John Walsh: Where you’re ‘from’ is a state of mind

Click to follow

It’s been a trying week for anyone worrying about their identity. On the Today programme yesterday, James Naughtie – a man who is, to the naked eye, as Scottish as a skean dhu impaling a Lagavulin-soaked bannock – learnt that he is, in fact an Angle, as in Anglo-Saxon.

After scientists ran DNA tests on a sample of his saliva, they discovered that his ancestors came from Denmark, settled in Northumbria around 500AD and were shooed further north in 1100, around the time Macbeth became king.

There’s no terrible, shameful secret encoded in his family history, but Naughtie sounded rattled to think that all his Caledonian bluster, his wee-dram-after-the-kirk plain-speaking, his famed Scottish bluntness had all been based on false premises. His family may have lived in the Moray Firth for 900 years but he’s “really” Anglo-Danish.

The people behind Scotland’s DNA project are planning to map England’s DNA as their next move. It will be interesting to watch. Will long-embedded English yeoman families, the kind who like to say, “Of course my people came over with the Conqueror,” discover that they were, in fact, first-century blow-ins from Gaul or Mesopotamia – and are therefore “really” French or Iraqi?

And will it really change our perceptions of ourselves? I wondered after reading a report in the Sunday papers about a new biography of James Joyce, which reveals that the author of Ulysses chose not to hold an Irish passport after the creation of the Irish Free State. From this flimsy factoid, the Sunday reporter could tell his readers that Joyce was “officially British” to his death in 1941, despite the fact that “he is widely perceived as Irish”.

You can hear several thousand Irish hearts boiling with rage at this casual (“widely perceived” is a masterpiece of understatement) appropriation of a man who constantly railed against the land of his birth, but spent his entire writing career lovingly recreating his home town of Dublin and who wished to be “the uncreated conscience of my [ie Irish] race”.

Britain has a history of cultural appropriation, of course. If your birthplace was under the rule of the British Empire, then you were British. By this logic Swift, the great Irish satirist, was British, and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel laureate, was British.

We know, however, that our identity isn’t to be acquired with a passport application, nor left behind on a beach or a border. We know identity is a soul thing: it’s about the music at which your heart jumps, your feeling for landscape, the word-hoard in your memory, the images of beauty that make a light flick on inside you, your capacity to admire or disparage certain people (especially politicians), your delight in travelling on or staying put. These, rather than the record of where your ancestors travelled to, are the real components of your DNA; it’s because of them that you gravitate towards certain places rather than others. What we need is a different genetic code – the Emotional DNA of the British – to tell us why we’re the way we are. We desperately need an Edna.

Ready to enter the great ‘decimate’ debate?

Our radio critic Jane Thynne outed herself last week as a pedant whose skin crawls when someone says “less” when they mean “fewer” and to whom a split infinitive is “like biting on silver foil”. She was chastised in the letters pages by Chris Beeley from Nottingham, who informed her that split infinitives are unavoidable in the real world and concluded (with a provocative placing of “just”) “I would advise these sensitive souls to just get used to them.”

Sorry, Mr Beeley, but we pedants never stop being pedants; we become more entrenched. But wouldn’t life be dull without pedantry conversations? Last week I heard of a bitter family row over the difference between “deprecate” and “depreciate” and whether “self-depreciatory” is a better index of the act of belittling than “self-deprecatory”. Yes, I know, but that’s families for you.

On Monday, a perfectly cheery table of lunchers nearly came to blows over “decimate” as in “The population was decimated by famine.” Someone said it meant “almost wiped out by famine.” I pointed out it meant “reduced by a tenth,” which wasn’t anything like that. Others said it didn’t matter since “everyone” knows that decimate now means “destroy most of”. But there’s one snag, I said. It. Just. Doesn’t. Bloody. Mean. That.

Next day everyone leapt to their dictionaries. The Collins said “destroy or kill a large proportion of”. My trusty Chambers said “take or destroy the tenth part of”. (Hurrah.) The warring factions agreed to be guided by the OED. Its online facility said the word means “kill or destroy a large proportion of” but accepted that “some traditionalists maintain this is incorrect”. What the blazes? The Oxford English Dictionary, of all things, now refers, in pitying tones, to “some traditionalists”? What is the world coming to?

You can’t legislate against a few effs and blinds

“Flip me, Bruce. Have you heard the news? Some total wallaby in Victoria (I mean the Australian state, you blinkin’ drongo, not the Pom train station) has ruled that, from now on, anyone who swears “obnoxiously” in Victoria in public will be fined 240 bucks. Well bludger that. What kind of mother-fancying ship-in-a-bottle would legislate against Aussies chucking a few effs and blinds around when their tempers are roused?

Pity the poor Australians, being denied the right to express themselves in their natural way. It’s a bugger. What’s even more of a bugger is the strain involved in trying to find alternative words to convey strong feelings when, for example, losing a cricket match.