Yesterday saw the Birmingham Post print the first of my regular column pieces. Just in case you’re interested, it’s published in the ‘Agenda’ section:
“Is home where the heart is – or is it just where you live?”
Questions about citizenship and belonging have never been more intense than they are today. 7/7, immigration, new equality legislation, citizenship tests and the burgeoning war on terror have all had an impact on what it seems we as a society thinks it means to say that you ‘belong’.
Being born in London, it’s interesting to see how my children – all born in the Midlands – unquestionably belong here. They also have a really strong emotional attachment to the place, something I admit I probably lack. Yet nonetheless, I like almost 80% of the population, according to the Government’s Citizenship Survey, feel as though I belong in my local area quite irrespective of whether I have that emotional attachment or not.
Almost unexplainably, my attachment remains with London: Bermondsey in particular. Towards the south-east of the Thames, Bermondsey connects to the City via Tower Bridge (the one an American never bought and never rebuilt in the Arizona desert). It is where I was born, lived and went to school: it’s also where many of family died. Home to the Tabard Inn, a la Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ and regular haunt of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit (was there a ‘Big’ Dorrit?), Bermondsey today is a regeneration oasis of warehouse apartments and ‘Location, Location’ style residencies punctuated by the relics of my Bermondsey, the sprawling council estates that ooze poverty and deprivation. Despite it nearing twenty years since I last lived there, this is the Bermondsey that keeps my heart emotionally attached. My head though tells me that today’s Bermondsey is far from where I belong.
My head then tells me where is ‘home’. Given that I now live here, work here, my children go to school here and may even eventually die here (fingers crossed, later rather than sooner) the Midlands is where I belong. Given that I neither participate in anti-social behaviour nor do I have a penchant for criminal activity – yes, I am that boring – I guess I’m also a ‘good citizen’. All this whilst remaining a Londoner by definition.
To what extent then is an emotional attachment to elsewhere a barrier to belonging? And why do we worry so about people maintaining their identities or keeping a part of the heritage in their hearts? For me, whether the heart is attached to Mogadishu or Moseley, Kingston or Kingstanding, Warsaw or Weoley, Bermondsey or Bournville, it doesn’t stop your head from telling you where you belong. Yet in our quest for greater citizenship and belonging, we make unnecessary demands of those whose hearts may always be elsewhere: to ‘prove’ they belong, to ‘prove’ they are citizens, to ‘prove’ they are British.
For many who have an attachment outside the UK or maybe even just look as though they do – despite them being second, third or even fourth generation British-born – we make their experience difficult. Many will face interrogation and scrutiny, others unfounded mistrust and some even downright xenophobia in trying to make Britain their home. Irrespective of what their heads tell them therefore, it’s what we as a society tell them that will make the ultimate difference.
Due to the climate we currently live in, we don’t give people the opportunity to make this their home. Because of this many will never feel that they truly belong or that they can ever be citizens of a vibrant, diverse and dynamic Britain. And neither their hearts nor their heads will tell them anything different no matter how much we force-feed them messages to the contrary.