All Material © Noel Harvey
Patriotism is a word, and one that generally comes to mean either my country,
right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.
Around a quarter of a century ago, before the internet made the world small and the war on terror made it hostile, I boarded a ferry at Harwich on the first leg of a motorcycle journey that was to take me 26,000 miles across three continents. I collected the first stamp in my passport at the Hook of Holland. The passport expired many years ago, but I keep it still, with its original Dutch frank on the first page. I collected a great number of stamps in the ensuing two years, and looking at them now, I can see how much the world has changed. Several stamps are for countries that no longer exist; others are for borders which have long since merged or shifted; others still are for nations whose political ideologies have altered beyond all recognition.
Travelling overland and exposed to the elements, obliged to take notice if only to stay alive, I quickly learned to recognise more highly evolved boundaries than the checkpoint or the wire fence. The lie of terrain, the manner of dress, the shape of bread, the tone of greetings, the style of architecture, the hue of skin; even the smell of the air; all were cues signalling that I had left one land and entered another. Sometimes the change was so abrupt it jarred. Other times it morphed imperceptibly like the frames of a cine film. But change the world did, and from one day to the next I found myself riding through new territory, eating different food, struggling to make myself understood in yet another language.
That the world is as diverse as it is came as no great shock. But what did surprise me from the earliest days was how rarely those regional boundaries coincided with the national ones, unless perhaps some great natural obstacle such as a sea or a mountain range had served for centuries as a defensible barrier.
When I left Alsace I’d already travelled fifty kilometres on French highway; I continued crossing the Punjab for several days after I’d left Pakistan; and I travelled throughout Ladakh without once crossing the border into Tibet. In Africa, I was forever crossing tribal lands that had no correlation whatsoever with national borders. Many times I traversed lines that though enforced, existed only on maps and in the minds of politicians and border officials; far more often I passed across boundaries that were evident to all, but only through the senses.
My mind, dulled from years of sitting in classrooms and offices, and encouraged to believe in a universe that is somehow fixed and logically partitioned, was ill equipped to comprehend the world in this way. We don’t trust our intuition; we seek out comforting markers in the form of road signs and bureaux des changes, border posts and, well, stamps in our passports. Yet every time I proffered my travel documents for such a stamp, I found myself offering evidence not only of my nationality, but rather more discomfortingly, of the contingency of my own identity. I had taken my Britishness for granted for as long as I could think, yet it was becoming painfully obvious to me that nationality - and the cultural baggage and idea of the me that goes along with it - is little more than an accident of birth.
In my case, I am descended from a colourful line of colonial settlers. I have a Burmese great grandmother, a French grandfather, and an Anglo-Indian grandmother. If fifty per cent of my blood is of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic ethnicity I would be truly surprised; were the BNP ever to win power and enact their own version of the Nuremberg laws (the Manchester Statutes?) I and my siblings might find ourselves in serious trouble.
And though both my parents were born and raised in colonial India, they, as I do, know themselves to be not merely British, but emphatically English. I may have rejected my father’s Christian faith and Tory politics, but I try to observe his British sense of fair play. I speak with a middle English accent, embrace western liberal democratic values, and I have an innate tendency to apologise when people step on my toes. Most telling of all, I understand as George Orwell did, that though born in India, I was born also into the British upper-lower-middle classes.
Yet in an abstract and insignificant way, I understand this declaration to be meaningless. My nationality is as arbitrary as the border that now stands between Pakistan and India, or the one that once divided East from West Germany. I certainly didn’t choose to be British, any more than I chose my height, or my myopia, or the shape of my molars. That I have a sense of national identity is undeniable; that it is closely aligned with a sense of who I am seems also beyond question. But I find my self backing off rapidly if asked to explain from whence this awareness came. Where on earth would I start? Who would I call to argue for me? Buddha? David Hume? Norman Tebbit?
Perhaps it is enough for us to recognise that for better or worse, like it or not, we have a sense of I and other, and with that, of nationality. It seems to be something we value, and for most of the time this sits with us comfortably enough. But might there be a price for thinking this way, especially when we find ourselves seduced by the cant of patriotism, waving our flags without asking what the flag represents, or why we are even waving it?
It was on another trip, many years later, that I found myself wheeling through the low lying plains of Artois and Picardy, that blood drenched belt of land that de Gaulle once referred to as “France’s fatal avenue”. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts, diverting often to follow the all too frequent signposts that pointed out the cemeteries and monuments of two horrendous imperial wars. Sometimes they led to small regimental memorials, sometimes to towering archways engraved with thousands upon thousands of names; other times to vast cemeteries with uniform white headstones stretching almost as far as the eye could see.
What can those memorials tell us about countries, about borders, about the price we pay for clinging so fiercely to our identities, for confusing the defence of territory with the defence of our values? What was it they sang in the trenches, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne? We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here…