On Difficult Identities and Cultural Explosions


On the 9th April, 1990 I was born on an island I would later learn to call Great Britain. I was told that the city I was born in was called London and that I had been born within range of the Bow Bells, which made me a Cockney. Three years later we moved to a small town on the coast in East Anglia. Sixteen years after this I moved to Wales to study for three years. I then moved back to East Anglia for a final year, before taking a long train up to Edinburgh, Scotland.

When people ask me where home is, I struggle a little. ‘Where I was born?’ I ask in an attempt to clarify the question. Surely London is my home – it’s the city of my birth – but London is such a large place, with so many people being born there every second. Is that really a suitable marker for my beginning, or do we need to be more specific? Then again, I don’t remember much of London so can I really call it home? I haven’t a cockney accent, and I doubt I absorbed much culture in my three years there…

East Anglia, then. It’s a place I know well, but having parents from London I failed to adopt the local accent. From overhearing my parents talk about London I realised that the town we lived in was very small, that the country extended a great many miles in three directions, that London had fast trains and public transport, that people didn’t talk to each other on the streets there… I grew up comparing my small town with a large city I had never really experienced. What was extraordinary to my peers was ordinary to my parents, and I occupied an uneasy space between the two; knowing larger, greater things existed but never having experienced them. Never mind, we’ll go one up – I’m English, then. But wait…

We used to travel to Wales frequently on family holidays and I remember trying to work out where we left England and entered Wales. ‘We’re in Wales!’ my dad would announce as he swerved the car around another cliff-edged corner, but I didn’t see any signs to say we’d suddenly entered another country. There were no borders, just lots of ARAF painted on the tarmac and multi-lingual signposts. The landscape changed, slate became more apparent as a building material and the accents slowly thickened. The ‘border’ I had expected was no border at all, more like a transition of peoples places and materials, of sounds and landscapes.

In my youth I tried to pretend I was some Foggian adventurer when in Wales. I was an Englishman in the land of the Welsh. However, I quickly learnt that things weren’t all that different from moving from one town to another back in the East of England. These towns and villages – separated off from one another – had slowly become islands of their own; generating their own culture, dialect, art and music styles. It seemed too easy to identify artistic, political and cultural ideologies as ‘English’ or ‘Welsh’ when they spread so easily across borders, and the pride countries seemed to take in their athletes competing and winning trophies at various events around the world seemed unusual – did the fact that Murray was Scottish give him any physical advantage over any of the other players? If Murray had been born in France would he have lost that final game?

I have become a resident of Scotland at a very important and exciting time, but also a potentially dangerous one. Dangerous, how? I fear one of two outcomes should the residents of Scotland vote for independence; and that is the rediscovery of stale, traditional national identity or of  a more exciting, modern, freshly-forged one. This staleness is most apparent in London’s shop fronts; ragged Union Jack bunting, royal wedding memorabilia and the glazed stare of resurrected 1940’s posters. By embracing and encouraging dated cultural icons Britain is failing to recognise (and encourage) fresh voices, new creativity, and is alienating young artists with historical symbolism. Whilst the old has become ‘new’, it has failed to achieve a status above the level of nostalgic nationalist tit-tat. So, should independence be achieved, how do we forge a new identity that recognises the rich history of Scotland, of its traditions and it’s culture, but flourishes above and beyond the level of a mug? I think we could learn a great deal from the Nordic region, particularly Stockholm. ‘Why has the land of the bland become a cultural powerhouse?’ asks a piece in the Economist, ‘because new technologies are levelling the playing field […] thanks to the internet, somebody sitting in a Stockholm attic can reach the world’ but I feel the author hits the nail on the head here; ‘all true. But there is no point in giving people microphones if they have nothing to say’.

The author argues that this cultural renaissance is a consequence of ‘a closed society that was dominated by a single political orthodoxy (social democracy) and by a narrow definition of national identity (say, Swedishness or Finnishness) being shaken up by powerful forces such as globalisation and immigration. All the Nordics are engaged in a huge debate about their identity in a post-social democratic world.’ Sound familiar? Okay, maybe Scotland’s not necessarily being shaken up by globalisation and immigration but the independence debate has certainly put the issue of identity firmly on the agenda, and do the Scottish not share that narrow definition of national identity – that of being British, yet more specifically Scottish?

‘The region’s identity crisis is creating a multicultural explosion’ writes the author on Stockholm, and I can’t help but wonder if independence has the potential to do the same. In an independent Scotland could we also draw ‘inspiration from [our] growing ethnic minorities’ but also reach ‘back into [our] own cultural traditions’ and create new and inventive practices, art forms, and music? Could independence punch through the pessimistic ‘cannae do’ attitude and create a new, more optimistic sense of self? I’m unsure – there are no guarantees – but I’m encouraged by the optimism of those on the Yes side of the independence debate, and if, somehow, that energy were to pass on to others in Scotland (through the ‘cannae do’ attitude) it could only be of benefit to Scotland’s economy, psychology, and cultural and political identity.

Hayden Westfield-Bell
National Collective


About Hayden Westfield-Bell

Hayden Westfield-Bell is a recent graduate of the UEA's Creative Writing MA (Poetry). He now writes, reads and performs in Edinburgh and was a featured poet of the Ash Sessions 'Black, Strong and Sweet' poetry series.