James Meek on belonging

James Meek wrote about belonging in The London Review of Books. His sense of belonging was feactured by his ancestry. On his mother's side: a Jewish grandmother. On his father's side: adventures in British India.

He was at once the descendent of the oppressed and of the oppressors. He was not really Jewish, and he wasn't really Scotish-Indian. He was diaspora and imperial.

This might be the article that makes me buy a subscription to the LRB. It wandered from the nilgiri hills to a house in Dundee, to a top-floor tenement flat in Glasgow, to a cottage in rural Essex, to literary London. It discussed a leopard hunt and suppressed Jewishness. It discussed Putin's annexation of Ukraine. It was current and historical, and very personal to James Meek, yet like all the best writing I felt it spoke to me quite deeply. I too have a Jewish maternal grandmother. I too could claim Israeli citizenship. I too have Scottish ancestry but find myself living in England, stuck with Nigel Farage. I too have ancestors who had imperial adventurers in India. My maternal grandfather was born in India, as was his father, as was his grandfather. I too don't think well of imperial India but don't want to apologise for my ancestor's tiny, hopefully innocous parts. My grandmother also supressed her Jewishness for the sake of her children.

I have some further confusions. I have an Australian grandfather, although I'm imagine that's British too if you go far enough back. My mother grew up in Kenya and I wear kikois. I grew up in the Algarve, Portugal. Meek ends his essay by saying 'Better to insist on the right to love one’s diverse roots than to insist on being loved for every set of roots one has.'

I'm not Scottish, no way. It's too far north and the food is shit. I'm not even slightly Indian. I'm not Jewish. I've an Australian passport but sure as hell wouldn't want to live there. I'm a bit of all these things, really. I'm More English than anything, but an Englishness corrupted by an adolescence abroad. I pitied all my college and university friends for being brought up in such beorgeois, cold, suburban surroundings.

Right now I'm on an extended holiday in the Algarve, in the home I grew up in. I'm pretending I live here, to taste it and see what it's like. I have children and I want better for them than fucking England: class bullshit; faddish cuisine; over-priced, small, ugly houses; terrible weather; gloomy people; adverts plastered on every flat upright. But I don't know if I want to inflict a third culture on my children. They could grow up as normal British kids, or they could grow up as roamers. And if the roam they may roam far from me and the thought of that is paralysing. It makes me want to take hold of the beautifully green Somerset grass and hold on forever. It makes me want to grow rich and buy a big house so they can always return home.

But am I Portuguese? I am not. I only know the Algarve and my Portuguese is shamefully bad. But I know the Algarve well. I know how the pine trees grow from pale red, sandy soil, and the cork oaks from ochre earth, hard as terracotta. I know the smell of wild fennel, orange blossom, carobs, fig trees, and whatever scent the land itself sweats into the air. I love the low hills, and the squat buildings. I love how the heat sets the trees hard into the ground, how it makes the roads shimmer and the pale sandy beaches fill up. I love how the English come and go, come and go, come and go and yet I remain. I love the language and some of the food. I love the way the people, even young men, seem to like children. I love the cliffs and the cold atlantic, and the sea-weed and the blow-holes, and the jacarandas and the gum trees, and the stalks that nest on chimneys that rise from decaying old warehouses. I am not Portuguese, but I am Algarvian. I love that I am Algarvian. And actually, I love that I am English too. England and the Algarve are both my places. They are both places I have a right to me, a right to walk about within, a right to love.