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Not in England

01/09/2014

In a week or so, right around the time when a lonely Tibetan hill farmer lines up his iPhone to perform the world’s final ice bucket challenge, Scotland will vote on its independence. The following are my thoughts about what this means to me. Most of this remains raw and unedited because that’s how these thoughts exist in my head. As will become evident, I do not have a particularly political mind, but I have spent most of my adult life grappling with the neurosis that comes out of being half-English and half-Scottish, so the vote will affect me one way or the other. I apologise if this is long and rambling - this is just what’s in my head. Like I say near the end, I’m not trying to side with either YES or NO voters.

My dad was born in a fishing village on the West Coast of Scotland. My mum was born in a council estate in the North of England. My mum grew up and moved to Scotland. My dad took a boat to Australia, then my mum moved to Australia. They got married and had my sister and lived in the bush suburbs of Sydney, where I was born. My dad was a postman and joined the bush fire brigade and my mum taught drama to local kids. Then they missed home and moved back to the United Kingdom. They tried Scotland first but there were no jobs so my dad got in a van and drove off looking for one. He found one in the south of England. So that’s where we moved. That’s the first memory I have of a landscape that was home; a land where I lived.

 The house he bought for us had no roof and no heating and was next to a graveyard. We all slept in the lounge by the fire. The village was what you imagine English villages to be. It had a haunted pub and a pond and a vicarage. Dad put a roof on the house and we stayed there for a while. After a few years we moved to a village nearby. I don’t know why. My sister got a scholarship to a music school in Manchester, so then we moved north to Chester. Chester is a Roman City on the border with Wales - the urban myth is that it is still perfectly legal to shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow after midnight. This, despite the fact that (as with Mogwai-feeding) any time is after midnight.

When people ask me: where are you from? I say Chester, because that's the home I left when I was eighteen. I moved to Leeds and then to London, where my sister was based. She had joined an orchestra and was touring all over the world. Then she moved to Bremen - a town that, a few years before, had been on the happier side of a wall that divided Germany. I moved to Gibraltar. Gibraltar is a strange rock that dangles from the south coast of Spain - "the last colonial testicle in the British Empire" as a friend once remarked. It borders with Spain and there are arguments and name-calling and people spit at each other. I lived in Spain and crossed the border every morning, passing mulletted smugglers hopping the barbed wire fence with cheap cigarettes in plastic bags.

My parents moved house again and my sister moved to Singapore - another colonial testicle, but a cleaner one. Now she plays in an orchestra of musicians from all over the world, people who are more likely to be stereotyped based upon the instrument they play than the place they grew up. I moved back to London, then I travelled to Asia and drove a yellow Ford around Australia with an Irish friend. One night, a fish cook in Kalbarri asked us how an Irish woman and an English man could stand to travel together. He found it hard to believe, given our countries’ pasts. He found it even harder to believe that we slept separately, which seemed odd. I visited Sydney and thought I might stay there for good in the city of my birth. I thought I might find an identity there. I sat outside the registrar’s office with a brand new passport and Bruce Springsteen's My Home Town came on the radio of my Ford. That week I saw more cars with my initials in the registration plate than seemed likely. I thought it was a sign. I thought I might stay, I thought I might make Sydney my home when I'd finished travelling.

Then I went to New Zealand and lived on a beach for a month. I started writing a book about two Carthaginian soldiers who took to sea because it had no borders. On the beach where I stayed there was a turf war (literally) between two rival grass-cutters. One woke up early and put metal spikes in the ground of the other one’s patch. I wanted to run around the coast but I was told I had to ask the Mauris’ permission first. They owned the land. I never found the courage. Instead I tried to fish when I wasn't writing. I caught nothing and finished about a third of my book.

Then it was time to go home because I had no money. I didn't move to Sydney. I moved to Edinburgh where my friends had moved, en masse, after leaving school. One of them, Fraser, was born in Scotland to Scottish parents and has lived in Scotland for over half of his life. He has a North-West English accent and says that Chester is where he's from, like me. When we were eighteen, Fraser and I started spending our Summer holidays in Newquay, learning how to surf. The first time we drove all day until we crossed the invisible line into Cornwall and saw a road sign emblazoned with graffiti: YOU ARE NOT IN ENGLAND. Cornwall remains my favourite place in the British Isles. I can't think of Newquay without smelling surf wax, banana milkshakes and pasties in salt air. I can't think of Sennen without thinking of the gigantic cliffs that mark the end of a small island and the beginning of a deep, wide ocean, or remembering a pub called the First and Last Inn and the words Fraser used to describe a man who played darts by our table: he has the fighting eyes of a celt. The words made me feel a strange mix of belonging and trespass - the same thing we felt when we entered that ocean for the first time with our boards tucked under our arms, eyed by surfers for whom this was their beach. A border existed there and we had no option but to cross it, uninvited.

Another border.

