There’s a family photograph of me taken on Silver Jubilee Day, 1977. Like so many pictures of that era, it now has a reddish cast over it, so that the green bush behind me looks brown and my hair – true auburn when I was a kid, with no need of outside help to make it so – is a particularly vibrant hue. I’m wearing a yellow Crimplene dress, run up by my mom on her Singer to mark the occasion. There’s a strip of fabric daisies across my waist, and a Union Jack top hat on my head.
The face underneath that topper stirs predictable emotions, the push-pull of nostalgia: incredulity that I could ever have been that young coupled with a recognition that, at ten, I am already myself. Less anxious than I am now perhaps, and more freckled, a product of those careless seventies summers slathered in factor two sun tan lotion. By ’77 we had been living in England for nearly four years. My dad was British, my mom South African. I’d been born in Cape Town, and we’d stayed in S.A. for as long as my parents could bear, until they decided they couldn’t live under Apartheid any more.
Before we emigrated, I’d known only two things about England: that it would be cold – my parents’ friends told me so incessantly – and that it would be dangerous. This latter information I gleaned from eavesdropping on adult conversations. The IRA was bombing London, where my grandparents lived; their council house was to be our first English home. My expectations coalesced into a single image: our ship crunching against ice on the dockside, my grandparents crouching defensively while bombs exploded around them.
In the event, there were no explosions in Hounslow. There were plenty of other novelties though. There was a coal bunker, and a greenhouse full of tomatoes, and a robin’s nest in a brown teapot. There was a chain-smoking teenager living next door; she was In The Family Way. My grandmother’s disapproval was comprehensive and thrilling; this was better than bombs, I thought.
Later we moved on, settling in a Buckinghamshire village. Socially inept, I was desperate to fit in – and desperately poor at it, my behavioural peculiarities combining toxically with my cultural ones. I could substitute the right words (Mum for Mom, crisps for chips, tea for supper), but there were other, more subtle markers of difference. I could see a stubborn foreignness in my mom too, in her desire to talk with strangers, in the way she’d turn up at an acquaintance’s house on spec. By spring 1977, with every second person still asking her if she was Australian, she went home for some familiarity, taking my younger brother with her.
But I was glad to stay put, because the Jubilee was coming. Long before the event, people were talking about it – at school, on TV, in newspapers and magazines. We are British, they said. We are patriotic, and this means we are proud of our Queen. Patriotic was the buzzword of the year, but the one I wanted was we. Britishness was attainable after all. In the same way that I read Jackie magazine or pretended to like David Cassidy, I embraced the Jubilee spirit; all I had to do was join in, and I would be British, too. There was even a way to symbolise this belonging: the Union Jack.
We bought Union Jacks from supermarkets and newsagents; we cut them out of our daily papers and stuck them in our windows. There were Jubilee biscuits, tissues and beer, gussied up in red, white and blue. There were commemorative editions of Old Spice and Ovaltine, Branston Pickle and Bird’s Custard. I bought a set of Jubilee soaps, a picture of the Queen set into each one. I kept them in their box, opening it and looking at them, scratching at the plastic disc bearing the Queen’s head. And I bought a Union Jack topper too, at a petrol station somewhere in northern England.
With Mom gone, Dad pulled me out of school and took me with him on a business trip up north. We went to Durham, where I stayed in the car, listening to the radio and watching the cathedral while Dad went to a meeting. He took me to Hadrian’s Wall and told me about the Roman occupation, and let me eat chicken-in-a-basket at a café. Each time we stopped to refill the car I asked for something else – a plastic flag on a flimsy wooden stick, or a Jubilee-branded chocolate bar. When we turned south, passing through the Lake District, he talked about the history of those places, about the waves of incomers: barbarian, Viking and French. I ate a bag of souvenir crisps and stared out of the window at the rise and fall of green, at the flat waters which cut the hills off at their knees.
In Morecambe, where Dad had been evacuated during the war, we stopped outside the building which used to be his grandad’s boarding house. He didn’t want to knock on the door so we sat in the car and he told me how he’d coaxed his little brother over the garden wall and into the yard next door, how the owner had spotted them and come complaining to their mum.
I returned home with a haul of new possessions with which to assert my Britishness, the top hat pristine, ready for the celebration. My mom and brother came back and I got my new dress with the daisies. On Jubilee morning I posed in our front garden for a photograph, the topper too big for me, encasing my head like a bell. Our street didn’t have a party, so we stayed indoors and watched the coverage on telly, the English drizzle coming down outside, my mom chilly, thinking about home.
The next day I returned to school with my patriotic credentials, only to find that nothing much had changed after all. I was still unpalatably different, still ignorant of the rules that underpinned life in the playground and the street. It would take years to realise I’d been looking in the wrong direction all the time. The Jubilee offered assimilation into a unifying version of Britishness, one in which I could begin as them and finish as us; it was what I craved. But my dad had told me a different story, and I’d only been half-listening. His England was a far more complex thing. Heterogenous, cumbersome, gloriously plural, its identity shifting with each new wave of incomers – the ones he told me about on that road trip, and the ones he didn’t: Dutch and German, West Indian and East Asian. Me. For him, Britishness resided in diversity, it couldn’t exist otherwise. ‘They’ were us.
A long time afterwards I started writing my first novel, about a boy caught between competing versions of Britishness, whose life changes on Jubilee day. I collected souvenirs as visual prompts. There’s the commemorative coin I received at school, a teaspoon, a plate. And there’s a Union Jack hat as well, the whites faded to yellow, the edges of the brim brittle with age.
Visit Shelley’s website. Jubilee is out now and available from all good book shops.