The bus party, a dozen or so of us, writers and musicians, had decided not to urge one particular answer to the biggest question, the one on the referendum ballot for 18 September: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ We preferred the question-slogan of the Poles during their 123-year struggle to regain independence: ‘Poland yes – but what sort of Poland?’
(Neal Ascherson: ‘What sort of Scotland?’ – London Review of Books, 21 August 2014)
Scotland votes in less than a month, and my friend Jeremy is conflicted.
“But what has it got to do with him?” you ask, “I thought he was Jamaican? What does he care about Scotland and how it votes?”
You are right to ask, of course, and it probably has nothing to do with him; but still he is conflicted. Let me explain.
It’s all about ancestry, his ancestry in particular, and that is complicated. The least complicated is his mother’s side. Although she lived most of her life in London, she was fundamentally French. She had a Breton mother, ‘Granny Poulard’, and her father was born in Poland, Warsaw probably, but naturalised French before he was out of infancy, a Parisian. What Perigordian neighbours would call un étranger. His family may have been Christianised Jews, or maybe not. It is not important. One will never know anyway, for he abandoned Granny Poulard and jumped ship to New York and a bigamous second marriage when Jeremy’s mother was a baby.
His, Jeremy’s, Dad is where it gets complicated. On his Dad’s side is a long line of Franco-Scottish Calvinists – South-Western Huguenots, who fled to England. Silk producers and merchants, they moved further and further north, almost to the borders, where they could be in easy reach of other Calvinists, lowland Scots Presbyterians, for trade, and for marriage if an appropriate Huguenot lady wasn’t available. And they didn’t limit themselves to lowlanders. Jeremy’s Dad’s grandma was a Miss Jopp from Aberdeen.
Jeremy’s Dad’s mother, Mother Granny her grandchildren called her, was a creole from Belize. Wikipedia says of Belize Creoles that they are “Creole descendants of Black African slaves brought to Belize, and English and Scottish log cutters, who were known as the Baymen. Over the years there has also been intermarriage with Miskito from Nicaragua, Jamaicans, other West Indians, Mestizos, and East Indians, who were brought to Belize as indentured labourers. These varied peoples have all mixed to create this ethnic group.”
Mother Granny, I know for certain, was descended from four Scottish Baymen (two McDonalds, an Erskine and an Armstrong), two black free-women, former slaves who arrived in St George’s Keye before 1750 from Jamaica, and a Miskito lady. Family legend has it that she was a princess from Honduras. But that’s a story for another day. Mother Granny’s real name was Lena Isabel McDonald and she was a pianist by trade.
Most people grow up with a single clear national identity. An Englishman feels proud of being English, a Frenchman is certain that there is no other identity worth having. But for Jamaicans, probably for all Caribbeans , there are almost always two national identities making up their character: one strong, the other weak. The strong is where they are born or grew up. In Jeremy’s case it is, naturally, Jamaican. The weak is one of the places their ancestors came from. Sometimes they can pinpoint the place – such and such a county in England, Hong Kong, Canton province, the Lebanon, Ghana, Uttar Pradesh. Sometimes it’s vague, as much as a whole continent or entire region – West Africa, Asia, The sub-Continent, Europe.
So Jeremy grew up strongly Jamaican – he describes it as “my first and essential identity.” He once said he would not give it up, even though its passport will only admit him visa-less to one country, Jamaica. And I believe him. “As a teenager,” he says, “I was a passionate nationalist, a staunch supporter of Jamaican independence and I danced a joyous jig as the new Jamaican flag rose above the National Stadium, wet and limp in the rain, on the first Independence Day in 1962.”
But his second, weaker, identity, selected from the rich pot purri of options available, is Scots. No, not French as you might expect. At home when growing up, both his greadparents talked about Scotland as home, although neither had spent as much as two weeks in the country. Their sense of an ancient loyalty was the inheritance they left him and with it a certain Scottish nationalism which spoke of an independent Scotland but without expecting it to come about.
As an adult, Jeremy rapidly outgrew nationalism, as he saw the harm it could, and most often did, do in the world. He came to distrust all forms of nationalism. “I embrace a sort of casual internationalism.” he told me the other day. “I believed, and still believe, that we need to see all countries and nations and communities for what they are, not for what they pretend to be. I believe this is as true for the nations or countries or communities we love as it is for the ones we fear or distrust. Nationalism blinds us to the faults in ourselves and to the virtues in the other.”
“Yes, yes,” you say tetchily, “but what has this got to do with him being conflicted about the Scottish referendum?” Well, I was coming to that, but I think you have had enough for today. I promise that I will explain all next time in A Nice Dilemma (Part 2).