I was made in Poole, Dorset, England, a town on the South Coast whose natural harbour takes a great bite out of Bournemouth Bay, itself a glorious shallow-curving sweep of sand that stretches from Hengistbury Head to Old Harry Rocks and Swanage, with the Isle of White loosely tethered offshore to the east. Born prematurely between tea and supper, after my mother had walked, in the morning, with my father into town, carrying back, between them, a roll of orange stair-carpet. And both my parents were born in England too: in Bucks, where my father’s family and everyone else in Wolverton worked for 'The Works', the railway works which had built the town for its employees, who all lived in virtually identical red-brick, blue-slate-roofed Victorian terraces, linked by a warren of 'back ways' like a northern industrial town. One generation back again, they look gravely at me from photographs, working-class families dressed in their respectable best, big hats for weddings (but the men still wearing labourer’s boots), curling black plumes on my grandmother’s hat for the photograph taken during the First World War where she and her sisters are mourning their two brothers, Joe and 'Laddie', who were killed in France and Salonika, fighting for the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. When I was born, in 1948, my parents, after the end of the Second World War, had just made the momentous move south from the railway town in Bucks to the space and brightness of Poole. So I am English through and through – am I?
I was made in England, born in England, but in what sense do I feel English? The Gees from whom I spring were probably Magees, many centuries ago, feuding Scots-Irish ruffians. My face has been called Irish: high cheekbones, long nose, small determined chin. One genealogical researcher noted that the family of Zillah Meakins, my illiterate, dark-haired maternal great-grandmother, baptised their children in batches and seemed to travel around the country. My own raven-haired, olive-skinned mother told me her half-belief, or wish, that she had gipsy blood, and one of the first poems she taught me was the anonymous ballad, 'The Raggle Taggle Gypsies'. Re-reading it, I find it is actually about the longing of a settled householder to run away with the gypsies heard singing at the door:
'What care I for a goose-feather bed…? Tonight I will sleep on the cold hard ground, Along with the Raggle Taggle Gypsies-O.'
And yet, she did have AB blood, which is found in only 3% of today’s British population, rising to 10% and above among Eastern European Romany people.
You see how, like my mother, I yearn to be interesting, but really, with at least three generations of settled habitation in England before me, I must be English, as English as anyone can be, fair-haired and pale-skinned like my blond father Victor. I love the English language, and Middle English and Anglo-Saxon, too, and spend my days following the hedgerows of English grammar into the ancient woods and thickets of English words…
But then I look out to sea. It’s there that Anglo-Saxon runes had their origins, in faraway German-Dutch Frisia. The sea is where I must have come from, too, like all island-dwellers.
Copyright Maggie Gee 2008
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