Friday, 13 August 2010

Nation - an idea that's dominated history

THE past, they say, is another country. But why must so much written history have national boundaries imposed upon it?
A quick glance along my bookshelves reveals such titles as The English, Elizabeth’s England, The Black Death in England, Gothic England, English Social History, The English Abbey, A History of English Architecture, The Earliest English, England in the Age of Thomas More, various volumes from a series called simply English History, and another entitled History of England.
Then there’s Britain BC, Blood of the British, British Prehistory, Britain in the Middle Ages, The Isles (you needn’t guess which isles are referred to) and, by way of slight variation, India Britannica.
That’s a selective sample, of course, but I think you’ll see a pattern emerging. And I’m no little-Englander.
If it’s true (and of course it is) that history is written by the winners, what do such titles tell you?
Not that it’s England, or Britain, that’s victorious in the world. I have other books bearing the names of Ireland, Russia, the Jews, the Roman Empire.
The true, overall winner is simply the idea of the nation.
Not just this nation, but any nation. In nearly every case (the Jews, until recently, and the Gypsies being the major exceptions), a people associated with a particular territory.
It’s a concept so deeply ingrained that most of us, nearly all the time, take it for granted.
An idea we almost never question. But it is only an idea.
History needn’t be defined along such geographical or tribal lines. It just nearly always is.
Yet the world hasn’t always been divided entirely – as if naturally – into countries, with borders and frontier security. It only looks that way to us now.
It may be relatively easy for us in Britain, surrounded as we are by sea, to imagine our territory, and our nation, as fixed.
But look at all those book titles with the words “England” or “English”. What place do the Scots, or the Welsh, have in that history?
And what of Ireland, divided as it is between independence and subservience to its neighbour?
What about all those people who live in Britain but retain a strong link with a heritage elsewhere?
Or those – vastly more numerous – who live in other lands but have British heritage? All those many millions Winston Churchill tried to scoop up in his History of the English Speaking Peoples (another title on my shelf).
On the mainland, of Europe or any other continent, the picture gets rapidly more blurred.
Consider that territory which in the past 100 years has been successively Russian, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian again, German again, Soviet Russian and is now independent Lithuania.
Today it’s a tiny country, but once it ruled part of what is now Poland, a large slab of what’s now Russia, and all of present-day Belarus and Ukraine.
Should any written history of Lithuania consider all the lands it once contained, or only the small area it denotes now? Or should its focus keep widening and narrowing as it moves through the centuries?
Some of my ancestors grew up in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, considering themselves Russian, speaking Russian. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz was raised there as a Pole, speaking Polish.
Yet somehow the Lithuanian language survived and now flourishes, within its much reduced borders, along with a strong sense of Lithuanian identity.
The question is: Why?
The answers are many and complex. Some of them are no doubt beyond my understanding.
But the question is still worth asking. Not just about Lithuania, or Russia, or the Jews, or England, or Britain.
Why, when throughout history it has caused more wars, death and suffering than any other idea – except, maybe, religion – do we cling to the idea of the nation?


I PASSED a girl in the street the other day in a heavily Muslim part of east London.
She was fully veiled, so I didn’t see her face, but I could positively hear her smile.
She was hopping from trainer-clad foot to foot in typically teenage enjoyment while chatting loudly on her mobile phone, the way kids do around the world.
I didn’t hang around to eavesdrop, but the tone of her voice suggested she was probably discussing the normal sort of “relationship stuff” with a girl friend.
Whatever she was talking about, she was doing it in a broad Cockney accent liberally seasoned with good old Anglo-Saxon vulgarity. Did my old heart good.
What her presumably more straight-laced elders would have made of it I don’t know.
Or those French law-makers intent on making it illegal to wear the full veil in public.
I have some sympathy with that attempt. I think it’s probably well-intentioned – but wrong.
Not because the niqab or burkha is a long, respectable tradition – it isn’t.
And I don’t think the good intention has anything (or much, anyway) to do with fear of “terrorism” or strangers in our midst.
I hope it’s motivated rather by a desire to free women from an uncomfortable, de-personalising, objectifying imposition forced on them by men.
I fear the effect, though, would not be an increase in Muslim women’s freedom to go unveiled.
More likely it would be a decrease in their freedom to go out in public at all.
Which would do nobody any good.

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