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Date Posted: 10:34 20/08/2003

For he is an Englishman....

Nelson in Lancashire is one of those places that encourages you to somehow wheedle your way up the political ladder in a corrupt third-world rogue regime and contrive the mother of all nuclear strikes against the god-forsaken bloody place.

Nelson, by local artist

LEOPOLD BLOOM found himself in a Dublin pub, responding in earnest to the question, what is a nation.

'A nation is the same people living in the same place,' Bloom says.

Ned Lambert then quips, 'By God, if that's so I'm a nation for I'm living in the same place for the past five years.'

And so it goes. The nation. This irrational construct, something one is thrown into at birth and never allowed to escape. A nightmare, to paraphrase Stephen Dedalus, from which one is constantly trying to awake. A mishmash of races and places that is, at some point in its history, reified into some spurious kind of spiritual identity.

Nationhood is supposed to confer certain qualities upon its bearer, like suavity or sophistication, like the state of being a cold fish or an imperialist aggressor, like stiff-upper lips and fascist tendencies. Nationhood creates humour-deficits or addictive personalities, bad teeth or big bellies. And yet, for all the salience and well-worn prominence of these various national traits, no one can quite agree what an Englishman or Frenchman, an American or a Chinese, a Russian or an Australian really is. In Britain, the problem is doubled. Most of us are British and English. The rest are Welsh, Scottish and Irish, some of whom – notably in Northern Ireland – claim the British tag too.

There are differences, of course, differences over and above the 'cultural hegemonic value system' - as Gramsci delicately described it - that might prevail over one particular territory and not another. While in the '60s the notion of the 'melting pot' seemed to prevail – creating nations filled with 'coffee-coloured people', according to the song – a different trend soon began to emerge, and that trend was given the name of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism teaches us that these differences – however pernicious – ought to be cherished or at the very least respected. Or, that we are so much determined by our upbringing that it is hardly our fault if we do as our culture tells us and slaughter donkeys on the street, perform circumcision with blunt instruments or engage in tribal warfare with those guys with the beards who live across the road.

On the other hand, I've heard otherwise sensible people claiming that notions of democracy and human rights have no meaning in China because the country has not experienced, for example, Hegel. The truth, certainly in my experience, is that there are more common values than many give credit for, and that the aspirations of the general public in China are pretty much the same as they are elsewhere. Being a old-fashioned Marxist kind of guy, I like to believe that much of the cultural world is superstructural, that poverty leads to desperation, which itself leads to suicide bombers. I also like to believe that global capitalism is a dialectical unity which has created and also includes its opposition, that the reason the Taliban was so successful was because the era of globalization and high technology had either (a) been predicated on the complete exclusion of certain regions or (b) included those regions only as testing grounds for the new range of sophisticated weaponry. The Taliban did not emerge from backward Afghan culture, but came as a dialectical response ('blowback') to what the world was doing to Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the fact that certain Chinese people used to believe that the world was created out of the corpse of a giant has no bearing on their aspirations today, and even if there are certain Chinese people who still actively believe in the giant, that is only because their choices have been limited by poor education, geographical isolation and the need to till the fields. Similar arguments could be made about Christianity in the UK.

After almost three and a half years living in the thriving, seething metropolis that is Shanghai – where, incidentally, the English are automatically and somewhat spuriously regarded as gentlemen – I decided to return to my home country, England, and my home town, an obscure post-industrial outpost with a population of little more than 30,000. While I was there, I thought I ought to be posing some of these questions. There was, in the end, very little to see in Nelson, the home town in question. Like Philip Larkin, I found myself noting that 'it's not the place's fault. Nothing, like something, happens everywhere.'

However, in my absence, it seemed as if something had started to happen. On the way back, I began to recall all the things I had been told about the place while I was away. Of course, anecdotes don't really capture the essence of things, because most of the things we get up to in the course of a day are not worth making anecdotes about. There is, naturally, a bias towards the sensational. Our perspectives are thus distorted, and we start to believe that the bad news we hear – the drug-related murder on the street where we grew up, the race riots near the school we used to attend, the election of several quasi-fascists to the local council, the suicides and the beatings and the sense that everything has now gone down the pan – is somehow able to create an accurate picture of the direction our town is moving in.

