Write something about England, I told myself in Chapter 5 of the memoir, which I've just uploaded for your reading pleasure. Well, it turns out that's easier said than done. There’s something slippery about Englishness, something that repels definition like a negatively charged magnet.
Scotland is a different story. Scotland – at least the stereotype of Scotland - one can smell and hear and see: the forbidding red sandstone, the brewery whiff in the chilly wind, the Tartan racket of bagpipes.
But what is England? The longer I live here the fuzzier the general image of the place grows. There’s no big concept, no big idea. No ‘aha!’ moment.
London one can talk about at length, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a different London for each one of its 8 million inhabitants, with their 400 languages and dialects, their patchwork quilt of traditions and religious beliefs, their different versions of the past, their tribal hatreds and strange gastronomic totems. London is in each pasta bowl, in each kebab. Most big cities are like that.
But England? Once I finally got there – via a Honours Degree and a long night journey by coach from Edinburgh - I found that, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there was no there, there. No centre of gravity, no coherence.
England seemed to come into focus for me over the years not as a landscape, inhabited by a distinct people, but rather a sensibility, a sense of self, of the right way to be, to think, to behave, so strong and radicated that it is able to tolerates otherness and yet never absorbs it. So that even after 24 years, in which I was able to pursue a great career, buy a house, marry one of the locals, I still feel like a chewed up, half digested, never totally assimilated foreign body.
The Chapter contains all sorts of fun facts about what the English say to you if you are Italian or seem particularly happy, especially if no alcohol is involved.
It takes you from my very first summer school placement with a jolly lorry driver's family in Bournemouth to a series of unsanitary London house-shares with penniless postgraduate students, fierce landladies & defective heaters.
Because it was written 10 years ago, and describes events ten years earlier than that, there are all sorts of nostalgic references to something called an A to Z, which younger readers should try to imagine as frozen, broken up Googlemap screen fragments held together in something called 'pages' by glue (see also under: books).
Incidentally, it wasn't till many years later, specifically during a performance of Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, that I had a blinding realisation about the nature of Englishness. I tried to describe it in this blogpost. But as you will see the experience, somehow, once again eluded the telling, like an urgent note scribbled after waking up from a feverish dream in the middle of the night and which, in the cold light of day, reveals a few disjointed words and no meaning. "Puddles, meringues, fear. Lots of penguins. Tell mother."