Howard Jacobson: The heart has its allegiances, to places as well as people. And a country is both

I think the recent suggestions about introducing oaths of fealty are fatuous, but then again I don't
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A man has put his life up for sale on eBay. House, car, motorbike, jet-skis, spa, friends, job, the lot. Not quite the lot. You don't get the wife. He doesn't either, which is why he's selling up. What are friends, jet-skis, motorbike and spa worth if you no longer have a wife who loves you to enjoy them with? But allowing that the life you'd be buying – wifeless or not – is in Perth, Western Australia, my advice would be to snap it up.

Of the great coastal cities of Australia, Perth is the sweetest. It is also, by a few thousand miles, the furthest away from all the others, and it is the only one that faces west. Which partly explains the nostalgia for somewhere else that permeates the place. If you bend an ear to the mood music of the city, the sounds breathed out by its urban nature – the trees in the parks, the birdlife on the Swan River which the city hugs like a too possessive lover, the people when they are off guard – you hear something you could easily mistake for sobbing. I recently lost a great friend who lived in Perth, so it's not impossible it's my own sobbing I hear in retrospect. But then he was a melancholy man himself, a renowned actor who played Falstaff in the key of Hamlet. In his last years he lived by an inlet of the Swan River, sitting in his garden, laughing loudly, eating crab-claws, his mind on Broadway and eternity.

That's what Australia does like nowhere else: loads you with all the plenty of an earthly paradise (house, car, jet-skis, crab-claws) while burdening you with an apprehension of life's sadness. And Perth, in my experience, even more so. The last time I was there I fell into the habit of going to Cottesloe Beach to watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean. Nothing wrong with being on the other side of the country watching the sun go down into the Pacific, but when you watch it go down into the Indian Ocean you know it's about to come up over Manchester and London. Thus giving you, you might say, the best of both worlds.

The other reasons for going to Cottesloe Beach at sunset are the Norfolk Pines, the beach restaurants serving chunky chips with soured cream mayonnaise, and the wild parrots which fornicate and scream – thousands upon thousands of them in the trees, fornicating and screaming, screaming and fornicating, and there's no knowing which precedes or prompts the other – until the sun finally vanishes. Which always suggested to me that they too felt the sadness that inheres in life when it is at its most intense.

All this, anyway, could be yours if you bid for it. Ian Usher is the vendor's name. The Sale of the House of Usher. An Englishman, now naturalised Australian. I doubt whether his citizenship comes with the package; knowing Australia, my guess is that they'll make you apply for it again, despite your having become Ian Usher in all other essentials. You'll have to swear an oath, or take the pledge as it's now called, but that shouldn't be a problem. It's proper to commit formally to a new country you mean to make your home, never mind that your heart, like my poor actor friend's – indeed like the hearts of everyone else in Perth, including the parrots – is always somewhere else. Everyone's heart is somewhere else. "I am fundamentally a Jewish writer," Amos Oz once wrote, "but I am a Jewish writer in the sense of writing forever about the ache to have a home, and then having one, aching to go away thinking that this is not the real one." I don't know how necessary his Jewishness is to that condition, beyond turning it up a notch. That's the condition on which we hold our humanity. We all belong to two places. Three even. Here, there, and wherever we're going – heaven, hell, or just oblivion.

We English make too much of a meal of the vexations of belonging, terrified of asking immigrants to love it here when they understandably love somewhere else, forgetful of how easy it is to love both. But then we've grown ashamed of loving it here ourselves, shirk citizenship as though it's the plague, apologise at every turn for being English, taking care to say we're British, or live in the UK, and saying sorry even about that. I think the recent suggestions about introducing oaths of fealty are fatuous, but then again I don't. And I certainly don't think it's fatuous to talk about allegiance. The heart has its allegiances, to places as well as to people, and a country is a place and a people, so why shouldn't the English find a way of affirming that allegiance in some way?

I favour the poetry route myself. Forty years ago every schoolchild knew Gray's "Elegy" off by heart. Your parents took you into the country for a picnic and you heard Gray's "Elegy" in your head. Sometimes you even saw it before your eyes. The glimmering landscape fading on the sight, the wheeling beetle on his droning flight, the rugged elms, the yew tree's shade. No oath could ever take the place of impressions as vivid as those, but at least talk of it reawakens thoughts of loyalty, patriotism and love. Yes, I know Dr Johnson said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but he didn't say that every patriot was a scoundrel, nor did he say that it was patriotism that made you one.

So it's good they're still swearing something in Australia, though in truth they too have been pedalling backwards from an actual oath of allegiance for decades. Now you no longer renounce all other allegiances, no longer swear allegiance at all, indeed no longer take an oath. Instead you make a Pledge of Commitment – which sounds, and is meant to sound, like an absent-minded half-undertaking to turn up and lend a hand at the village fete.

Go to YouTube and punch in Pledge of Commitment and you'll find an English woman sticking her tongue out the minute the ceremony to make her an Australian is over. Not surprising, given how little in the way of gravitas the words of the pledge command.

So if you're thinking of taking up Ian Usher's offer to get away from a country (if we're still allowed to call ourselves a country) that won't stop being ashamed of itself, be warned that the feeble apologetics of the First World hold sway over Australia as well. But at least you get the sunsets, the softly sighing Swan River, the fornicating parrots, and the chance to yearn for home.