How to be British

How to be British


Be born in Britain. You have very little control over this, but there will be a lot of things in your life over which you will have little control; you might as well get used to it. So be born in Britain. This is especially important because you will live in a lot of different places and people will look at you oddly when they ask you where you are from and you say, I don’t really have a from. This way you will undeniably be from Britain; it will say so in indisputable terms on your passport. Nationality: British Citizen. Place of birth: London. It’s best if it can be London. So much else about you will be unconventional, and your name is hard to spell, so it will be good to have at least one straightforward fact at your disposal. Born in London. As British as it gets. Except, well, except for the part where your mother is French.

On that note: refuse to speak French. You will spend much of your life being different from those around you, and two and a half years old is a little young to start down this path. Of course, because you are only two and a half years old and because everyone at your nursery school speaks English to you, you have not yet figured out that many of them go home and speak or refuse to speak other languages too, Hindi or Tamil or Yiddish or Italian. After all, your best friend has skin a little different to yours but they only speak English at her house. You know this because you go there to watch Postman Pat and when your mum comes to pick you up she speaks English to your friend’s mum, even when she asks if you have behaved yourself (which you always do, so you don’t know what that’s about).

Leave Britain. It will feel like going on holiday because your parents have packed suitcases and then you get to go on a boat, watching the white cliffs of Dover recede into the distance while your dad sings the Vera Lynn song and takes pictures of you, your long brown hair blowing all over your face until your mum can’t bear it anymore and ties it into a ponytail. Later she will have it all chopped off and you will be mistaken for a boy at a boulangerie, even though you are clearly wearing a fuchsia dress with flowers on it.

Get over the whole not speaking French thing. It would make your new life in Belgium more than a little awkward. Accept without questioning it your parents’ new linguistic configuration: it had been French-at-home-English-outside; now it’s French-with-mum-English-with-dad. Accept equally unquestioningly your father’s blind loyalty to the country of his birth, of your birth, even though what he really misses is the little village he grew up in in the 1950s where everybody knew him and his brother and some people could even tell them apart. Even though none of this bears any resemblance to the London you left behind – the London you’d returned to after your usual summer month in France to find that your home had been broken into and your favourite record had been taken, along with some other stuff your mum spent a lot of time crying about. Even though most of the time in Britain there is a lady with a voice like a man and silly bows around her neck doing a lot of shouting. You know this because it’s on the Six O’Clock News which comes on at seven o’clock in Belgium and which you watch as a family: the only thing you do as a family, your mother points out when your dad shushes you one time you want to say something about the shouty lady.

Do not watch anything other than the BBC. The BBC has all the programmes you like anyway, and the ones like Grange Hill and Neighbours that you won’t be allowed to watch until you’re much older. The BBC has no adverts, and adverts are annoying and also mightily inconvenient for your parents because they make you want things they do not want you to have. You have seen adverts at other people’s houses. This is perhaps why the house your mum takes you to most often is a house with a tiny black and white TV set that only shows the four Belgian channels (and two of those are in Flemish, so they don’t even count). It is possible that there is another reason why she takes you there so often: the family who live there speak English too, although it’s a funny kind of English that makes your jaw ache when you try to imitate it, and when they make you pancakes they turn out not to be pancakes at all but something small and thick and, okay, pancake-coloured, but still.

Change schools. You were happy in the local primary school you walked to every day and where you had begun to learn Flemish – dit is Els; dat is Wim – but now you will wait for the school bus on a street corner with another British girl. The bus will take you to the enormous European School where you will be made to take English lessons, even though you already speak English and would much rather learn German, because suddenly just knowing two languages seems just shy of pathetic, and even though the English teacher is always having to think of an alternate activity for you and no doubt also wondering why your parents aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity to make you multilingual. Everyone around you has names like Jorge Vandenbergh or Marie-Hélène Stephanopoulos and even though your name seems, for the first time, monochrome and a little bland in comparison, you are among people like you, halfies, expats, exiles, children who dream of returning to their homelands. Start dreaming of returning to yours, even though you are mostly happy in Belgium.

Visit Britain with the English class you have been made to take. Go to school in a small village in Essex where the pupils wear uniforms like they do in Grange Hill and their poems plaster the walls. Think, in another life, this is what I could have had. Maybe if the burglars hadn’t come.

Become unhappy in Belgium. This is inevitable because adolescence is just around the corner and it is forbidden to be happy during those years. But it is doubly inevitable because you are in a school full of rich diplomats’ kids and your parents are divorcing, and suddenly they are trying to talk you into second-hand textbooks, into reusing last year’s stationery.

Find solace in a summer camp, where you are known as the British girl but everyone accepts that the way they accept all your oddities and eccentricities. Realise that you have found the brothers and sisters you have ached for all your life. Realise this too late: you’ve already agreed to move back to Britain with your mum, where she can work as a teacher and you will be able to buy new stationery again. You do not know that English stationery shops are in fact vastly inferior to Belgium’s. You could not possibly know that, because you have been taught – not so much in words, perhaps by osmosis – that Britain is superior in every way to every other country.

