So for all the moving around and adapting and being a cultural chameleon, what could possibly ground my sense of truly being British, and belonging in some way to this(these) island nation(s)?
I would like to flippantly say that the short answer is Enid Blyton. But there are no short answers really.
Could it be Enid Blyton, dragons, and irony? A triptych to desire if ever there was one! And please, to the artists out there, if you have a vision of how this would look, please do share. If at all possible in a giant format that could spread across an entire wall. If Moonface could make an appearance I would be ecstatic.
I mention books in the framework of identity as I returned recently from a place where I felt that I belonged. All of me, not just one aspect of my life or personality. It was not merely a physical location, but made up of a space and a time. The Hay Festival in Wales (as opposed to the opulent, but less literary versions overseas) has always appealed, but for many reasons I had never yet attended (the Wales one, I have been known to take cocktails with my books in Cartagena, but that is another story). I thought about this while participating in the orgy of literature and discussion and comedy and music, skipping amazing talks because I had to eat at some point, each day promising myself that I would go to bed early, then getting pulled in to yet another late night by dint of being part of a group, and wanting to spend time in their presence.
I had missed this sense of belonging to something since I arrived in the UK in September.
Yes, it was a constructed cultural context.
Yes, it was temporary.
But, like all successful national narratives it has created a shared history, and (mostly) used the markers of banal nationalism to good end. Each year there is a themed sweater and book bag, and previous festival goers proudly wear/carry theirs, proclaiming that they were part of the epic event of 1999, or saw the Clinton talk in the TATA tent (then Barclays you know), or pulled apart the fight between Pratchett and John Snow (I imagine that must have happened at some point). This being the UK, there are a myriad of catastrophic weather events that can be brought to mind and linked to specific talks: Ooohh, remember 2003 when it rained for 40 days and 40 nights and we had to load all of the authors onto an ark that was built by local craftspeople out of Welsh slate (because this is WALES), quarried by Hay Festival interns. It was wonderful because Stephen Fry and John Cleese organised an improvised version of a mash-up of the Bible and the Mabinogion. Alan Bennett played the parts of both Culhwch and Moses. That was a year it was worth the trip to Hay-on-Wye. It has all gone downhill since then.
As always in national identities, there is a golden age, a time when things were better (possibly tinted at the edges by the copious amounts of mead drank in the green room, and maintained by the tradition of paying stewards and authors in wine). Thus, it was much better when it was held in a local bookshop/barn/church/town square/small part of a field/all talks were in Latin/there were no walkways to keep people out of the mud/it rained more/there were less authors/. Those who were not around in those days (because of the accident of their birthdate, their location, knowledge of the event, or just because they didn’t go) will be looked at in pity, and with no small amount of distrust*.
There is an architecture that allows people to have shared images and experiences, even if their festival is completely different from mine. Artists participating in the festival will incorporate this in their talks or drawings because it is a common experience for their entire audience.
There is a hierarchy, everyone is paid in wine, no-one (everyone) mentions the election, and in-jokes abound. And in this world of digital content, when in a field in Wales, with little or no internet connection, the ties that bind are on the radio waves. The BBC was present throughout, sharing new music, broadcasting live, and donating its stars (in my mind) as speakers, panelists, comedians, and chairs (of talks, not for friends and patrons). With all the wonderful talks that I saw (more on them later), one of my favourite moments was sitting in for the live recording of Broadcasting House. On Sundays around the world, I have tuned in to listen again on the BBC website, and been charmed by Paddy O’Connell. On Sunday, from a field in my own country, I sat front row centre, and had Broadcasting House performed for me. The BBC, in its turn, extends the borders of that small field in Wales, to the furthest reaches of its airwaves.
So for all the differences between those in attendance, we truly did have a shared imagining that includes literature, the stories we had read to us, and those we tell ourselves. Because of this it was possible to turn to a neighbour and ask about the book they were reading, or to ask which talks they had seen recently, and have them respond positively. No matter which newspaper we subscribe to back in the real world. we recognise the same names and voices, and most of us believe that the logistically difficult journey to the Brecon Beacons is worth it, wherever we start out from.
I went climbing with a friend once I was back, and when I told him that I had felt in my element while at Hay, he asked me where I was now. ‘In London’, my flippant reply, merely made him sad. But I already feel more at home here than I did six months ago, and who knows, I may learn to love it one day.
*All of this is said in the full knowledge that in a few years, I will be this person. I am ready to fully defend the vintage, sundrenched year of 2015 to all those who come after.