Un petit accent

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"Vous avez un petit accent," the pleasant lady said as she helped to guide us into our mooring the other day. In the boating community fellow boaters are always ready to lend a hand. But before she proceeded  to ask where B. was from, she declared that she already knew.

"Vous êtes Anglais," she announced.

"Non," Brian answered politely. "Je suis Franco Gallois." For Brian is proud of his newly acquired French citizenship. What's more his Welsh ancestors left British shores for Rhodesia long before he was born. But the lady just laughed and rolled her eyes. It is a look that we know  well . For every French person seems to believe that if someone speaks with such an accent, they must be English, be they from Maidenhead, Aberdeen or Cardiff , not to mention Australia or Zimbabwe.

So where do we really belong? Although we  have spent most of  our married life together in Wales and England, we have  lived in France for over twenty years. B. even has  dual French/ British nationality now. But can either of us truly identify with  a country that is tearing up its roots with Europe? And if one does acknowledge  British nationality, then must  one also accept the deeds that are perpetrated in our name by the British Government?  This is a dilemma that Flic faces in my upcoming novel, ‘Because You Were There’  as she returns to live in England after many years abroad.

I still harbour an immense nostalgia for Britain. But when I return I feel an estrangement; a certain ‘otherness’ that leaves me feeling lost. Of course people have moved about this planet since time began. We all assimilate in time, while enriching our chosen country with elements of our old culture.  My Anglo Indian grandfather, who came to Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, became a fully paid up member of the Free Masons by the  time I was around. I well remember peeping into the little case where his regalia was stored, while being fed extremely hot curry at the age of four.  

But  the notion of ‘belonging’ is fraught with confusion, as my experience  earlier today will show. I  had received a letter from the British pensions authority to state that my state pension had been stopped. Apparently I had failed to send them the requested information. In other words  I needed to prove to them that I was not dead. However I had already done that at the required time. This was the second time my pension had been stopped and I had already clarified the matter with them some months ago. I called the number at the top of the letter. After a thirty minute wait a man with a Yorkshire accent answered. At first I could not understand him as he spoke exceedingly fast. Finally I  learned that I needed to phone a different number to inform them of ‘my change of circumstances,’ as I was calling from abroad.

“But my circumstances haven’t  changed,” I yelled.

Dear reader of my blog, I confess that I then slammed the phone down in frustration. I eventually found the right telephone number hidden further down the correspondence, and called. After a further twenty minute wait another man answered. He opened our conversation by saying  that he had been born on the day after me. He spoke with a clear Geordie accent and quickly reassured me that the problem would be sorted and my pension restored. Before he ended the call I had the temerity to ask him where, on the fifteenth of August, he had been born. North Shields, he told me .  North Shields? It turned out that we had both been born in the same town , albeit many years apart. I  suddenly felt very moved and  proud of my Geordie heritage, even though I had left Tyneside when I went to College. ‘Belonging’ is a very complicated thing.