I’ve always had something of an identity crisis. I was born in Leeds to a Polish father and an English/Irish mother. My grandfather was a Methodist of Yorkshire Dales – probably Viking – stock. They had been lead miners who gravitated towards Leeds in search of a better life. My mother’s mother was an Irish Catholic whose economic migrant forebears had come from a small Mayo town. There is some uncertainty as to whether great grandad was born in Ireland or in Liverpool where his birth was registered. It’s possible that he was born on the ferry.
My dad came from the Polish 'wild East’ near Lwow, those endlessly disputed borderlands which are now in the Ukraine. There was a bit of Hungarian blood in there too on his mother’s side. He came to a resettlement camp in Yorkshire via Italy, with the British army, got a job in a mill in Leeds, met and married my mum, worked his way through night school and university and finished up as a research scientist of some distinction in the West of Scotland. We moved to Scotland when I was 12. My husband was born in Liverpool to an Aberdonian mother and an English father. That makes our Scottish-born son a Polish, English, Irish, Hungarian Scot.
I have never known precisely where I belonged, but if identity is tied up with a sense of belonging, I certainly feel more at home in some places than others, although these rarely equate to anything as precise as a country. I love Yorkshire and find myself sliding back into the speech patterns of my childhood when I’m there. If I’m away from Scotland for any length of time I feel homesick. But there are parts of Ireland where I recognise a shared cultural heritage that I learned from my 'nana’ and from my Leeds primary school, where we used to sing 'Hail Glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our isle’ with a certain ambiguity as to which 'isle’ we meant.
In the 70s, I spent a year living and working in Poland and although it was still under grim communism, there were a hundred ways in which that too felt like home. The sense of belonging was heightened by a Christmas spent in the company of the extended family into which one of my grandfather’s sisters had married. Most of dad’s immediate family, including my grandfather, had died in the war, falling victim to Stalin or Hitler. But Great Aunt Wanda and her artist husband Karol Kossak had survived, as did many of the Kossak family, some of them only emerging from Stalinist prisons long after the war was over for the West.
It was an extraordinary Christmas. They lived out at Zoliborz, a suburb of Warsaw that had escaped the wholesale destruction of much of the city by the Nazis. It was a charming old house with wooden floors, double doors opening from room to room, and a big ceramic tiled stove throwing out heat. We ate the many different courses of a traditional Christmas Eve meal, and then the elderly members of the family went through a genealogical accounting of biblical proportions to place me in the family tree. Never before or since have I been put so firmly in my place. I was Julian Czerkawski’s daughter, Wladyslaw and Lucja’s grand-daughter, Wanda’s great niece. Wanda’s sister was Ludmilla, her brothers Zbigniew and Boguslaw. It was oddly soothing to hear all this and more recited.
A sense of identity can be heart-warming and reassuring, but it’s also a moveable feast. Because I am more than Czerkawski’s daughter, I’m Kathleen’s daughter too, and Joe’s grand-daughter. I’m a Flynn from Mayo. I’m a Yorkshire lass from Leeds. I’m a Scotophile. I’m a mongrel. I’m a citizen of nowhere in particular, and proud of it. I’m certainly a European.
Back in the 70s, I campaigned enthusiastically for EEC membership. Later, I voted for Scottish devolution, and watched proudly as my son was one of those lucky kids who got to go to the opening of the new parliament. I saw no mismatch between support for a more united Europe and a more devolved Scotland. You don’t have to live in Scotland for very long to see how England and Scotland are frequently uncomfortable bedfellows.
Misunderstandings abound. Even among those who went on to vote No in the Independence referendum, a significant percentage did so on the understanding that a devolved Scotland would remain within the EU. Brexit seemed as unfeasible and remote as aTrump presidency. Perhaps because of all this, the sense now is that the 'kingdom’ is more disunited than ever – and at least some of that discontent involves a challenged sense of identity for many of us, the feeling that we are being labelled in ways that make us uncomfortable.
It seems to me as though the very notion of Britishness has been commandeered by political parties that have small traction up here in Scotland. It would be disingenuous to say that the divide between Brexiteers and Remainers is wholly one of age. If it was, I wouldn’t be writing this now. But our young sons and daughters have never not been part of Europe. Many possess such a mixture of heritages that they see Theresa May’s 'citizen of nowhere’ taunt as a compliment rather than an insult. Many have friends and work colleagues across the EU and they can hardly comprehend (and will never forgive) any political party that deprives them of their rights to be Europeans.
There are no easy solutions to any of this. Who knows if ideal solutions will even be possible? But sometimes now, it feels as though a fault line has opened up between England and the rest of these islands, a sense that if times are going to be hard then they might as well be hard on our own terms. Scotland has intellectual capital in plenty, bright and bold young people and a certain common sense and decency in trying to combat the inevitable hatreds that have arisen and will continue to arise.
This country is not 'better’ than England in any quantifiable way, but right now it certainly feels different. Moreover, this time, it feels as though it is England itself that is doing all the pushing, a significant number of people relentlessly thrusting themselves away from the rest of us in pursuit of a golden age that never was, an identity that was never quite what it seemed, and is certainly not coming back any time soon.