IT IS NECESSARY, first, to insert a disclaimer. In the internet age, the era of the global village, it is actually almost impossible to lose touch. And believe me, I've tried. In 1992, my first foray to Beijing, the only connection one had with England was a shortwave radio tuned obsessively into the BBC World Service, and one would spend hours, battling with the signal-jammers in the government, hunched in a corner, twisting the set into thousands of awkward angles in the hope of catching a wave or two from the West. Occasionally, you would transcribe your experiences and post them to a friend – as older readers might recall – in what was called a letter.

These days, the World Service is just one of the options available. What does it mean to be a British expat when there truly is forever a corner of a foreign field (or in this case, net bar) that is forever England? Where is the courage in relocation, the sacrifice of exile, when you have merely changed terminals on a global switchboard? Imagine Marco Polo with a weblog, or Everything is known, has already been done, and you can read all about it on Google. Some old-fashioned folk believe that exile is more than just a physical change of location. It used to be a way of looking at one's origins - a mirror allowing one to look into one's soul. One thinks of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde on Ireland, or Kundera on Czechoslovakia, describing the significance of being on the other side the border, both physically and emotionally. Now, for those of us lucky enough to be hooked up to the global village, that idea of the border has lost its pertinence, and perhaps there is no exile, and no home either.

And so, sitting in Shanghai airport waiting for the plane, the whole idea of nostalgia seemed inappropriate. Only ten years ago, I was huddling around those shortwaves, trying to keep warm, but by now, there is nothing much left to miss, and that intangible quality, the patria, is smothered, overwhelmed by the cultural small print of Big Brother, or I'm a Celebrity, or the latest Beckham hairstyle, vivid and regularly updated on the myriad of billboards scattered throughout every city. Globalization has already worked its magic on Shanghai. Two decades of reform have transmogrified the dour old city into a glittering twenty-four hour wonderland. The stale bureaucracy of just a decade ago has been freshened by the same free market air that pervades the West. They have taken the 'Communist' out of 'Communist Party' to leave.. well.. parties, lots of them, with the skyline bursting with light and energy.

THE NATION, perhaps, is a cheap way of satisfying that urge in us all for the numinous. The superstition is that, somehow, there is a kind of biological or spiritual organism, to which one, by chance, belongs, and without which, no meaningful existence can ever be acquired. What we see, in many cases, is that ancient need to simplify, to reduce all complications into a simple set of principles or desires, deviation from which becomes, ipso facto, immoral, treasonable, or in defiance of God and natural law. Such an approach does save considerable time, of course. Instead of having to work out, more or less for yourself, what you ought to do in your life and what values you ought to cherish, and instead of recognizing how the 'drunkenness of things being various' allows for a myriad of different possibilities within the Kingdom of Heaven, you can, instead, demand rigid conformity to the General Will and shoot anyone who errs.

Again, there is the desire – in the words of Sartre – to become the rock, one's existence entirely overwhelmed by the essence of being British, someone created, not at random, but in reference to a system of unchanging national values that in some way arise from the soil and the air and a communal history. Something bigger than you, certainly, but something you belong to.

The unfortunate corollary to that is usually the idea that there is something else bigger than you, to which you do not belong, and which represents a threat. Like the Zionist Conspiracy, the New World Order, the Papist Plot, the Masonic Lodges, the Great Satan, or the Clash of Civilizations.

The idea of allegiance to the soil may strike modern western readers as absurd. There are so many distractions these days, and it is not even certain that you have even seen soil, or whether or not you could identify it if it were presented to you. Besides, why should I show any sort of overwhelming allegiance to Town or Country A when Town or Country B has exactly the same array of superstores and chain restaurants?

LIVING IN SHANGHAI for such a long time, one can be forgiven, however, for getting at least a little sentimental. What was I getting sentimental about? Perhaps the aspects of global consumerism that, through oversight or variants in local taste, had not yet reached Shanghai.

A number of cravings – hitherto latent – began to emerge over the years. I developed strong affections for Gilbert and Sullivan, fish and chips, and potable tap water. Salt and vinegar crisps (potato chips), made so strong that the salt makes your gums bleed while the vinegar then makes them sting, probably appeal to a certain sado-masochistic English genus, but I would often find myself thinking about them.

