we’d have changed driving sides a long time ago.
Being British is about expecting quite a high level of execution on everything. From chips (no skin) to trains (always on time please) and being quite cross when that level isn’t reached, but not cross enough to write in, and certainly almost never cross enough to demonstrate.
And when you demonstrate it’s on the weekends so it’s not inconveniencing everyone. And when you’re cross you write in with a pithy opinion to Private Eye or call in to argue thoughtfully on LBC.
You’re almost never entirely rude, well not in a direct way anyway because that would be inadmissable. You treat others broadly how you’d like to be treated. You might perhaps be a little short if you feel you’re above them in social rank, but never if you’re smart.
You might enquire politely where someone is from if their accent isn’t a dead giveaway (or if you think they’ve softened their accent at uni). You find something to talk to them about, some story about a weekend spent near their home town once, and how beautiful it was.
The weather is always there to complain about and the countryside to admire even if you almost never go there. But never complain too strongly, otherwise you become a bore.
Being British means you rarely see friends, especially if they have kids because you don’t want to impose. You certainly are very careful about actually going to their actual house, that would be imposing even more. You might see very good friends twice a year. That’s about enough imposition and what can possibly change in 6 months that you can’t wait another 6 months to report on?
You care about people though in the same way as other countries do, just more quietly. You meet them in pubs on a Sunday afternoon, you have a pint with them after work (rarely food). Something casual.
If you live in the capital like me, you might see your best friends once a month or so, for a play, a museum visit, a tea and scone, dinner. The sense of time is loose, quiet, rocked by the seasons. ‘We saw each other last summer! Oh it’s been ages! Let’s see each other soon.’
If you’re British you read the papers, that’s important. You’re allowed to read whatever paper you want, noone will ever directly tell you off about the paper you are reading (unless you’re in Liverpool or on a West Midlands Virgin train). And if you’re a little old fashioned and a little older you listen to Radio 4. I’m a little old fashioned.
On a Sunday evening you are watching television with your loved ones. You’re home by 6pm on a Sunday because really why should you tire yourself out before the beginning of the week (and you might be coming back from a game)? Monday nights are spent at home, recovering from the shock of another week. Tuesday nights are for five-a-side, the gym or whatever you’ve decided to take up as a hobby. Thursday nights are for a drink in the pub with work friends, well probably more than one. Fridays are spent hungover because being British, you know that Fridays are a fraud. Nothing of any real importance happens on a Friday. Not a single deadline will be delivered and not a single email will be replied to. Noone expects it. People working in real estate, banking and construction will crowd the pubs at 3pm, calling it for the rest of us ‘Join us, you’re deluding yourself with your Friday afternoon in the office’. Saturdays are for dinner and drinks with uni or school friends for their birthday/leaving do/wedding.
These things have become part of me, these and a million more.
I also learnt to be a bit frightened for people who have just moved here. I am worried for them. It took me a long time to change and I did because I wasn’t interested in ‘going back’ anywhere. I am British because I wasn’t really anything to begin with. A mongrel who moved around a little too much as a child, becoming British allows me to feel a strong sense of identity, of belonging, for the first time in my life.
So I will hold my citizenship close to me, like a lover’s letter you might hide against your breast in battle. I will hide it as something I’m proud of, will rarely mention it in conversation, not something that should be assumed, simply discovered if it’s relevant, because the only person whose life it changes is me.