Conversations on Culture and Identity 01 with Brian of London
Brian of London, who describes himself as an indigenous Jewish activist, and I have had plans to discuss culture and identity for some time. This is our first conversation in which we introduce ourselves and describe how we came to be where we are today. This first conversation looks at language and national identity narratives. I think it’s a good start and am confident that Brian and I will develop some interesting perspectives over time.
Before the conversation, I began writing some ideas down. This is how far I got.
Despite having or perhaps because I’ve moved about a lot in my life, the idea of identity and belonging has always been important to me so my working-class northern English identity is something I’ve never lost. We moved around different parts of Nottingham when I was a child before moving up to Cheshire when I was 11 but my paternal grandparents always stayed where they were in Radford neighbourhood so that’s where I always identified as home.
I went back to university in Nottingham and lived either in Radford or neighbouring Lenton. During the 1984-5 Miners Strike, I moved down to London and lived a rather rootless existence as a busker, who was trying to make it as a professional musician. I arrived in Barcelona by pure chance.
I’d won a place at Berklee Music School in Boston and just before I was about to leave, I had my grant withdrawn so in April 1988, I went to Barcelona to stay with my brother and his girlfriend, who were both spending a year out after university teaching English. That summer, they both left Barcelona but I stayed and being on my own was the best thing that could have happened to me because I had to fend for myself.
I learnt Spanish first and I found it relatively easy. Necessity is the best teacher. It wasn’t perhaps until a year later that I began to realise the importance of Catalan. In fact, after having put so much effort into learning Spanish, I found the idea of having to learn another language a little annoying so like many foreigners I had negative feelings towards Catalan if anything.
I got my first TV in the summer of 1989 and after watching very poor Spanish channels for a few weeks, one night I switched over to the Catalan TV3 not expecting to understand anything. The first programme I watched was Star Trek Next Generation and then I saw that British various comedy series (Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, Yes, Minister) and soap operas (Eastenders, Coronation Street) were dubbed into Catalan.
This was an important moment not only because it made me feel a little less homesick but also because it seemed clear to me that if TV3 was dubbing British TV series into Catalan there must be some similarities between the two cultures. I’ve since discovered that the key to being happy and integrating well into another culture is in part finding similarities with your own and also trying to find out as much about it as you possibly can. If you understand things, it’s much easier to enjoy them.
The other positive effect was that I started to passively learn Catalan by watching TV. After a few weeks, I began experimenting and saying a few phrases in shops and bars and the effect was incredible. All of a sudden people were either incredibly nice to me or rather rude and standoffish. I had discovered the faultline in Catalan society.
Language Groups in Catalonia
The Catalan language is the main identity marker in Catalonia but the cultural make up is quite complex here so it’s worth clarifying.
Virtually everyone who considers themselves Catalan speaks Catalan as their default language but is also bilingual Spanish. Anyone who grew up during the dictatorship spoke Catalan at home but were educated only in Spanish and, although Catalan books, newspapers and other media were available in later years, Catalan was generally frowned on. This meant that many of the older generation spoke Catalan at home but weren’t very proficient at reading or writing.
Any Catalan educated since the 1980s has been educated mainly in Catalan with Spanish taught as a second language. However, as a lot of the media is still in Spanish, everyone is bilingual.
When I first arrived in Catalonia, the linguistic divisions were more clear cut. A lot of people had migrated to Catalonia from other parts of Spain during the 1960s and 70s and didn’t speak Catalan at all. Members of the older generation are still monolingual Spanish and most Catalans find this very annoying. As a foreigner who speaks Catalan, people often praise me and then complain that they’ve got a neighbour who’s been here for 50 years and doesn’t speak Catalan.
The younger generation tends to be bilingual because they’ve been to school in Catalan. However, you can often tell their cultural identity by the language they choose to speak at home or in social situations. Someone who has a preference for Spanish tends to identify cultural as Spanish.
The situation is certainly not black and white, though, and for many people cultural identity is on a sliding scale. For this reason, newspapers often publish surveys asking Do you consider yourself a) Totally Catalan (14.4%) b) More Catalan than Spanish (19.3%) c) As Catalan as Spanish (41.9%) d) More Spanish than Catalan (5.3%) e) Totally Spanish (8.8%). I have given the percentages from Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió survey from 2016.
A further complication is added by the language choices made by immigrants. In large cities and urban areas, I would say that most immigrants choose to learn Spanish. This is obviously the case with the Latin Americans, who speak Spanish anyway, but also with most of the British, Americans and Europeans I know as well as with other groups such as Chinese, Pakistanis or Moroccans. All these groups represent a challenge for the Catalan language.