Getting into England, shuffling out of Heathrow Airport on a warm Sunday afternoon, the first thing one notices is the air quality, and the countryside, and the sheep frolicking in the fields. The driving is perhaps a little politer. This is, indeed, the nation of the queue, while China – and Shanghai in particular – has always been the nation of the push and shove.

In the evening, in a small pub in a minor town near Oxford, only a couple of miles away from an army training base, one starts to notice the peculiar dimensions of British women, compared to their Shanghai counterparts. Then, an hour or so later, you notice the utter absurdity of Britain's closing time, the preposterous paternalism that demands you leave the pub at about 10.30 on a Sunday evening. You find yourself thinking: who on earth do they think they are? On most occasions in Shanghai, you wouldn't even leave the house before 10.30.

Being able to drink in a public house whenever one wants could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered the be-all and end-all of liberty. However, with most people believing that my life in Communist China is unnecessarily circumscribed, it needs to be said that it isn't always the case.

FOR THE ENGLISH, or at least this one in particular, any sign of nationalist fervour was always a clear indication that you were (a) a fascist, (b) an idiot or (c) both. It was, paradoxically, a great point of patriotic pride that England felt itself above patriotic pride. Patriotism seemed undignified and rather at odds with the ironic spirit the nation has long been cultivating, certainly at least in the long decline that followed the Second World War. There were things we liked to describe as aberrations, of course, like soccer hooliganism, and the Falklands, but it seemed that there was nowhere else on earth more willing to disparage itself than the United Kingdom. And one of the most gratifying facts about Lords Cricket Club, home of that quintessentially dreary English sport, was that you were not allowed to wave flags or chant your support.

Living abroad and finding out that your hometown – a small cluster of terraces and factories lying on the less interesting side of the Pennines - has earned minor national notoriety by electing a cabal of neo-Nazis to the local council, you are suddenly tempted to somehow wheedle your way up the political ladder in some corrupt third-world rogue regime and contrive some nuclear strike against the god-forsaken bloody place. But it could not be that simple. The place will not go away. You can take the man out of Nelson, but you cannot take Nelson out of the man.

I arrived in the town for the first time in over three years in a state of apprehension. I'd heard those tales about race riots, drug peddling, and gang murders. A massive inflow of Pakistani immigration had been designed to fill the positions in the region's traditional industries, but those industries have all died, exported – ironically – to Asia. What was left was disappointment, desolation, a poverty that wasn't so much financial as spiritual.

The riots which have blighted this tiny little town were little more than the spasms of neglect. And the problem was not immigration per se, many tried to reassure me, but the sense that no one gives a flying toss in any case, that in the scheme of things it isn't thought to even matter. Scatter the emptying terraces with scores of abused asylum seekers and let them be abused still further. Leave them to rot with their food tokens and the graffiti on their doors and windows. Let them stumble, bruised and beaten, new scars upon old, to a police station down the road that closed three hours ago.

Incomes in east Lancashire are far lower than the national average, there are more people chasing fewer jobs, the schools are failing, and nothing is being done to ameliorate the racial tensions that have been caused, as most acknowledge, by the poverty. It is neither a glamorous centre of culture in need of protection nor a notorious hotspot in need of instant rectification. It is just a tiny, ordinary, working-class town whose industries have already been thrown by the wayside by the prerogatives of globalization, and which doesn't really matter very much.

Nelson is not so much the place that time forgot as the place that time purposely cast aside. Almost out of spite, many locals voted for the British Nationalist Party last year. It wasn't the slums or the riot zones that elected BNP candidates, but the semi-rural middle-class villages on the outskirts of the town, the places we were expected to envy as kids, where each family had two cars and a long garden, and who seemed more or less untouched by the Thatcherite devastation of the urban north. Why was that?

Stephen Dedalus, that other great Dubliner, was summoned after class by Mr. Deasy. As Stephen was about to leave, Mr. Deasy chased him out of the door and said, with his 'coughball of laughter':

I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

And the problem in Nelson is, if you listen to the word on the street, that it let them in. In those distant, calmer, apparently more optimistic times, we let them in.

