Imperial Allegiances

Choose Your Empire

Lynsey Black

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When I was a child, I wanted a phone in my bedroom. (Who would I call? My best friend who lived 400 metres away? An irrelevant consideration!) I had watched, and then coveted, this luxury lifestyle item in my commitment to heavy viewership of American television. This commitment persisted, it survived adolescence and adulthood, it continues to thrive as I approach middle age and require glasses to cut my toenails. All my life, America has been showing me lives I have wanted to lead. The phone I envisioned would be pink. Or, perhaps, transparent plastic, with brightly primary-coloured cables and components visible within, reflecting the contemporary 80s/90s ‘wacky’ aesthetic. It would be just the receiver, clasped by the moulded receiver cradle. Push-button dial pad. With a spiral cord. Or, as I consider it again now, a long and languorous cord, to be a spun gossamer thread following my wending conversations with my 400-metre distanced friend.

This is just one of many ways in which my consumption of American television enhanced my desiderata and reinforced an interior life of want. This ‘want’ being largely made up of articles of style rather than matters of substance. After all, in my day-to-day life I already spoke regularly by phone to my nearby friend. The phone just happened to be the main family phone, not a personal bedside extension, and I sat on the floor by the phone table in the hall to have these privileged conversations.

I lived in Europe, in the United Kingdom, in Northern Ireland, in the westerly border county of Tyrone. To be American was both something almost beyond aspirational, and yet it was also, as the aeroplanes flew overhead, the next stop on the journey west across the Atlantic Ocean.

The litany, or the liturgy, goes: steam rising from manhole covers; sidewalks; 7/11s; big gulps; tenured professors; walk-up apartments; station wagons; Thanksgiving; middle school, midterms and grade point averages; frozen yoghurt; the rattle of pills in the bottle over the silence of the blister. U-Haul! My first time seeing a U-Haul in the US elicited whoops of authenticity and realism. I was with my now-husband, and we pointed and laughed. I was in my thirties. There was really no escaping the impress America had left on my life. Beyond their own great playground of a nation, they also had ‘Europe’. To make the journey from America to the continent on which I (didn’t really) live, what must that have been like? To have Europe as something to do was intoxicating in its suggestion of ultimate freedom and ease in the world.

America has a smell. It smells differently than other places I have visited. Getting out in the sun at JFK, and smelling America, and smelling it everywhere for the next four weeks. Jonathan Raban tries to find the boundary between the tourist, the newcomer, and the seasoned blow-in. For Raban, this occurs when you no longer notice that somewhere smells differently. When you no longer smell a place, presumably you no longer smell foreign in it either.

My first visit there was as a 19-year-old, in 2002. By then, America had already irreparably changed. But that didn’t matter, I’d already been there through the ages. If I could remember Manhattan before Bill Bratton, I could remember America before 9/11.

As well as the smell, everything looks different. It looks fake because it looks like a movie. In Being There, Peter Sellers’ displaced butler Chance rides in a limousine. In Chance’s sheltered life this is the first time he has made it beyond the private sphere of the house in Washington DC where he was raised. Viewing the world in real life, the world that he has only seen projected to him before, he finds that everything looks like television. For everyone else coming to America for the first time, how can we ever get beyond this reality-altering comparison. Do others manage it with more sangfroid than Chance and me?

What must it be like to be American, I wondered, and I still often wonder. I cannot fathom what it is to be American if that means living without America as something to view from afar. It seems to me the only thing Americans don’t actually have, is the chance to watch America from the outside. What must it be like to know the world is made for you? How would it feel to see your country reflected back at you in infinite regression?

This isn’t how it works. If I didn’t know that as a child, I know it now. Not all Americans see their own experience reflected back at them. They see the American Dream, and measure their distance from it. As Langston Hughes wrote in 1935, ‘America never was America to me.’ My America is most definitely a lightshow projected on a structure that is White supremacist, middle class, heteronormative (add further descriptors ad nauseum here).