Cry when you move back to Britain. Cry incessantly for two years. Feel the physical heartache of being ripped away from all that you had become so attached to, like a particularly sticky plaster being brutally torn from a now-healed knee. Write pages and pages of letters each day. Write pages and pages of poems fuelled by existential angst. Listen to Jean-Jacques Goldman on a constant loop. Argue incessantly with your mother. Cry a little more when your classmates ask you, Where is Belgium, exactly? Is it a part of Germany? Keep your watch on Belgian time. Go back to visit as often as your mother will allow you to.

Start to like the new things. Discover that PG Tips and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Buttons are the best combination known to woman. (You have not yet tried cheese and wine.) Begin watching the other British TV channels, the ones you didn’t get in Belgium, the ones with adverts. Programmes like Home and Away, which is like Neighbours but on a beach, with more attractive men. (You can say that now that Jason Donovan has left Neighbours.) Listen to Radio One like a normal British teenager, and then, unlike a normal British teenager, get angry when they make fun of Belgium. Channel this anger into a letter to the editor. Later you will wish you had signed it with your actual name instead of a Jason Donovan fan because it will be the first thing of yours that is ever published. Find a Church you like, where your heart will begin to heal.

Speak less and less French. There is no denying that French is the more beautiful of your languages, perhaps the most beautiful in the world, but life happens in English and it’s too much effort to translate everything once you get home. This time around, your mother is too tired to fight this linguistic laziness, in you or in herself. And anyway, she has a new friend (whom you know to be a boyfriend, though the word seems an absurd one at their age) and the “friend” does not speak French. He is mistrustful of French cooking, too, and so gradually the simple, delicious food you have grown up with disappears from your life. One good thing: Sunday roasts. A l’anglaise. Stop writing as many letters because life is busy and because French comes less easily now, to you the poet, you the writer, you of whom people had said you were talented with words. You do not like the emotions that writing or trying to write in French awakes in you. You do not know what they are, much less how to deal with them, so it is easier not to try writing.

Take exams. Do well in them. You are a misfit because of this, at a school which has not sent anyone to Oxford or Cambridge for three years and does not even have the correct form to give you so that you can apply. But by now you are used to being a misfit. Foreign. Or religious. Or clever. Or posh, because when you moved back to Britain you still had your London accent and the people in your small town sounded like farmers. Being used to being a misfit does not make it easy. It just makes it life.

Go to Cambridge. Find yourself among other clever people with posh accents and a passion for language – or physics, or maths. Or whatever. Live like a Brit. No-one would ever know you weren’t. Now when you miss people, when you write somewhere, it’s to Guernsey, when your spent your gap year. Where God met you and healed you and changed you so that now you do not mind being a misfit for Him. The end of adolescence probably helped too. And in other ways, you are not so different anymore. Only in translation class, where you feel like an idiot for never having learned that un chêne is an oak: you talk about chênes with some people and oaks with others, and that’s that. And in grammar classes, where you feel guilty for knowing so much more than the others without having to try. And in oral classes, where you are deeply ashamed of your few mistakes: of course you should pronounce the p in pyschologie; the lectrice has every right to shake her head, to say, mais enfin… But by the time finals come around you will be taking all Spanish and linguistics papers anyway, and afterwards the most obvious way in which you will be a misfit is your Cambridge degree. That one you can cope with; it is not such a terrible thing, though you hate the instant judgment you can see in people’s eyes, the boxes they mentally place you in when they ask you where you went to university and you have no choice but to tell them.

Your transformation is almost complete. You are English. More or less. More than you thought you would be. Less than you sometimes wish you were when you think about the abandoned poetry in a drawer back at your parents’ house. But wait. You’re almost thirty. Have an existential crisis.

Go and see your counsellor. She’ll ask you about your childhood. Realise afresh you have never been you since you left Belgium. Get back in touch with the people who meant so much to you a lifetime ago. (The wonders of the Internet.) Get on the Eurostar. Talk for hours, though your French is rusty and you have to reach for your words.

Move back to Belgium, after much soul-searching. You’ve had enough of London and you want a new start: back to the future, perhaps, or at least back for the future. You will fully expect to become Belgian again, but will find yourself gravitating towards other expats. Do not resist this. You have more in common with them than you realised. Compare everything to Britain and find that Britain is superior in every way, with the exception of language and waffles and stationery, though the opening of the Paperchase chain some years back has closed the gap on one of those.

Start watching The West Wing. It’s July: work is slow; almost everyone is on holiday. You will realise as you watch that English is beautiful too, even in the accent that makes your jaw ache when you try it. This will give you permission to write again, to reconcile your deepest self with the language of your birth. It will lead, eventually, to a move across an ocean where once again you will feel different because you are British, and thus more British than ever. If there are other reasons for your difference too – and there are, of course there are – they will be subsumed into your Britishness, the Britishness that has finally, at long last, become your identity. One day you will have to leave. But it’s probably best that you don’t think about this yet. There is something so enjoyable about being certain of who you are.


About Claire Handscombe

Claire Handscombe lives in Washington, DC, where she graduated with her MFA in Creative Writing in May 2015. She is a contributing writer to Book Riot, and her essays, journalism, and poetry have appeared in a wide range of publications including Writing Magazine, Writers' Forum, and the Washington Post.

Claire Handscombe lives in Washington, DC, where she graduated with her MFA in Creative Writing in May 2015. She is a contributing writer to Book Riot, and her essays, journalism, and poetry have appeared in a wide range of publications including Writing Magazine, Writers' Forum, and the Washington Post.

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