Friday, September 05, 2014

Caliban's Dream

For most of my life I've been a foreigner. That is to say, I wasn't born in the country that I now call home. I came to Britain as a child of 8, and was brought up - with short gaps - here. While I can't necessarily say my home life was particularly British, my education, both in and out of school, was fairly average for a middle-class kid going to a private school. Privileged, yes. But foreign, no.

Despite the solid grounding in Being British, from my late teens and continuing well into my thirties I felt a strong urge to return to the country of my birth. I started to go back to visit family, I worked there through my college summer holidays and for a short period in my thirties I entertained job offers that would take my young family and I back there. But the plans never worked out, and little by little the tug from "home" faded.

And now, many years on, I find that Britain is really, fully, my home. Both of the head and the heart. Not in the sense that I will defend it, or indeed any country, right or wrong. After a life where I've been neither fish nor fowl wherever I was, I don't have the ability to dye myself in the wool like that and overlook its mistakes. But it is my home for better or worse, I've come to love it very much indeed and I'm finally taking steps to make myself British in the eyes of the law as well. Once I'm a citizen, I'll cut the frayed, withered cord to the land of my birth.

All of which is a roundabout way to lead to this very belated SongWithoutWhich. I read somewhere that Clare Balding, who presented the 2012 Olympics for the BBC, chose this as one of her eight Desert Island Discs, and I can only say I probably would too.

London 2012 was probably the watershed in my steady progression to the point where I have accepted my home and hope to be accepted by it in return. The process of osmosis has been long and occasionally rancorous, as for many years I rejected the notion of being a native. But watching the opening ceremony recently on YouTube and unashamedly bawling my eyes out made me realise that I've been privileged to come and live here, in a nation that has achieved so very, very much and continues to do so. I walked into Britain through the front door, whereas hundreds and thousands have died trying to get here by any means possible. The least I can do is show my appreciation and start belonging.

So to this song. Obviously it's not easy to separate the music from the occasion, in particular because it was written for the Games. But put aside the emotions that it gave rise to, and with little effort, this stands alongside The Jam's "English Rose", The Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town" or anything by Edward Elgar as completely, essentially British. It manages to be as gentle as a century-old lullaby and yet something so new you'd probably hear it in a chillout lounge.

"And the rain tossed about us, in the garden of the world/
But a flame arrives to guide us, cast in gold between the anvils of the stars/
Watch you over all your children in the rain, and the streets where I remember/
Where the fire lights are candle souls again."

The voices, the children's chorus and Alex Trimble's plaintive, breathy lilt lift above the hypnotic pattern of bells, like a hymn sung in a cavernous cathedral while the soft shuffle of a drumbeat propels the lovely, simple bassline upward, ever upward, like wisps of candle smoke curling into the chancel of a church. It's of its time and yet timeless which, if you think about it, is a pretty British quality.

For some reason, whenever I'm thinking of music that represents this country in all its ways, I'm drawn to music that seems more pastoral than urban. Elgar's Nimrod variation, for example. While I'll agree wholeheartedly that rock and roll can be equally representative, for some reason when I'm thinking of Britain it just isn't. While I think "Down In the Tube Station at Midnight" or "Winter of '79" are just as much songs About Britain, they don't come racing to mind when I'm daydreaming about my home. They're About Britain, but not necessarily Of Britain, to my mind. This is.