Linda Grant was on the radio the other day discussing her novel, When I Lived In Modern Times. It’s a terrific book in my opinion. Set during the early days of the state of Israel, it describes the way that identities shift and re-form as people from the most diverse backgrounds are melded together by history.
When asked about her own identity, Ms Grant said, ‘I never really feel at home wherever I am’. Later in the interview she said that American Jews don’t really consider English Jews to be properly Jewish because they speak with ‘a la-di-da accent’. I don’t know whether this is true or just Ms Grant’s paranoia but it made me smile.
When I was at school in East London we would have football matches with the Irish against the English and, of course, I was in the Irish team. At secondary school I was once publicly rebuked by a teacher for pronouncing the word this as dis, ‘like an Irish tinker’.
However, when we went to Ireland each Summer for our holidays, I was always described as the English cousin. Indeed, in the village where my father lived I was once spat at in the street and called ‘Dirty English’ by a complete stranger. So, like Linda Grant, I felt at home nowhere.
I still feel like that to a great extent but a couple of things have happened in the last few years to make me feel that perhaps I belong somewhere after all.
The first was that someone who was visiting me from the north west of England wanted to know whether his car would be safe parked outside my house. I thought at first that he was joking but I soon saw from his manner that he was genuinely very nervous about leaving it there.
Then a writer who lives in the north east of England was coming to London to talk to me. I suggested meeting at the British Library near Kings Cross station. She sent me an email saying that she had heard bad things about Kings Cross and wondered whether it would be a safe place to meet.
I was describing these reactions to a friend, who said, ‘Yes but they only seem silly to you because you’re such a Londoner.’ And I suppose she was right. I’m not scared because this is my territory.
At the end of the interview Linda Grant admitted, a little sadly, that one of the few languages her work had not been translated into was Hebrew. I immediately thought of the same friend who had confidently assured me that I was a Londoner. Though English-born, her mother had been Irish and she had spent long periods in Ireland as a child but had been living in London for many years. Recently she sent me an email in which she just had to tell me that she had been described by a newspaper as an ‘Irish writer’. I think that if she had sold the film rights to her novel she could not have been more pleased.