In the 1960s, one of the key political figures was the Tory rebel, Enoch Powell. Despite a complete failure to acquire anything even resembling the common touch, Powell still remains something of a folk hero with certain members of the British community for the speech he made in 1968, and which forced him out of the shadow cabinet, where he predicted a River Tiber foaming with much blood as a consequence of untempered inflows of Asian immigrants.

Idly thinking about those riots, I was tempted to conclude that perhaps Powell was right, at least partly. Give people the grounds, the opportunities, and the motives to hate, and they will hate. The fundamental, irrefutable truth is that were there only one race, there would be no race crimes. True, yes, but fundamentally unhelpful.

I had long ago come to the misanthropic conclusion that all races are as bad as each other. That white trash and black trash and yellow trash spend most of their pointless lives competing for the low ground. Racists just forget to look inside. Blindly, they disregard the fact that the Pakistani or Albanian gangsters are matched, easily, by their English counterparts, that evil is the same whatever the colour of your skin.

The problem is that liberalism is never instinctive. Instincts are dirtier, uglier, and usually far more powerful. As far as the instincts are concerned, the Far Right seems to have a head start. And when you are exhausted by poverty or drummed up into a frenzy of fear by press reports about Albanian psychopaths and Muslim suicide bombers, it is easy to fall back into default settings, to settle into one's equilibrium of hate and distrust.

And in the search for significance everywhere, in the quest to join every dot, you can always find enough evidence to confirm your thoughtless prejudices. In one of the most desperate communities in the area, where local hooligans once scrawled the word 'Bronx' in spray paint on an abandoned old gym, I notice a lollypop man, a Pakistani lollypop man, and admired the cultural mixture, and hoped that the reason why local Asian families failed to participate in the community at large was simply because, these days, there was no community, that the lollypop men were all that was left.

Still searching for the quintessential English experience, I then spent a night with a group of friends and had a traditional English dinner of roast beef and black pudding. Warming to my role as drunken hack, I did what many of my colleagues would have done in the same circumstances, and tried to interview my (Pakistani) taxi driver. 'It's just shit, mate,' he said to me. 'They're just kids with no money and no hope.'

So what about the BNP, then? 'Ah, you know mate, these things happen. It's nothing, really.'

Satisfied with this display of good sense, I go home.

SPEAKING ABOUT the cultural nuances of the old Eastern bloc, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek referred to the hypocrisy involved in most people's allegiance to Marxist-Leninism. Discussing the official Titoist ideology that exhorted people to take control of their own lives, Zizek writes,

Between the lines of its propaganda, the Government suggested that its official solicitations were not to be taken too literally, that a cynical attitude towards its ideology was what was actually wanted. The greatest catastrophe for the regime would have been for its own ideology to be taken seriously and acted on by its subjects.

Everyone still had to pay lip service to the ideals of the revolution or the strictures of the ruling class, chanting when necessary, denouncing when appropriate, but everyone by now knew that it meant nothing. In China, the pieties are similar, and are promoted ruthlessly, and in the sickening miasma of corruption and greed and cynicism you still find yourself listening carefully to the reports on the latest progress in 'the primary stage of socialism' even as yet another state-owned industry is shut down leaving thousands without any means of support. Hypocrisy and cynicism, of course, predominate in the thinking of all reasonably sensible governments, be it the Third Way or the Manifest Destiny, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics or Put the People in Charge. It is the evangelists and extremists, of course, that cause the most grief – 'the one person,' as Nietzsche wrote, 'who, by his all-too-devout enunciation of party principles, provokes the other members to defect.'

In the UK, the hypocrisy seemed to be provided by the image of the Royal Family. Several years ago, a female radio presenter was lambasted by the press for daring to suggest that the Queen Mother, who was then in her late 90s, was very old, and furthermore, probably 'smelt of wee'. Apologies from the DJ as well as the station controller were demanded (and received) by those paragons in the editorial offices. Most of them, we can be assured, were quite aware that it all meant precisely nothing, but figured that the nation somehow demanded that the prevailing hypocrisy be upheld. In the modern democracy that is the United Kingdom, the force of the state would not usually be invoked in such circumstances, but you could probably count on some self-righteous thug, the sort that waves placards outside police stations demanding 'justice' (ie. dismemberment) with regard to the alleged paedophile/kiddie-killer holed up inside. The sort of thug who says, waving his fists, that a future must be built for the children – which, coincidentally, is the slogan emblazoned across the British Nationalist Party's website.

