ROOTLESS IN BEIJING
London, 4 May 2014
I like George Orwell. His novels are good, no doubt about it – some of them, like 1984 and Animal Farm, are classics – but it is really his non-fiction work that I appreciate the most. When I was young and going to school in the UK, I particularly liked those books of his like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier in which he excoriated the smug, self-satisfied, class-ridden Britain of the 1930s, a Britain which still existed, albeit in a milder form, when I was going to school.
Orwell had a particular animus against colonialism, in part no doubt because of his first-hand experience with it as an officer in the Burmese police. But he still showed a certain compassion for the colonial administrators. I particularly remember his description of one of his superiors who had spent his whole working life in the colonies, who by necessity believed he had a deep connection with the Mother Country (wasn’t he out there on His Majesty’s Service?), but who in his rare visits home would sit friendless and familyless in his Club in London, looking out at a country he no longer recognized or felt part of, nursing a gin and tonic while waiting for the boat to carry him back.
I am not a colonial administrator but I have been out of the UK for nigh on forty years. I didn’t mean it to be so. When I left after University I was quite expecting to come back, but you know how it is, life just takes over. And now, on one of my rare visits back to the UK, I too, like that colonial administrator of long ago, no longer feel any connection to the country. I too sit there, not participating in the social, economic and political life going on around me, but merely observing it. Even my own language is becoming foreign to me. I don’t get many of the jokes any more, referring as they do to situations I am not familiar with. Much of today’s slang is a closed book to me. I’m even beginning to experience difficulties in understanding some of the stronger British accents!
This alienation from Britain sometimes fills me with melancholy, as it did today walking around the streets of London. Where do I belong? I am just a stone rolling around the world gathering no moss. I am Rootless in Beijing today, I will be Rootless in some other city tomorrow.
It’s not as if I can even mourn the loss of British roots, because I’ve never really had any. My parents left the UK before I was born and I only went to school there. When I tell people I’m British, they normally ask me where I’m from in Britain. I just say London. Everyone has heard of London and I did spend some time there with my grandmother. But I’m no real Londoner.
To make it all worse, I’m only half British, with my other half being French. At school, they sometimes called me froggie in that way children have of unerringly picking up differences and using them to pick on you. The fact is, I did feel different from most of my schoolmates. They were so much more English than I was! But my French side gave me no comfort. I was even less French than I was English. I just spent summer holidays there.
When I was younger, I didn’t mind my rootlessness. In fact, I was quite proud to be a citizen of the world, of belonging nowhere and everywhere, and I quite liked the fact that I could often ignore the social conventions of the places I lived in because I was foreign and not expected to conform.
But with age, I feel ever more urgently a need for roots. I want to have a place where I can say, “here, I will lay down my head; here, I will lay my bones to rest”. Luckily, my wife has given me strong roots in Italy. That is where I will finally come to rest when my tour of duty in Beijing is finished.
Goodness me, what is all this maundering self-pity? Time to pour myself another gin and tonic and discuss with my wife what we shall do tomorrow.