This is My EnglandAnd YoursRECLAIMING ENGLISHNESS
Now that English Nationalism has been unleashed, Peter Jukes argues that we must all try to restore England’s buried civic tolerance and historic diversity
This is my England.
The photo below was taken soon after the last war in the Suffolk garden of my adopted grandfather, Sidney Cox, a retired solicitor. Next to him is a Jewish refugee from Germany he housed for the duration of the war (I wish I could find her name). Next to her is my mother, Jean Cox, born of an Armenian asylum seeker and a Welsh mother, who Sidney had adopted when she was six weeks old in 1926. Next to my mother is my dad, John Jukes, who had just joined the Royal Artillery.
So this is my England and a part of yours too – so different from the English Defence League versions of bigotry or the white Etonian dream of exclusion and superiority.
Sidney, who died soon after this picture was taken, not only took in wartime refugees and adopted a daughter of a refugee, he was an early supporter of the Beveridge reforms for social welfare.
The son of Birmingham grocers, he worked to pay to put his younger brother Clarence through college. Clarence did extremely well. He became speaker of the Oxford Union and a Liberal candidate during the 1910 General Election, during which he shared the hustings with none other than Winston Churchill.
Both brothers fought in World War One; Sidney on the Western Front where he was at the cataclysmic battle of the Somme (my mother said he refused to ever talk about it); Clarence joined the Suffolk Regiment and, by 1917 he was attached as a pilot to the newly formed Royal Flying Corp. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, and General Allenby sent his armies to take Jerusalem, my great uncle was shot down over the ancient contested city. He died of his wounds weeks later and is now buried in Egypt.
Asylum and Empire
While my adopted great uncle’s remains lie buried in the Saharan sands, my biological relatives were suffering from the first great genocide of the 20th Century in the deserts north of Jerusalem – an apocalypse which created the legal framework which was used to prosecute the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials.
Over a million Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks in 1917, many of them led into the Syrian desert, not so far from where my great uncle Clarence was shot down, and left to starve. That genocide was an inspiration to Hitler when planning his ‘final solution’ for European Jews. “Who remembers the Armenians?” he said, dismissively.
All we know about my mother’s biological father is that he was a violinist who fled from Armenia via Paris, and then met up with a smart Welsh woman in London who had matriculated (not usual in those days) from grammar school. When my mother finally decided to try to find out who they were many years later, she discovered the church adoption records had been destroyed in the Blitz.
Britain’s imperial connections have always made England, and particularly London, one of the most diverse places in the world. The Empire was built on African slaves, Irish navvies, Malaysian sailors, Indian indentured labour, Sikh soldiers. By the time my mother was born, London had more Scottish inhabitants than Edinburgh, more Irish people than Dublin, and more Jews than the whole of Palestine. Much of this was economic, but Britain was also famed for its lack of secret police and tolerance of free speech, which encouraged Voltaire, Zola, Marx and Freud to seek asylum on our shores.
So much of our recent Airfix Patriotism (expressed by bombasts such as the Conservative MP Mark Francois) omits the reality of loss and suffering. And all those expressions of Empire 2.0 – the white ‘Anglosphere’ aspirations of MEP Daniel Hannan and the opaquely funded think tanks which want to recreate an offshore archipelago of deregulated dark money – miss the obligations that came with it.
Class and Post-War Mobility
One of the other key identifiers for Englishness is class and its confused permutations along economic, regional and cultural lines. As George Bernard Shaw once said “all it takes is one Englishman to open his mouth for another to hate him.”
With so many Conservative Prime Ministers and ministers having been educated at one school – Eton College – anyone would be forgiven for thinking that England was still stuck in a feudal state of serfs and liege lords. But England’s post-war mobility, thanks to the Attlee Government, defined the 1950s and 60s.
That mobility cut two ways.
For my mother, it was mainly downward. She was sent to a fee-paying boarding school during the war and then made it to Royal Holloway College to study chemistry. But all her six children went to state school: only three went to college, and she lived in humble and often impoverished circumstances.
A lot of this was down to my dad, who at first blush looks like the epitome of upward mobility. Though he left school at 14, he was bright and was fast-tracked into the army officer class and taught Russian (“because they are the next enemy,” he was told). He was a classic Room at the Top figure of 1960s mobility, training himself through night school diplomas into the management class — however, as you’ll see, this didn’t last long.
He had met my mother at a dance in Holloway College and it was passion at first sight. But he was unreliable and disappeared for months on end.
By the time her father had died in 1949 my mother discovered she was pregnant and my dad disappeared again. It turned out that he had been sectioned with acute manic depression at the British Army Psychiatric hospital at Netley (where the famous Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing first practised). He was discharged from the army on medical grounds. He married my mother and had another son. But soon my father was in prison – a two-year sentence for embezzlement which the judge made particularly harsh because my father had been an officer. Alone with two young kids, my mother had to commute right across London from Ilford to Teddington where she worked as a chemist at the Admiralty Research laboratory.
None of her next three children were planned. I was number four, born during a brief period in the early 60s when my dad was doing well as a management consultant. After my younger sister was born, her fifth child, my mother was sterilised.
But, as soon as she returned to work, having trained as a social worker, she had another child: only this time fostered and then adopted.
Despite what Enoch Powell was claiming during his infamous speech in 1968 about Britain “foaming with blood”, England was integrating in many personal and unpredictable ways.
My kid brother Steven was handed over to Islington social services by his Scottish mother partly, it seems, because he was visibly of Afro-Caribbean origin – his father was Bajan, from Barbados. My mother met Steven while she was training as a social worker and in 1970 he came to live with us as a foster child. We all adored him immediately: he was funny, bright and we loved running our hands through his curly black hair. He changed his surname to Jukes and mother adopted him, just as she had been adopted.