I recently saw the term ‘cultural imperialism’ used on Twitter. Its meaning was clear instantly (the context was academic relevance). I had, since childhood, been trapped in the gravity well of a galactic giant. And even now, I struggle to break free of it. Even as an adult, edging towards 40, I recognise still the indelible marking of wanting to live like the Americans do. Americans were cultural emperors. I lived in the last decades of The American Century, as Henry Luce proclaimed it. In contrast to this call to arms, in 1942 the American Vice President Henry Wallace made a plea for the Century of the Common Man instead. These two apparently conceptually different centuries gradually became indistinguishable. For many international onlookers, the common man was as easily recognisable as a blue-collar New Jersey garbageman [sic], as someone we might actually encounter in the local shop. Cultural imperialism had been successful. Why, for any other reason, would I be as familiar with the Black Lives Matter movement, as I am with the movement to end direct provision (Ireland’s pitiless system of housing asylum seekers).

(It is no coincidence that I have repeatedly attempted to set the default language in Word to English (Ireland) and have been denied at every opportunity with the unkillable English (US).)

Our life language has been inflected with ‘creeping Americanisms’. As children, we were warned and berated for our Australian end-of-sentence soar, but was the Americanism too embedded to be identified as invasive? Australianisms were the Japanese knotweed; Americanisms were the rhododendron bushes we planted in our gardens.

                                                                            

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The thing is, though, I already have an imperial north star. I’ve got my own cultural imperium. In theory, I’m all good for empires. I’m taken. Because, of course, I’m British. Or I certainly thought I was British for long enough, and inevitably some of that thinking has only gone and created an identity bedrock. I am, then, a citizen of a nation which had the largest empire ever (BIG MCLARGE HUGE). I shouldn’t really be yearning for greener imperial pastures, not with centuries of my own cultural imperialism stacked behind me. I should shun the callowness of the American project. Keep your new furniture, I’ve got the family credenza.

The litany: red phone boxes, red postboxes (see Ireland below), crumpets, bad teeth… the tube? No, I can’t go on, these are clearly ridiculous. 

But my own imperial allegiances are muddied because, of course, I’m Northern Irish. I feel my commitment to the British Empire is tarnished because I grew up and learned all the reasons why a) I wasn’t really British, and b) actually the empire was a bad thing.

What does it mean to be British anyway? It meant English clearly. And in my identification as British, I did identify as English. (Until watching Ireland play international cricket was an option my dad was a committed England cricket team watcher.) One of the first singles I bought on cassette tape was ‘It’s Coming Home’, the song released for the 1996 Euros. Although I now understand it was a novelty song, and one not really aimed at me anyway, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I still thrill to it. It still means something to me when I hear it. I’m keenly aware of the absurdity of my position. My awakening to this absurdity has been a rather long and drawn out process, albeit one in which I’m perfectly cognisant that there’s little I can do to help matters.

Beyond the hard-for-some truth that empire was A BAD THING I find I can’t identify with it because it really was not for me, and nor did it want me. I am between two empires then. I could, and perhaps more readily do now, identify as Northern Irish, which is a strange compromise that will do for the moment. It is, after all, likely a very contingent identity, so ‘doing for now’ is all we have. In 2011, the identity option of ‘Northern Irish’ was added for the first time to the British census and 29% of those normally resident in the region selected it as the primary definer of their national identity. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, carried out by Ark in 2018 found that half of Northern Ireland do not identify as unionist or nationalist, up from a third in 1998. The narrative was that the numbers were shifting. Although, as Kevin McNicholl has warned, the term ‘Northern Irish’ covers a multitude, and is pleasing in its vagueness. (Here’s a consciousness-raiser for you – McNicholl found that from 1998 to 2015 the phrase ‘Northern Irish’ was used in the Northern Ireland Assembly 154 times, compared to 6,149 uses of British, 13,111 uses of Irish, and 149 uses of French.)

Growing up Protestant in Northern Ireland is a subject position that can go one of two ways I think. You can either realise the inherent problems with that, or not. I realised the problems, and I must say it’s been a real downer, really souring my relations with the concept, and simplicity, of national pride, and my ability to get on board with the historic smugness at Britannia ruling the waves. Jubilees have been very hard to muster enthusiasm for.

