Sunday 9 October 2016

Citizens of nowhere – bring them on!

When I was a little girl I used to recite my name and address:
Gillian Childs
42 Shaftsbury Street
West Bromwich
Great Britain
The Earth
The Universe

Knowing this address so well had two great advantages.  If I should be lost, it was easy for someone to return me to my home.  It also constantly reminded me of who I was i.e. that I was at once a citizen of the Black Country, of the universe and of various places in between.
My parents were keen on the inclusion of Europe. My maternal grandfather was gassed in the Great War, survived, had PTSD, though that condition wasn’t recognised then, and died at the age of 61 of lung cancer.  Then World War II came along. I wouldn’t be here and neither would my husband or children if mistakes hadn’t been made in that war but I’d still rather we avoided them in the future. My mother was married before she met my father but her first husband was blown up by a land-mine in Italy. My father was involved in helping to clear up Bergen-Belsen and was still traumatised by it when he met my mother. My mother-in-law, who had no idea until a few weeks before she left Germany that she was racially Jewish, came to England on the Kindertransport in January 1939. 

Although my parents disagreed politically most of the time – Mum (daughter of a greengrocer and great fan of Mrs T) always voted Conservative, Dad always voted Labour and there were some amusing arguments at election times – they always agreed that a united Europe would be a good thing. They’d seen at close hand how devastating war with your immediate neighbours can be. Hence, Europe in my expanded address. 

It’s slightly ironic that the post Eton-mess May-hem includes a possibility of bringing back the grammar schools. What I learnt at grammar school set me further on my way to becoming a global citizen. I’ll say straight away that the alternative didn’t bear thinking about and that I believe therefore that the comprehensive system properly administered is fairer for all. I’ve seen some brilliant education in comprehensive schools since. However, it was at West Bromwich Grammar School that a brilliant teacher of French kept me on my toes and another very engaging teacher of German taught me, helped by a devoted German assistant,  not just what was needed to get a good A-level but so much more besides.  I also learnt there to love literature in any language and developed a passion for writing.  History too was fascinating. We studied a social and economic curriculum which really helped us to understand why we had become the people we were and which mistakes needed to be avoided in the future.  Alas, it seems that many have not learnt those lessons. I went on, along with several of my cousins, to form the first generation in our family, to get a university education. 

Russell group Sheffield and Birmingham, rest of the south-east Winchester, University of Wales, Bangor and Salford, which you cannot put into a box but which also encourages first generation university students and where I have worked as a lecturer for the last nine years, further urged me to look outwards and engage with the other, the exotic, the uncanny and that which is not in my comfort zone. 

Everything we meet changes us. So, if you get to read Goethe and Schiller as well as Shakespeare, and preferably in its original language, if you get to read Sartre and Böll as well as Hemingway and Dickens, you start to think beyond the confines of your nationality. We learn empathy by reading and if we read beyond our own language and culture we are well on the way to becoming a global citizen.     
If you then as well, live and work in another culture and learn that culture’s language you can never be just one nationality or race anymore. Some of the other rubs off on you and you are changed forever. Remember the bows and arrows instead of spears in my previous post? 

Recently Madam May said “[I]f you believe you’re a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Read more here.   

In some ways she’s right but not in the way she means. If you’re a global citizen you’re above being limited to one place. However, I’m sure that global citizens do understand the word ‘citizenship’. All the ones I’ve met have a clear picture of the abundance the world offers and become responsible stewards of that world.   
She’s right in another sense, too. There are some people who are genuinely citizens of nowhere. They become stateless because of conflicting nationality rules – ones that become more complex the more divisions we have. 

Next time I’m going to surprise you all and present you with a pro-Brexit argument. But there is a twist in that tale….  Watch this space.                 

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