(Below is the first time I have ever written autobiographically about the political beliefs instilled in me from early on. Not deliberately instilled, just taken for granted that they were right. It is part of a larger programme. But that whole story is a long way off.)
Picture the scene. A young boy of perhaps four years old standing in a grand old house in the Hampshire Downs, an elegant double staircase shining in the sunlight. Something is going on outside to do with sailors, the milling of people and the buzz of excitement. The day is magnificent.
Near the base of the stairs on the wall is a portrait that has drawn the young boy’s fascination. A man with white curly hair, pale, unsmiling and with pale blue eyes. The boy has an impression of golds and red and a dark background.
A man comes up behind the boy and puts his hand on his shoulder.
“Daddy, who is this?”
“That’s Nelson,” he says.
The boy is confused. Using one word for a name like that means you know him. But the boy doesn’t know him.
“Who is Nelson?”
“He was a great man,” says the man. “A sailor. A very great man.”
The boy considers for a moment. “He looks very small,” he says, unable to work out the scale of the portrait, which is not quite life size. He looks at it for a while longer then turns away.
Later, he sees his father shouting orders to a company of sailors marching up and down a parade ground, and there is a man with a lot of gold on his sleeves that his brother takes a photograph of with his new Polaroid camera. People speak about this man with his gold sleeves with reverence, and the boy hears with mild interest that this is the uncle to the Queen. The adults approve of this. All is right with the world. Far, far right.
Thus I was born into the fagbutt of empire. When I was a boy, I used to marvel at how many countries at the Olympic games would parade around the stadium with a Union Flag (dad was always clear about this, “it is only a Union Jack when flown from the Jack staff of a ship,” and I still can’t shake off the usage despite that not being the case), and swell with pride. Some time in our past, we had “won the war” (my schoolfriends would chant this sentiment inaccurately, controlled by the rhyme scheme: we won the war, in nineteen forty-four). We had also won the world. Great Britain did indeed live up to the adjective. Foreign countries and their people were owned by us.
Later in life, one of the habits I had to get out of was asking people with a brown skin where they were from. My dad and his generation did it all the time, and it wasn’t meant to be offensive. It was genuinely, I guess (what with him having stayed at various old colonial bases around the world), a question of “Oh, I might know your country”. It was friendly.
I kept up with the whole “where are you from” thing until the 1990s when I was in my 20s, when I began to notice how often people shrugged almost with desparation and said: “London,” curtly. This, in my enthusiasm, was not enough. “Oh, where are you parents from?” – this question followed on from my parents’ example. This follow-up question would get a more curt response. It was only after some reflection that I began to see that this was not necessarily friendly, in the way I intended, but equally could be deemed as: “You are not British. What are you really?”
After a while, I stopped asking that question. But it took some time. And that, I suppose is true of many another ingrained response from a period that is now history, and yet which still manages to make itself felt with its dead hand on the present by the many people who lived through it and didn’t question what it meant.