These imperial confusions play out in both the most trivial and most momentous of ways. One of these ways is rugby-related, please bear with me through this series of points as I again reach to the world of sport. The island of Ireland plays rugby as one. The six counties of Northern Ireland and the 26 counties of Ireland, divided since the Government of Ireland Act 1920, play as one team. At international rugby matches, national anthems are played. Ireland’s national anthem is Amhrán na bhFiann. I’ve just had to Google this for the spelling. I’ve never written it out before and still haven’t as I copied and pasted it. The Irish national anthem is sung in the Irish language. I don’t speak Irish, having never been taught it at school, and never having been around anyone who did speak it. In English, the Irish national anthem is known as The Soldier Song. This I knew as a child. I knew the tune when I was younger, and as a teenager it would be played at the end of the night in Donegal niteclubs. When Ireland plays an international rugby match in Ireland, the national anthem is played. It is played along with another song, Phil Coulter’s ‘Ireland’s Call’. When Ireland plays a match outside of Ireland, only ‘Ireland’s Call’ is sung. This pleasing air, with a great key change, was commissioned by the Irish Rugby Football Union in the 1990s. It was an explicit commitment to accommodating both north and south in the national team. Imagine my conflict, then, when Ireland plays England. When the English national anthem is played, it is my anthem – ‘God Save the Queen’ is the anthem I grew up singing. Meanwhile, when playing rugby in Ireland, the Irish national anthem thunders forth in a language I do not know. It’s a minor moment of dissonance.

So, for me be to be British, to have historically understood myself as British, has occasioned a gradual drifting into motherless space. Whose Empire is it anyway? I should have realised England didn’t want us when I first read Churchill’s ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ comment in A-Level history.


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The litany (let’s try anyway): postboxes painted green after independence (see England above), leprechauns, ‘the luck of the…’. No, this isn’t working either. Everything I suggest for the Irish and English touchstones are American stereotypes cultivated by film and television. The feedback loop won’t let this happen.

Let’s try something more concrete. For the past 18 years, I have mostly and increasingly lived in Ireland. I grew up on the border, and just as Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house, I could see Donegal from mine. It has taken me many years to get to the stage where I speak of Irish government policy and use the collective and possessive ‘we’. The fact that this has happened is still something that occasionally catches me, leaving me strangely unsettled. Ireland, of course, doesn’t have an empire. Not a bricks and mortar expansionist one anyway. Ireland has had its spiritual empire, its commitment to the proliferation of Catholicism, and latterly its replacement mode of influence, a diplomatic empire. In 2020, Ireland beat out Canada (Canada, for goodness’ sake!) to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council. I don’t really know what this means in practice, but I’m presuming it means someone has trusted us with the nuclear codes. Ireland’s diplomatic empire may seem incorporeal, but it has been nurtured into being by a very corporeal diaspora. (It helped that of all the poor and dispossessed who arrived on American shores, the Irish were White and Anglophone.)

I’ve lived in Ireland through the tail-end of the Celtic Tiger, the crash of 2008, through austerity and the sloganized Irish call to ‘burn the bondholders’, through Brexit, and now, through Covid-19. I’ve gotten to grips with the quotidian use of Irish words and phrases: Taoiseach and Tanaiste are mother’s milk to me now. Over these years I’ve observed the shifting political temperaments of Ireland and the ‘United Kingdom’ (read: England). It has offered an always fascinating sometimes horrifying lesson in the gotcha of postcolonialism against the ghost of a sad empire.

Irish soft power has risen to meet England’s freefalling hard power. Beyond a genuine sense of concern at Northern Ireland’s position within the labyrinthine Brexit maze, there has also been a certain gleefulness. The classic brand of enmity between the English and the Irish was granted new life by the referendum of June 2016. After so many decades of being the only party to the grudge match to actually be aware of the grudge, it must have been very satisfying for Irish people to hear the English media belittle and scorn them during negotiations with the European Union. Finally, a sense of recognition! The narrative goes that, backed by the rest of Europe, Ireland is bravely standing up for Northern Ireland. After 800 years, Ireland has found its winning strategy, they shall not join England on the field of battle, but shall meet them fairly on the floor of the supranational chamber. Even the Americans are getting in on the action. My new empire, and my forever empire, are coming together to chide my Passport-verified empire. It’s all gotten very confusing.

