I thought my patriotism was long buried beneath a dark sense of humour and benign self-loathing. I thought (I liked to think) that was the extent of my Englishness.
I was in Spain when the EU referendum result came in. I saw them laughing. I saw their pity for me, for being English. And a nugget of nationalistic pride flared up; pride I hadn’t felt for 25 years of being English.
It is hard to be a proud Englishman. Our history is far from pristine. The British Empire was not a paradigm of peace and equality and there is much to abhor. But at its height, my country counted a quarter of the world’s population as its citizens and controlled a third of this planet’s landmass. (The audacious arrogance needed to survey that pink world map and think “seems fair to me…” is a marvel in itself).
We sank the Spanish Armada (the survivors washed up in Ireland, hence the dark-haired Irishmen). Napoleon fell before us (and even though Nelson was shorter, our propoganda made sure the complex was named after Bonaparte). We took on the untouchable Catholic Church so our King could marry a younger, more attractive wife. We have shaped Europe and the world, for better or worse (some of it must have been for the better) for the last two millennia.
Although it’s not proper to say so, our history does give us an untenable sense of power. I thought I was immune to that conflicted vanity but when I saw the Spaniards (and so, I imagined, the rest of Europe) pitying us, my first reaction was indignation.
The rest of world might hate the English, or think we’re arrogant, stuck-up, pompous prats or whatever else. But they don’t feel sorry for us. At least, they didn’t until 23rd June.
So I moved from Granada back to London. I grew up on the outskirts of the city and needed to give the centre a try (and because I didn’t know what else to do. Still don’t). But my feelings towards England were as conflicted as ever.
To say London is a vibrant, lively city is selling it short. Think of something to do and you can find it here. But once you’ve got a 9-5, good luck finding the time. My commute is an hour each way. My girlfriend’s is 90 mins. That’s three hours of her day spent on a train.
There are 8,7 million people in London, more than in Andalucía (which is 55 times as big); people speaking 300-odd languages, cooking amazing food from across the globe. But it is a lonely city.
People are busy. (In my first houseshare, the two girls I lived with regularly worked 12-hour days). They have closed groups of friends (from school, from uni).
A binary, in-out definition is too restrictive for the array of people we meet in life. Mankind’s variety is about his only redeeming feature. Like Wittgenstein on meaning, I prefer a fluid, intersecting web. But the net result was that I knew only a few people in London, scattered hours apart.
My job is a compromise: It’s not a passion of mine but it’s not terribly dull; I have decent hours, flexible holidays, and it pays the bills. My choice to live in London is similar. There is a lot to love about this city but it can be a hard place to live. It can also be an amazing place to live (if you’re willing to go without sleep and dip in to your overdraft occasionally).
To end on a few positives: El Métro in Fulham serves flavourful Spanish dishes and tender pulpo; Flesh and Buns is a rowdy Japanese restaurant in Seven Dials, serving exciting flavours and great meats; our local Indian, Khas Tandoori, claims to be David Cameron’s favourite and serves outstanding curries; the next door Sacro Cuore, despite its misogyny (the toilets are labelled bella (beautiful) for ladies and bravo (good) for the men) can’t be faulted on the quality of its authentic Italian gelato and pizza; in Ladbroke Grove, we came across an Eritrean place called Mosob that served Kenyan beer; last month, we went to The Laksa Kitchen, a Malaysian pop-up; we often stop at Herman ze German for German Wurst; and I particularly love the Ghanan goat curry at Zoe’s. I could go on…
London has always been an incredibly open, multi-cultural city. I hope it will remain so.