Indigene

I was born in Oldham and grew up in what was then Lancashire and is now Greater Manchester. My parents were both from Lancashire.

Does that make me English?

But my paternal grandparents were both of Scottish origin. My maternal grandfather was Welsh (family legend has it that he was a druid, though he died too early for me know him and find out anything about that). My maternal grandmother was pure Lancashire (an Ogden, about as archetypal a Lancashire surname as you could hope to find).

Does that make me any less English?

My surname, curiously, has strong connections with Northern Ireland (presumably from the Scottish settlements).

Which seems to make me about as British as could be. Except that I am not aware of any Celtic, Gaelic, Cornish or Breton connection.

*

A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of days at a Native Studies conference.

I was kibitzing (what a wonderfully useful borrowing that is). Maureen was delivering a paper (on Thomas King and Leslie Marmon Silko, very interesting) and I had the opportunity to go along and support her. And I enjoy academic conferences, you have the best conversations there.

I like the fact that my interest in science fiction never seems out of place in these circles. I keep being prompted to do a paper on Native American science fiction writers, but when I raise the subject I mention names like Craig Strete, Owl Goingback, maybe Tananarive Due. They mention names I’ve never heard of. Clearly there are two science fictions out there, a whole stream of Native American science fiction that is going unobserved by mainstream science fiction.

*

One of the keynote speakers, Professor Roger Maaka, the only Maori I have knowingly met to date, gave a fascinating talk on the legal definitions of indigeneity, a curiously (and, perhaps, inevitably) fluid notion. The European Union, it appears, admits to having no indigenous peoples, (though I wonder how much that is a legal and financial convenience: if you have indigenous peoples within your borders you have legal and financial obligations towards them). I kept thinking that indigeneity is like science fiction: no one can define it, but you know what it means when you use the term.

I got talking to Roger after his paper, and we got on to the thorny subject of when colonisation ends. Or rather, when does the coloniser become a native? We were discussing the case of Britain. We were colonised by the Romans, but when the legions were withdrawn that doesn’t mean that every Roman instantly left; many had already settled and intermarried, when the legions left they were simply absorbed into the local population. Again, after 1066, we were colonised by the Normans, and indeed for several hundred years after that the language of the English ruling class was French. For most of those several hundred years, indeed, England’s rulers held estates in France that, in wealth and in extent, exceeded England. England was, in other words, a relatively minor part of the far flung lands of a French nobleman.

There was no moment in English history when the French colonisers left. (There was a point when the Anglo-Norman ruling house of the Plantagenets was replaced by the Welsh ruling house of the Tudors, but the Tudors were just a branch of the Plantagenet family; there was also a point when the Welsh ruling house of the Tudors was replaced by the Scottish ruling house of the Stuarts, but the Stuarts were a part of the same family as the Tudors.) Slowly, by a geological process of erosion, the colonisers became one with the colonised. But that doesn’t mean that the colonisation ended, just that it became tired and dissipated, blown away on the winds of time.

In terms of postcolonial theory, the colonisers always leave. That’s what’s post about it. And that’s why many Native Americans argue that postcolonial theory does not apply to them, because they are still colonised. But how does the theory account for a situation in which the coloniser becomes the native?

*

I was reminded of all this recently because all of a sudden England is becoming the subject of histories.

When I was a child, the history of Britain was always, essentially, the history of England in which Wales and Scotland and Ireland featured only when England set out to conquer them. But that history changed, we got to see far more of the non-English history of Britain. There are several manifestations of this: the English Civil War became the War of the Three Kingdoms; studies of British literature started to examine something called Archipelagic English. England was no longer the spotlight.

But now, at virtually the same moment, there are Histories of England published by Simon Jenkins and by Peter Ackroyd. Suddenly there is an emphasis on Englishness again. In a review of the Jenkins book, Jeremy Paxman, who has himself written about Englishness, noted the fact that we now have independent (or, at least, semi-independent) parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But we have shown no interest in having an English parliament. Paxman doesn’t spell out the connection, but I wonder whether the renewed emphasis on England doesn’t reflect some sense that England is losing out to the rest of Britain in some way.

Actually, what I really wonder is whether such books aren’t all about identity, or the lack of it. Whether they do or not, there is a perception that the people of Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland have a sense of national identity, and that is why, however much we grumble, we don’t really begrudge them their own parliaments. If it came to it, we’d probably concede some sort of assembly for Cornwall on much the same terms. But we’re not pushing for an English parliament because we don’t really know what England is. I suspect we honestly wouldn’t have a clue what to do with an English parliament, even if we got one.

And all of that could tie in, in some way, with what I was saying right at the start of this ramble: are we English?

Here’s a thought about what colonisation over the course of centuries might do: it might just wear away the sense of who we are by opening up more and more possibilities for who we might be.

I might be Welsh or Irish or Scottish; beyond that I might be Danish or Norman or German or Roman; beyond that, as a member of a race that for ill or for good went out to the world and brought the world back home, I might be Indian or African or Caribbean. Does any of that make me less English?

7 thoughts on “Indigene

  1. Have you come across Norman Davies’ The Isles, a history of the British Isles which runs parallel strands of mainstream history with what was happening in other parts of the isles. It throws up some interesting light on things, and makes clear that what happened in Court or London was rarely what was happening elsewhere in the country.
    The other book I would throw in the mix is Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners a history of immigration into this country. Very detailed, well told and surprising.
    If I remember rightly those Roman legions who were the tail end of colonisation were largely Spanish (or Galician) anyway.

  2. There is quite a lot of evidence that England is still a colonial society: studies of where the wealth sits suggest that the ruling class is still essentially Norman.

    I watched an episode of who Do you Think You Are recently on a flight: chap describes himself as “slightly posh”. I’m looking at him thinking, “By Golly you look Norman”. If memory serves me right, it turned out he could trace his family back to the Conqueror himself.

    The British Library exhibition on Language last year also pointed to the way in which the status of words can be traced to their French or Saxon origin. Alan Garner’s work with Cheshire dialect is fascinating in this way.

    (I am not of course “quite” English, as someone insisted recently, my family having been here only four generations.)

    • I know what you mean, but it only increases my puzzlement about what actually constitutes a colonial society. Even if it’s true that our rulers are essentially Norman (and I do take your point on that), are they actually ruling on behalf of anyone non-English? And note, I do not say non-British …

  3. I don’t know about Tananarive Due, but Craig Strete and Owl Goingback send off a lot of classic signs of white people (maybe with a “Cherokee princess” rumoured great-grandmother) making use of somewhat shopworn Indian themes, rather than actually engaging with living tribal cultures. In other words, part of the Wannabe phenomenon.

    This might be why they aren’t lauded in the same way as a Stephen Graham Jones (admittedly more horror than scifi) is, or a Sherman Alexie.

    • You are right. For many years I had no idea that Strete was Native American, and I still see nothing distinctly native in what they wrote. That is why I am curious about the names that nativists toss around when talking about sf and native American literature. This raises all sorts of interesting questions about how much ancestry affects literature, and do we need some sort of blood quantum test? But there is equally the issue that if a Native American writer wants to write science fiction, wouldn’t their models be the same science fiction that everyone else reads? Why would Native American sf be different from white American sf?

      I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’d like to see somebody attempt an answer someday.

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