Sunday, 27 January 2013
Struggling with Statelessness
It was Burns Night on Friday. Having recently reconnected with my ex-drama college friends prior to us all meeting up in September for a 40 year reunion in Edinburgh, I was party to a lot of facebook status updates and conversations about this culturally significant annual event in Scotland. That got me thinking about how disconnected I feel at times like this from my Scottish culture and heritage, and for the first time, I found myself unaccountably sad. This blog is my reflection on why that might have been.
Although I was born, brought up and educated in the West of Scotland (Paisley, if that means anything to anyone), my parents were aspiring middle-class, both being the only children of working class parents. Dad had been taken out of school at 15 to be put to a trade, and became a master carpenter. When I first became aware of what my father 'did', he was working in the Drawing Office at the local Ordnance Factory in Bishopton. So, although 'handy around the house', he had moved on from earning a living as a carpenter. As a child growing up, I remember him studying in the evenings and going to 'night school' (whatever that was). And then one day, he was a teacher, having qualified with various HNDs that entitled him to start lecturing at Technical College, which he promptly did.
Mum was a clerk/typist and worked in places like local council offices. During the war, she had been in REME (the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineering corp) - History of REME - and as a child, I was under the fond misapprehension - and told everyone - that my mother repaired tanks during the war! She stopped working when my brother Malcolm and I were young, but returned to part time work when we were considered old enough to get to and from school and eat something by ourselves.
Both observant Presbyterians, Mum and Dad ensured that we attended church every week; Malcolm and I went through the obligatory 'Sunday School' route into the youth club, without ever managing to develop any kind of faith and I remain firmly non-religious to this day (more on that later).
Mum sang in choirs and with other soloists at Womens Guild meetings, old folks homes and the like. My exposure to Scottish folk culture at home therefore was firmly in the what I now perceive as the safe, middle-class, non-threatening Scottish folk culture represented by artists like Kenneth McKellar - http://www.last.fm/music/Kenneth+McKellar - and Moira Anderson - http://www.last.fm/music/Moira+Anderson . Andy Stewart was just about OK, but we considered the Alexander Brothers a bit common. And real 'folk music' was for hippies and the hairy sweater brigade.
When I went to drama college in Edinburgh in 1973, it was just before the end of the era when having a regional accent was considered a hindrance to making progress as an actor - unless one wanted to remain just within the 'Scottish' theatre scene. So learning to speak Southern British Standard (SBS) was de rigeur Phonetics. With hindsight again, this now seems to have been another brick in the wall separating me from my Scottishness.
Nowadays of course, regional accents are the norm in all forms of entertainment and, frankly, it never did Sean Connery any harm! And although I did some of my best work as an actor later at Dundee Repertory Theatre, I was already London-based by then, with a hybrid accent, essentially SBS with a Scottish lilt, which confused and still confuses people, and never fitted the mould of what being a Scottish actor seemed to be; never really belonged there.
Jump forward to living in Brighton, married to a London girl - and Jewish to boot - and with no large extended family of my own, my sense of my own cultural heritage and background was gradually becoming more and more diluted. Once the children came long, I found myself becoming more and more aware of and involved in the ritual and observance of my wife's rich Jewish family, cultural and religious heritage, although I remain personally non-religious. We have brought both Natasha and Samuel up with a strong sense of themselves as secular Jews in a modern world - they have both had Bat and Bar Mitzvahs and later Cabalat Torah experiences and have been on summer camps and foreign visits with their Jewish peers. They have no issues or misapprehensions about who they are, what their cultural and religious heritage really is and are both very grounded and comfortable in where it fits into their modern daily lives.
If you have read my previous blogs you may know my Father died when I was only 27 and my Mother passed away in a nursing home in Ayrshire five years ago. My Brother and his family live in Lincolnshire, so with no extended family still in the country, I have had no reason to visit Scotland - other than for work - since then.
Now, if my own journey thus far sounds as though I've been a little passive, an assimilated passenger, if you like, in this story, I would not necessarily disagree with you. I have always thought of - and frequently described myself - as an 'Anglicised Scot', or more realistically, 'British'. On reflection, that's kind of a cop-out. For years, I've been denying the niggling suspicion that I felt culturally and socially stateless, but that that was OK. In truth, I have been suppressing real underlying feelings of disconnect, loneliness and - yes - guilt. I think that's what Burns Night this year has surfaced for me, why I felt sad and why I felt the need to write this blog.
So what to do about it? Acknowledging the fact is in itself a good start. Having reconnected with my Edinburgh college pals is another step forward. Time perhaps to connect with and talk to some of those people on a more personal, 1-to-1 level, explore what being Scottish means to them; do some historical research; take the opportunity to do more work in one of our Scottish offices, in Glasgow or Aberdeen - and spend more time there around those visits. Sounds like the start of a plan...
Anyone else similarly culturally challenged, stateless and/or disconnected out there? What's been your experience and what, if anything, have you done about it?
Thanks for reading; feel free to comment.