Thursday, 4 July 2013


Photo via weheartit

Where do you belong? 

Is 'home' the house you grew up in, or the place you live now?  Is it the town of your birth, or the city you moved to as an adult? 

I started thinking about belonging recently when, in response to a Facebook post, my friend Kirsty wrote, "you're Northern despite the posh voice."  I've never really seen myself as Northern or Southern but Kirsty is Northern through-and-through, so if she said I was too - my thinking went - maybe I am?

Because I've never felt that I really belonged anywhere, and I've never been sure where to call home.

I was born in Bristol, moved to the Oxfordshire countryside as a baby, then on to Bradford at the age of six.  At eighteen I came to Leicester for university and, although I've largely stayed put here for the last seventeen years, I've lived in fourteen different houses during that time. Putting down roots is not something I seem to be very good at.

I think it's partly the inevitable result of being the child of immigrants.  My parents moved to the UK from South Africa in 1977, to escape the violence that threatened to become an every-day part of life (in part due to the fact that my grandpa was a prominent anti-apartheid activist, and there are only so many times you can have shots fired through your window by the security services before you decide to pack up and leave).

I grew up in a house that was visibly 'other': African print textiles and pictures on the walls, rows of books, and parents with strange accents were far from standard in the lower middle class district of Bradford that we lived in.  My family did not share the culture of those around us, nor did my parents have any of the same reference points that the parents of my friends had (television was not allowed in South Africa until shortly before they left; The Beatles were also banned).  In my school, it was unusual to have cousins who lived in the next town along; having family who lived in Canada, America, South Africa was beyond the pale.

But am I South African?  Well, no.  I wasn't born there but, as I reflected during a trip to South Africa last summer, "When I came [here] in 2001, it was on a search for identity.  Eleven years later and rather older and wiser, I know that this isn't where I belong although, like many children of immigrants, I have never felt wholly British either. I suppose that when your grandfather is part of the history of a country - when he becomes an exhibit in a museum, no less - then that country becomes part of you."  So many cultural norms and cues are alien to me because of growing up as the child of immigrants; Britishness is not something that comes naturally to me.

If my nationality is difficult to pin down, my sense of regional belonging is even more impossible.  I have certainly never felt any connection to my birthplace, Bristol, having only been back twice, briefly, since I was 3 months old.  Perhaps if we had stayed in Oxfordshire I would have felt a tie to that area - and to the South in general - but the move to Bradford cut those ties, yet failed to establish new ones. 

A common language, a shared way of speaking, is an essential part of belonging (it's in this that I understand, even if I dislike, the rightwing rhetoric around immigrants learning English).  When we moved to Bradford it quickly became clear that I did not speak the 'right' way, and I summarily failed to ever acquire much of a Yorkshire accent in the twelve years I resided there (preferring, in that contrary way of children, to continue being bullied for sounding "posh" than to amend the way I spoke).  If I don't speak the 'language', am I still Northern?  I've always assumed that the answer has to be "no".

I've now lived in Leicester longer than I've lived anywhere, but I could never claim (or want!) to belong here; to call this city my home.  Again, language plays a part.  Not only the accent but the dialect terms are alien to me (funnily enough, dialect is where I do 'become' Northern - to me, an alleyway will always be a snicket; a person in a mood will always "have a cob on").   In addition, despite living here for almost my entire adult life, I've spent much of that time trying to leave.  Leicester is emphatically not the place I belong, and, ironically, the longer I stay here, the more of a tie I feel to Yorkshire and the North. 

A straw poll on Facebook revealed that I'm not the only adult to have a confused sense of belonging.  Among those who have left home and moved to a new city or town, there was debate about where 'home' really was.  I say that I am "going home" when I'm visiting my mum's house in Leeds, although this is not the house that I grew up in, and not the house I dream about when I dream of home..  But home is also my own house, a place that I have finally settled after all those years of moving around, and where I have lived for almost five years.

And ultimately, I have started to wonder: does belonging matter?  There is a value in being 'other', in having a heritage that is unusual, and in growing up in a family which has so many interesting stories to tell.  I love the fact that I can quickly switch codes, speaking in Yorkshire dialect one minute and sounding like a bit of a posho the next.  I have finally realised that I might be lucky to feel an approximation of home in so many different places - South Africa, England; Yorkshire, Leicester - rather than have only one place that is 'mine'.  As to where the future takes me; perhaps one day I will find a place that I can finally call home.  But for now, I am happy the way things are.


  1. I think its hard to belong to just one place. Little bits of my heart belong to many places, all with happy memories attached. Places I holidayed, towns my parents grew up in, old stomping grounds etc.
    I find the whole northerner/southerner divide thing annoying. People use it as an excuse to slag strangers off and generalise. Although I will say this, the people up north are much friendlier than down south, but its probably down to the slower pace of life.
    Its funny, my Dad (a scouser) gets all misty eyed when I get drunk, loud and mouthy and says "thats the northerner in you" proudy to me! He also says the same thing about my love of chips and curry sauce!

    1. Have lived in the South, the North and the Midlands, I have to say that there can be something in the northerner/southerner thing. My bug-bear is the economic divide, which was pretty huge when we left for the North in the 80s and has only worsened since then.

  2. Hopefully this comments works. What I commented before was I can relate to this post. My maternal grandparents are from Norway and my paternal grandparents are from Germany. I feel a connection to these countries even though I've never lived there. Then of course I feel a connection to Minnesota in the USA as I grew up there, and to London as I've lived here on/off for the past 10 years and now permanently on.

    Also, that's awesome about your grandfather being an anti-apartheid activist!! My husbands' grandfather was in the South African Communist party and was Nelson Mandela's barrister. :) Maybe his grandfather and yours knew each other?

    1. That's so cool! Yeah, very possibly they knew each other. The white South African resistance was a small world!