I found Edinburgh easier to live in than London. I wanted to work in a cheese shop and write a book, but I got a job in an office instead. On my first day, someone made a snide remark about me being English. Then he found out I was half Scottish and wanted to be my friend. I left a year later and wrote a different book about a one-legged hitman. I stayed in Scotland for ten years and married a girl from Orkney. It's windy in Orkney and they have no trees. Every Christmas they play a game called the Ba', where two teams try to get a ball to the opposite end of the town - only people from Orkney can play and the team you're in depends on how you first arrived on the island. The game can last all day. My wife left Orkney to study in Glasgow, and then in Cambridge. We met in France and fell in love at a music festival in Belgium after teaching some locals how to say 'Fanny Baws'. That wasn't the only reason we fell in love. We had two children, both born in Scotland. My daughter speaks with an English accent, despite only having been there a couple of times. We can’t work it out. Then we moved to Aberdeen. Last month we moved to Texas, a large state in a large country that borders another large country. Texans ask me where I'm from, then don't really understand when I tell them. My Mum died a few years ago and my Dad now lives on a boat in France. He's renovating it, like he's renovated everything in our family, including our roofless house. In the yard he's made friends with an Irishman and a Pole. Soon he will set sail on seas that have as many borders as the land he leaves behind.

No breed of nationalism or patriotism exists in my family. I feel no pride about being Scottish, nor English, nor European. What I feel is a vague sense that I used to belong to a group of people who were doing things right when the rest of the world wasn't, people that had, despite their differences - and despite how plain fucking difficult it is to be alive and run things like countries on a spinning rock in the cold void of endless space -  pulled together and were starting to laugh at themselves and feel comfortable on the same soil. But I don't feel proud to be British. At times it's a struggle being proud of my species, let alone the patch of dirt I have walked on for most of my life.

In a couple of weeks, Scotland will decide whether or not it wants to be an independent country, no longer part of the United Kingdom. By Scotland, I mean anyone who lives in Scotland at the time of the vote. Sean Connery doesn't get to vote because he doesn’t live there, although many people believe he should be because he once played James Bond - a spy who shot people and fucked women for England.

I'm not writing this in an attempt to sway anybody's thinking, because I have nowhere to sway them. I don’t know what the right answer is; I don’t have any water-tight political arguments for saying yes or no - I’m not very good with politics at all, in fact, because, like religion, like football, like any tribal construct, politics generally demands that you pick a side. I don’t like being on a side. If I was voting, my vote would be about what I feel, which I suspect is how most people will be voting on the day, despite the assertion that it’s all about Tory rule or Westminster or Trident or public school boys or the BBC or all of the above. That it’s not about Braveheart. It’s not about a man shouting freedom with his intestines around his ankles. It’s not about a man who killed children and wore a belt made of human skin.

Sometimes I love Scotland. Sometimes I hate it. The same goes for England. They’re both what I have, not what I want. I want somewhere warm with hills and lakes and good beaches and safe roads, good wine, good music and people who don’t get hung up on history or call each other names. I don't believe Scotland would be better on its own. I don't believe we would be better together. I don't believe much, if you really want to know. All I have, really, are hopes and ideas. Belief is what happens when those things harden and crack.

I don't have the answer. I know that if Scotland votes yes, I'll feel the same feeling that I get crossing the border into Cornwall. I'll also feel less bad about being English the next time I’m in Scotland, because I will no longer represent a problem to some of the people who live there. If the vote is yes, I suspect more people will want the same thing elsewhere. Maybe in Cornwall. Who knows, maybe in Yorkshire. I hope that whatever manifests itself is aimed at freedom from the current political system rather than the erection of another border.

Scotland is whisky and skies and lochs and banter, and guilt-free pride of being a part of a blameless tribe. I don't know what England is, Wales and Northern Island even less. I know what England used to mean for me - it was similar skies and gentle brooks and quiet talking in dark pubs, frothy beer, sunshine and village fetes and old men with distant looks in their eye. I can’t find that idyll to pass on to my children. I can’t even find the Scotland that I’m told exists, or that could exist, if only people would stop being afraid and do what other people want them - require them - to do.

I hope people vote for the right reasons and I hope that people on both sides of the border - which is, whatever happens, now a fast darkening line - are better for the outcome.

If all this sounds like apathetic, badly thought-out bullshit then you’re probably right. But here’s something: Yes-voters don’t like Westminster and, guess what: neither do I, neither do most people in England, or the BBC of that matter. Maybe the best that can come of this is that more people realise this fact and take action - it would be a shame if we have to do it in small teams rather than as one united front, but maybe we’re not grown up enough for that yet.

I don’t like the power that corporations have and I don’t like the power the media has. I don’t like what we’re becoming - I mean us: humans, not Scots or Brits or Angles - us. Give me a referendum on the powers of the press,  or the way we choose people to lead us, or taxation of the corporations who have hijacked the mythologies that once united us, or the NHS, or the things we should be prioritising as a species on the brink.

Ask me a yes/no question on those things and I might be able to give you an answer.