Foreigners in rural areas seem more likely to learn Catalan and as a result Catalans often assume that they identify as Catalan. Following the jihadist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in August, many Catalans suffered from cognitive dissonance because many of the perpetrators, although of Moroccan origin had been born in the Catalan town of Ripoll and even spoke Catalan.
The central Spanish government has always understood the importance of language in keeping the Catalan identity alive and has often tried to repress it. In 1714 at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession when Castille effectively annexed Catalonia, a memo was sent out to government officials ordering them to repress the Catalan language in such a way that the local population didn’t notice it.
Following this, Catalan was replaced by Castilian Spanish at all levels of government and the administration. It was removed from the legal system and wasn’t taught at schools or in universities. It was reduced to the status of vulgar language and only used by the poor and uneducated classes to such an extent that the foolish and stupid characters in 18th century plays tended to speak in Catalan.
Watch on YouTube
Comments on the Conversation
Brian was born in South Africa and arrived in England as a baby so he grew up in London as a refugee from South Africa. However, although he felt he was a Londoner, he was also aware of his Jewish identity, which was more cultural than religious. This made him feel slightly different from the English people around him. He felt more British than English in part because he was an immigrant.
As a result of doing business in Israel, Brian ended up marrying an Israeli woman, who came to live with him in London but around the time his first child was born in 2007, he began to feel he didn’t belong in the UK so in 2009 he and his wife and son went to live in Israel.
He now lives in Tel Aviv in what he describes as his bomb shelter in the sky; a sealed room with a steel shutter on the window. It wouldn’t protect him from a direct strike from a very large rocket but would if something were to land nearby.
Brian describes himself as an indigenous Jewish rights activist. He explains this by saying that although he wasn’t brought up fully Orthodox Jewish and he might not be fully conversant with the Torah but he has a growing sense of appreciation about what it is to be Jewish. He believes that everything about being Jewish starts on the ground where he is, perhaps not so much in Jerusalem but definitely in Jerusalem.
All of the stories that make up what it is to be Jewish happen in or around this land or are connected with trying to get to this land, such as the foundational story of coming out of Egypt to get to the Promised Land. This means that Jews and Judaism are indigenous to the land not necessarily the individuals. It doesn’t matter where Brian’s genes spent the last 1,000 years, be that England, Russia, Germany or South Africa, because everything that makes him a Jew comes out of this land.
My world view is similar in that, there’s a lot about me that revolves around the idea of territory because wherever I go I feel both English and Nottingham despite not having really been there since 1985. I explain my left-wing background as being a question of identity. The fact that I was born into the working-class in Nottingham, where my family had lived for generations and my grandfather had been an important trades union leader meant that I couldn’t be anything other than left.
When we moved up to Cheshire, there was a belligerent element to maintaining my identity. I tried to keep the accent, continued supporting Forest and even went back to university in Nottingham. Reading Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner was important and on joining the Labour Party, I was protected from the clutches of the modern left because the old boys, who had been mates with my grandfather called me Young ‘Arris and insisted that I sit with them.
My first job after university was as a researcher on the Notts Oral History Project, which involved me mainly interviewing old trades unionists. At this time I became fascinated by the history of the Lace and Hosiery industries and also came to the realisation that Robin Hood’s “Steal from the rich and give to the poor” was steal from the Normans and give to the Anglo-Saxons so there was also an ethnic element to class.
When I arrived in Barcelona in 1988, one would have thought that someone with such a strong sense of identity would have found it defficult to integrate. However, I have always found it a help because I am conscious of the importance of identity so have always been happy to make the appropriate adaptions as far as learning the language and culture is concerned because I consider this to be a moral obligation. Furthermore, the fact that I’m very clear about who I am means that people know exactly where they are when they’re dealing with me.
One of my favourite analogies for this is the spider plant, which throws out shoots that can replant themselves in different locations. This is what has happened to me. It’s the same plant but in a different place. The new plant has grown stronger than the old one because the new ground is more fertile.
I have often said that I don’t believe I’ve lost anything in this process of becoming an adopted Catalan. I remain 100% English so if I’m also say 95% Catalan that means that there’s at least 195% of me. This is completely consistent with the spider plant metaphor. New plants come into existence but the old plant doesn’t have to die.
Brian responded by stating that Israel defines itself as being Jewish, which important because its the only Jewish country. Judaism is not an invading, conquering or converting ethos so it can only conceivably be based in Israel. It is so closely tied to the land. Although the media describes places like Hebron as Palestinian, it’s the site where Abraham buried Sarah and the other matriarchs and patriarchs of Judaism are buried there. The historical veracity doesn’t matter because identity is built on stories.