As 2020 became more miss than hit, as we continued to live in interesting times, seeing the then Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the steps of Washington DC’s Blair House as he addressed the nation about lockdown, there was an uncomfortable and muddled swelling of pride. Wait, which of these empires is mine again? And don’t get me started onhis St. Patrick’s Day speech, truly a moment of oration to rival that of President Whitmore in Independence Day (or Cadie in Mean Girls, whichever you prefer – Leo was breaking up the plastic prom queen crown of citizenship and passing around for all of us to share).

In 2020, and let’s be honest, not just 2020, my other empires have let me down. Through successive convulsive crises, England and America have shown themselves to be less worthy of imperial allegiance. In Ireland, trapped between these giants for centuries, there has been a general tendency to bear a grudge against the one, and carry a flaming torch of obsequiousness for the other. (Ireland has a hard-on for America, it’s very cringey. Even more obvious than England’s. A former Irish Minister for Health once declared that the country was closer to Boston than Berlin – how’s that working out for you now?)

The thing is though, I’m less confident in Ireland’s empire. I got very used to being a British citizen and I’m reclining in the sexy jacuzzi of American cultural imperialism. Ireland, meanwhile, has taken some learning. The differences between their two ruling parties still confuses me – they are both right-wing albeit now in a very moderate way. Thankfully, at least, this year they have realised their own commonalities and gone into government together for the first time.

But when thinking about what it was to be Irish, I had to ask my husband. He said it was about the government of the day – how the government treats it people and how the country is viewed abroad – the domestic and the international. Ireland has perceived itself from within and without, its subjectivity has been formed in part by its minor status, a status which necessitated getting on board with what the big boys of empire were about.

There’s also that sense that it’s nice to be Irish because they hadn’t done anything wrong historically. They were oppressed, much put upon, blameless in a colonial world. Perpetual victims (well, really, no wonder England is annoyed at them). although Ireland had few external subjects to oppress after independence, it had plenty of internal subjects to dominate, and it went at this with some zeal.


                                                                            Choose your Empire


So here I am, positioned at the edge of empire, geographically and existentially. The pendulum is swinging for imperial realignment – perhaps even for those who have never before felt it shift. Northern Irish Protestantism’s false consciousness emerges from the waters again in an increasingly perilous position.

The Star Trek episode which predicted Irish reunification in 2024 may have been a bit out in its timeline, but it’s not a million miles away. And, unlike in Hamilton, Elizabeth II is not going to ‘send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!’ (not again anyway.)

Am I ready for full assimilation? Who knows. This might seem like a point of semantics but although my house was mere miles from the border with Ireland, it was as if there was an invisible but very successful wall of globular material that sat squat along that boundary. A giant chewing gum wall through which only very popular but very trivial things could pass through, like Riverdance, children’s TV, and the name of the Irish Labour politician Dick Spring. In a sense, I lived Ireland through television too. Not everyone in Northern Ireland even received the Irish state broadcaster television signal! Once, at secondary school, I accidentally drew Northern Ireland entirely surrounded by water. This fact was pointed out by a Catholic boy in the class who looked at my quizzically, like the oppressor I was.

Come to think of it, though, my British citizenship was largely a televisual affair as well. I looked always towards London, the nub of citizenship. A place I didn’t visit until I was 18, despite the fact Northern Ireland experienced direct rule until I was almost 16. (I went to Dublin for the first time when I was about 15… does Dublin win by default? My best memory of Dublin was going to Boots though…) We were ruled by televised dictats from London, soothed by American entertainment, and benefitted from the bits of Irish culture that made it over the wall in fits and starts.

So again, I ask, what is it to be Northern Irish, and which empire are we again?