That, to me, with my half-Armenian mother and half-Bajan brother, was the key thing about the wider civil Englishness that is so opposed to the Powellite version: you can adopt it. Civic nationalism is not, nor ever should it be, a matter of blood or filiation, but freedom and affiliation.
In that way, I think of my mother and brother as quintessentially English, even if some English people often didn’t think we were. With her deep olive skin, black eyes and black hair (until it went white because of us!) my mother always told us it was a good thing that Hitler didn’t win the war or she wouldn’t have survived. My dad had blonde hair and blue eyes.
Taking more after my mother, I was dark enough to be mistaken for an Indian prince at primary school and, at a church choir, was mocked as “Jewboy Jukes” (my mother told me to remind them that Jesus was Jewish). “Spic” and “dago” were the other common insults, but nothing compared to the litany of names my kid brother suffered – “n***er”, “c**n”, “s*mbo”, “jungle bunny” always seemed to run together. (It should be noted though that, for all the abuse, many English people treated our differences with fascination and a slight amount of jealousy).
The sense of racial vulnerability was not helped by the sudden onset of downward economic mobility as the post-war boom came to an end.
Whether it was his own mania, or being conned by the various Scientology groups he had joined since the early 60s, my dad went bankrupt – not once but twice – in the early 1970s. By 1974, we were technically homeless and my kid brother in danger of being returned to a children’s home. Fortunately, my mother had just got a job as a psychiatric social worker. She separated from my father and the remaining family went to live in a tiny, pebble-dashed council house in a large, grim (now demolished) mental hospital miles from anywhere. I was going off the rails, even at 14, drinking, smoking, spending many nights out and getting endless detentions at school.
While my closest friend at the time ended up in prison, my destiny was different – partly due to the kindness of strangers and support from educational grants (which the ‘culturally’ middle-class know how to access). With help from my oldest brother, my mother had, by the time I survived to sixth form, scraped together the deposit for a small end of terrace house. As always, even with a tiny garden, my mother managed to transform it with herbs, flowers and shrubs into a typical English garden. I still shared a bedroom with my kid brother, but I was now only minutes away from school. I got a scholarship to Cambridge, developed a posher accent and, for all intents and purposes, was identified by my Scottish friends as essentially ‘English’ – though I am loathe to admit it and prefer to call myself an Armenian Welsh Londoner.
For years, I abandoned the notion of Englishness because of its ethnic and exclusive overtones: now it’s time to claim it back.
A Rooted English Identity is not Racist
My personal history is not special. Go back a generation or two with most people in Britain and you’ll find a family member with just as epic a story of migration and class displacement, resettlement and assimilation.
But, in terms of the current debate about ‘white communities’ or ‘northern working-class men’ and the struggle to find an English identity now that Scotland and Northern Ireland are moving away, let’s not forget this quintessential thing about England: it’s not an ethnicity, it’s a culture – an incredibly wide and varied culture. Its symbolic figure is Shakespeare, a channel beyond all others for a plurality of voices, an outward-looking fascination other cultures and countries, who is – in the words of Jorge Luis Borges – “everyone and no-one”.
Everyone and no one. That could apply 400 years later to those sons of Irish immigrants in Liverpool – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – who learned to play Deep South rhythm and blues in Hamburg clubs and created that globally identified motley English tone you can also hear in David Bowie and Stormzy.
In all her varied migrant genes and imperial influences, my mother – who was born in the same year as the Queen – was quintessentially English. For her, ‘manners’ meant kindness to strangers and avoiding arrogance, and her favourite phrase to me if I achieved any success was ‘”well done, but don’t get big-headed”.
Her influences were very English, from the liberal Anglicanism of Honest to God, to Vaughan Williams and Lark Ascending, which reminded her of her Suffolk childhood. Her favourite film was A Matter of Life and Death, produced by Powell and Pressburger (another immigrant!). Her accent sounded just like Jill Archer from the inveterate Radio 4 soap, and the sound of the Archer’s Omnibus Edition heralded every Sunday, along with the pressure cooker hissing, the windows misted with condensation and food that tasted like boiled fog.
This is our England and ask anyone you know and they’ll have a material link beyond this country because of our island status, at the centre of so many historic migrations since the Ice Age. The most English people I know can trace their lineage back to – wait for it – the Normans, who were of course originally Vikings.
This settled/settler Englishness is not the same, as Theresa May called it, as being a “citizen of nowhere”, even if its manners and ethics treat others as citizens, wherever they come from in the world.
My mother, unlike the trite generalisations of academics of those who live ‘somewhere’ and metropolitan elites who live ‘anywhere’, was deeply rooted in time and place. The class mobility, regional migration and ethnic diversity in her background is ingrained in our national imperial story, like layers of geological strata, as soon as you look beyond the pale white cliffs of focus groups and political slogans.
If we’re going to have a Boris Johnson Government run by English nationalists, with English priorities for English voters, let us finally put paid to that narrow and untenable ethnic Englishness that has emerged from the wreckage of Brexit and rescue that other civic and civil England which welcomes strangers and has always accommodated difference.
what the papers don’t say
Thank youfor reading this article
New to Byline Times? Find out about us
Our leading investigations include Brexit Bites, Empire & the Culture War, Russian Interference, Coronavirus, Cronyism and Far Right Radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.
Support our journalists
To have an impact, our investigations need an audience.
But emails don’t pay our journalists, and nor do billionaires or intrusive ads. We’re funded by readers’ subscription fees: