The United Kingdom is an accommodation born
of geography and the desire to reconcile centuries of nastiness under
one brolly. Echoing George Orwells ambivalence, Christopher
Hitchens touches upon the inevitable fiction of all things British in
Why Orwell Matters. For U.N. enthusiasts, the formal name is The
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain
is thus a subset of the United Kingdom, denoting England, Wales,
Scotland and various islands (though not the Isle of Man or the
Channel Islands). Like Hugh Grant on an L.A. bender, the adjective
British affixes quite loosely. So have at it -- from
Bosworth to James Bond to bangers n mash. But may I suggest you
obtain permission before coupling it with Gerry Adams? The British
Isles designates the entire six-thousand island archipelago. But
because no political power accrues to this purely geographic amalgam,
no one really cares.
The kingdoms of Scotland and England decided they could harness some real synergies by combining all pomp and circumstance under one crown. This occurred with the death of Elizabeth I and the ascension in 1603 of James I or, as the Scots like to insist, James VI. Alas, even the Roman numerals are a point of contention. The real savings from the merger didnt kick in until the Scottish parliament was dissolved in 1707. This created a political union, The United Kingdom of Great Britain. Wales had been appended to England in the sixteenth century. The Welsh have struggled with their national identity ever since, Tom Jones notwithstanding.
In stark contrast to the stubborn irreducibility of many Eastern European ethnicities, the British have proven to be a remarkably agreeable mix of Normans, Saxons, Angles, Celtics, Picts, Welsh and increasingly, Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians, and West Indians, to name just a few late-arriving tribes. Yes, the forces of devolution have been active in recent years. So Scotland can now boast Scottish, British and EC parliamentary representation. Sounds like representative overkill to me. But if it makes Sir Sean Connery happy, then Im a happy emigrant too.
Northern Ireland was appended in 1921. But must we recount that tragic tale? A branch of my family hails from this least reconciled member of the UK family. Historians have elevated the Irish plight in recent years to Zionist proportions. Its not uncommon to read nowadays about the Great Irish Diaspora. However I resist placing all blame at the feet of my ethnicity. No, theres just something about my family that gets under the skin of indigenous populations. Traditionally, this process of alienation has taken a generation or two. But Ive had girlfriends vanish within hours. Maybe were getting better at whatever it is we do.
Ball is a frightfully common English name. Then someone had to spoil all that and emigrate to the misty Pale of Ireland sometime around the Year Dot. An even more fearsome family aptitude was displayed with the subsequent relocation from Dublin to that oasis of sectarian equanimity, Belfast. Then, it was a veritable puddle-jump to Glasgow to ride the ship-building fever of the late nineteenth century. My great-great grandfather, an Ulsterman, landed in Glasgow in the 1840s. What possessed him to depart the country of his birth with five children at the age of 42? After painstaking research and numerous seances, I have determined that hunger, or its looming probability, figured prominently. Yes, potato famines can do strange things to a man.
Inheriting the one-foot-in-one-foot-out gene, my father struck out for America in the mid-sixties. No, we were not unwashed and destitute, an almost universal American assumption. My father was an engineer recruited during the Great Brain Drain. We came over on TWA so the passage was hardly fraught with peril unless you consider stale peanuts a material hardship. So far, the natives have accommodated us nicely. However this may be due to a chronic shortage of the latter. Finding a native-born American in Washington DC is akin to locating the Mohican liaison officer in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The region is a rogues gallery of carpetbaggers, foreign and domestic.
Speaking for my own sliver of time, I am an American in more ways than one, though a Glaswegian by birth. This makes me a tad more savvy than my native-born American brethren on junkets back to the old country. You see, Americans, particularly Scottish-Americans, are easy to pick out, especially on Princes Street in Edinburgh. Theyre the ones lugging bags full of tartan travesties. Few native Scots would be caught dead in tartan. I know Im bursting bubbles here, but clan tartans are a nineteenth century invention aimed at capitalizing on the poignant rootlessness of wealthy Americans. As a young lad fresh from the old country, I can remember being asked by well-meaning Americans if I missed wearing kilts. I had never worn one.