In liberal circles, the pieties attach themselves around race, and racist wording. In all polite discourse, the word 'Asian' has come to replace 'Paki', with everything it used to connote. The replacement, the concession to political correctness, has spread far and wide, but what difference does it make, substantively, when a BNP racist says, 'All the Asians have taken our jobs,' in such a way that allows you to actually hear the italics.

During the Falklands War in 1982, the British squaddies referred to the local population as 'Bennies', in homage to a popular soap opera character renowned for his gaucheness and stupidity. When the higher orders issued a ruling banning the use of the pejorative term, the squaddies decided to call the locals 'stills'. As in 'still Bennies'. All the contempt, all the shabby hypocrisy remains in place, of course, and is possibly made even worse.

Slavoj Zizek, in The Ticklish Subject, notes that in such changes of terminology, 'an ironic distance can always creep in and give rise to an excess of humiliating aggressivity', and 'the censoring activity itself… starts to participate in what it purports to censor and fight'.

Curiously, the BNP's traditional fascist fears have themselves been globalized. That refrain, 'the Asians have taken our jobs,' now extends to all the relocated businesses – the export of BT and British Airways call centres to India, 'a country where wages are substantially lower and the population speak English as a first or easily acquired second language'. 'Tens of thousands of Britons have been sacked only to see their jobs resurface in India.' It is no longer a question of expelling all those who 'originated' abroad, but also an attempt to put an end to Abroad itself, to restore prelapsarian purity to this once sceptred isle.

Driving quietly to the airport as the rain pours down, my conclusions become melancholy. Perhaps the sense of nationhood is defined by what you hate, or by what is excluded, rather than what you are. Perhaps it is determined by resentments rather than aspirations. More optimistically, it may well be the case that very few people think of it in such terms these days. Prejudices may be reflexive. Mild patriotism, if one is ever asked, may just be the easiest answer, and certainly suffices when watching the football in the pub. In a country like Britain, there may well be too many distractions, too many recreations, to be contained in a single national image. That, I suppose, should be regarded as a good thing.

AS A FOREIGNER, you are often asked, by cabbies or barmaids or ordinary men and women on the street, what you think of Shanghai, or what impressions you have of Chinese people and the way they differ from home. These deceptively simple questions about the differences between one place or another can never easily be answered, and you end up falling back on some easy stereotype. The British like to queue while the Shanghainese don't. The British talk about the weather while the Shanghainese prefer to discuss food. The British deal in repression and shame, you say, while the Shanghainese – having lived three or four to a room for so long – cannot afford to cherish notions of privacy. These are simple half-truths at best, but most seem to be satisfied by them.

The only thing one can safely conclude is that nations consist of a number of overlapping sets, and that the boundary between these sets is becoming more and more blurred as time goes on. You can also conclude that this blurring causes some people a certain degree of anxiety.

Having spent two weeks back in England, I know no more about what makes the nation tick, or about how it differs from China (itself a huge and irreducible multitude of conflicting elements) in any ways other than the immediately obvious.

The Great Wall of China – 'This truly is a Great Wall,' said President Nixon, portentously – is often taken as a symbol of China's inscrutability, its hermetic culture, its uniqueness. It was constructed, says the myth, to keep the barbarians out. Its very image is at odds with modern society, say the progressives. On the contrary, say those of a conservative bent: at our peril do we abandon Chinese exeptionalism – symbolized by the Great Wall – to the forces of multinational capitalism.

And thinking about this, I recall a bar I frequently visit, with a balcony overlooking Shanghai's Bund, still the city's most cosmopolitan street. Curious readers can check out for a panoramic view of the area, note the sheer eclecticism of its architecture, and remember that history is and always has been a multinational joint venture, however much you try to close the world off.

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