Wednesday 17 June 2015

Are you foreign?

At the start of last week’s rather grand dinner the posh old lady to my left caught my eye and gestured across the circular table.

“Is that your wife over there?” she asked.

Mrs Hann had made a bit of an effort for the occasion, so I felt a certain pride in confirming that it was.

A previous occasion on which some effort had been made. Not by me, obviously.

“She looks foreign? Is she foreign?”

“Well, she was born in Manchester. But both her parents are from Iran. Or as they would say, Persia.”
There was a short pause for browsing and sluicing before conversation moved on. This time it was the place card in front of me that engaged her attention.

“Hann. Is that your name? It sounds foreign? Is it foreign?”

I could have reeled off my spiel about how I can trace my direct ancestors in my corner of Northumberland to the 1630s, and that I used to correspond with a nice old boy in the New Forest who could produce evidence of Hanns there back to the twelfth century.

I could have further explained that experts claim “Hann” is a mediaeval diminutive of “Jonathan” though, if that is indeed the case, I have never understood why Hann should be so rare and the other obvious surnames derived from Jon so very common.

So I just developed an extraordinarily keen interest in talking to the lady to my right instead.

The fact is, though, that we can all be what we want to be and see what we want in others.

Presented with one of those pesky official forms that ask about your ethnicity, my wife will tick “white British”.

Yet other options are clearly available, given that the disgraced Iran-born police commander Ali Dizaei managed to rise to the top of the National Black Police Association.

When one of my friends told me that I was the last person she’d have expected to marry a black woman, and I replied that my wife wasn’t black, I got: “I know, but you’re not allowed to call them coloured these days, are you?”

Even I was shocked when a colleague only last week described his personal trainer as “a half caste”, blissfully unaware that this is a term long since consigned to the banned list along with quadroon and octoroon, Mongol and spastic.

Apparently their training sessions are enlivened by regular arguments about why this gentleman chooses to define himself as black, when he could equally validly claim to be white. As, indeed, could President Obama.

But why should it matter either way?

Our hearts were surely all warmed last week by the tale of the Sikh traveller at Cologne airport who was delighted to be described as “a fellow Englishman” by a Geordie who stood him a cup of coffee, most appropriately on St George’s Day.

At the same time we were apparently meant to be outraged by reports of the US civil rights activist who has spent years pretending to be black when she is, in fact, white.

What harm exactly has that done? Whatever turns you on, baby, as they used to say.

Personally I’m with Lord Palmerston who reacted to the intended compliment “If I were not a Frenchman, I should wish to be an Englishman” with the immortal “If I were not an Englishman, I should wish to be an Englishman.”

Palmerston’s title was Irish and his estates there included Mullaghmore, where he built the castle and harbour from which Lord Mountbatten sailed to his death.

But Palmerston no more saw himself as Irish than the first Duke of Wellington who, in reference to his birth in Dublin, famously observed “Because a man is born in a stable, it does not make him a horse.”

As a Northumbrian as well as an Englishman, I consider myself a member of two of the finest clubs in the world; truly a double rollover jackpot winner in the lottery of life.

As in all decent clubs, a waiting list for membership may be appropriate, but they should not be exclusive on any prejudiced grounds.

Any time Alex Salmond wants to call himself English, I shall welcome him with open arms. If only I can reach that far.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

1 comment:

Weygand said...

I would suggest that the quotation from Wellington contradicts your thesis rather than supporting it - in the sense that further still because a man lives in a stable, it does not make him a horse nor does calling himself a horse make him one.
What defines a nation and allows people to live peacefully together is a willingness to subscribe to certain core values. In England, values such as (eg equality, democracy refusal to discriminate on race, gender etc), which in turn allow the political, religious and other debates to rage without the common bond of nationhood being destroyed.
And it is precisely because you are English in that sense that you will have allowed me to have posted this.