Now I am a full-blooded hyphenated American. To prove this, I joined a clan on my last UK visit. This was done primarily to instill within my son, a half-Scot, half-Portuguese, all-American something other than a sort of Naipaul-esque citizen-of-the-world alienation. Everyone comes from the world, so wheres the thrill in that? Given my choices Menzies or MacNab you could have knocked me over with a spruce of heather. But my God, have you ever seen the MacNab tartan? When I learned the Menzies had a castle near Perth, the choice was an easy one.
My middle name is Dewar. The Dewars were a sept of the Menzies. But should you ever drop by, please dont expect copious supplies of free Scotch. One, Im not related to that illustrious line. And two, Im a Scot. Ill never forget my eight-year-olds wide-eyed wonderment, Dad, I didnt know we had a castle. Feigning an easy familiarity, I reached nonchalantly for a thick velvet rope to summon the court jester. Hey, I wanted this to be the most authentically-derived artificial experience my son had ever had. We all need to think we have roots. That, and Im an adopted American. Show business is practically in my blood.
My father often joked that when something of note was contributed to the Empire by a Scot, it was dispatched to the pantheon of British achievements. Whereas English achievements remained immutably English. At least, that was how the BBCs oh-so-painfully-English newsreaders allocated the Kingdoms many accomplishments. The same double-vision attends football hooliganism. When Scots run wild at a European soccer match, the London Times invariably refers to them as Scottish hooligans. But when Manchester fans act up, the problem becomes all too British.
After all, the operative fawning term is Anglo-phile, not Brit-ophile. Americans chronically short-hand The United Kingdom for England to which my parents often note how the Marshall Plan was a momentous Canadian achievement, or near enough. Americans, famous for their geographic befuddlement, invariably nod, sort of getting the joke. While perhaps a source of great merriment, geographic myopia can have a perilous side too. The darker side of this vague nexus is presently on the ascendant. During those times when America is fully engaged in its role as Leader of the Free World, we Americans have a redoubled obligation to be able to find it. The world, that is. Too many Americans dont know their place, literally, and I have a hunch this geographic myopia cascades into a myriad of confusions, if not outright catastrophic adventures.
We may be in the midst of one such adventure. Ive always been troubled by the amorphous and geographically imprecise nature of the War on Terror. Terror is not a defined territory locatable on a map. A state only insofar as it is a state of mind, terror and its practitioners will never surrender aboard some aircraft carrier with ceremonial pens. This means that at least half the battle will always rage within our darkest imaginings. I dont want to fall into the Badrillard post-modernist trap and question the very existence of this war. Like Hitchens, Im too much the Anglo-Saxon for such existentialism run amok. Al Qaeda is no more a fiction than Britain is. Whatever nation-states may harbor them, its clear someone found the World Trade Centers alright.
But a war on terror, with its boundless potential, possesses eerie Orwellian perma-war implications. After all, certain elements in the world will always seek to elicit terror. How then does a war on terror, once commenced, ever end? This is a very strange and different war. It deserves all the wariness we can muster.
Our own President had never traveled outside the US prior to assuming office. He is unapologetically non-cosmopolitan, not necessarily a bad thing as, for better or worse, he displays an uncanny sense of whats being thought down on the ranch. At any rate, such wise innocence redounds to a stubbornly isolationist chord within the American makeup. And really, who can blame Americans for wanting to sidestep the historical mess that is Europe? The unraveling of the EC Constitution is only the most recent example of the shortcomings of ancient national identities and enmities.
But given the surreal, cocooned nature of a Presidential trip, its fair to say President Bush has yet to get lost in a foreign capitol which, as de Tocqueville noted, was the only real way to discover a country. Using this litmus test, Bush has never left America. Unfortunately, de Tocqueville was French. There are few things worse in America than being labeled a Francophile. Believe me, Im as far removed from French-worship as the next Anglo-Saxon. They could torture me for days in the Bastille, but Ill never concede Jerry Lewis is a genius.
As the effete class wrung its hands over the larger populations seeming indifference to the sovereign distinctions between Afghanistan and Iraq, one can imagine many Americans simply concluding that, since both countries were indefatigable worlds away from Ohio, each had earned some vague equal merit to the enmity of the American military machine. This lack of conscious place feeds a dangerously bifurcated planet: them and us; over here, over thereabouts. A nation with precision-guided missiles must oblige itself to cultivate a precision-guided sense of the world. Otherwise we could be bombing our friends and not even know it.