Notes on Becoming a British Citizen
This week I became a British citizen.
On Wednesday morning I stood up in the council chamber of Hammersmith Town Hall, made my affirmation to be nice to the Queen, and had my picture taken holding my certificate.
And that was it. No drama, no last minute surprise test-of-citizenship challenge to explain how Ian Beale and Phil Mitchell are related. It was done.
It was an unexpectedly jolly occasion. We were welcomed with the option of a cup of tea or coffee in a paper cup while waiting in the lovely lobby of the old town hall building, which is hidden behind the truly hideous new building. Our names were read out and we entered the hall to take our seats. There were people from all over the world, there were people with children, couples getting citizenship on the same day, young people, older people, at least two other gay men there with their British boyfriends. We applauded each person as they received their certificate, as I Vow to Thee, My Country played through the PA. We then mumbled our way through the national anthem. The only way it could have been more British is if we’d all stood around complaining about it afterwards. But everyone was too happy, too relieved for that.
The citizenship ceremony is a relatively recent invention, brought in by the Labour government in 2004. It is seen as a welcome; an affirmation of reaching the other side after a, quite frankly, brutal obstacle course of visa applications, endless passport photos and epic form filling. A friend and I have a long running joke that, by natural selection, the children of modern immigrants to this country will all inherit amazing form filling and administrative genes.
The long and winding path to stability and permanence in my adopted home is over. After ten years of general worry that this time, for some reason, my visa application would be rejected and I’d have to leave the country, I am now the possessor of a dual nationality and a dual identity. I am a British-South African, whatever that is.
In practical terms, it means a British passport, which means that I will be able to travel to other European countries without having to get a Schengen visa. It means I won’t need to renew my visa to travel to the US, or the many other countries that let British people in without a second glance while making the rest of us jump through hoops.
But, beyond that, what does it mean now that I am British?
I have been a Londoner for over ten years now. I love this city more than almost anywhere else, or anyone else. Like everyone else I moved here deliberately because London offered opportunity, distance, and joyous anonymity. Having grown up in a small town my whole life — the last point felt vital.
At the time that I finished university in the early 2000s — after a year studying in Dublin — London was just where many young South Africans came. They came to be away from home for two years, to earn some money, to experience life outside before going home to become proper adults. Changes to the visa laws mean this option is no longer available for South Africans, a sad outcome for them and, really, for London too.
One of the truly great things about London is that to become a “Londoner” there are no qualifications required. All you have to do is live here. I’m not sure any other city in the world so easily assimilates new arrivals. Londoners carry an ever-changing range of identities and behaviour traits with them, all of us overlapping in multiple Venn diagrams. There are very few rules, and almost all of them involve etiquette on public transport. Granted, “Britishness” isn’t as instantly conferred, but similarly there is no single British identity — it is a mutable and changeable thing. It is, to make a slightly selfish political point, the great thing about the United Kingdom. The Union acts as an umbrella under which people can feel English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh, or other things too, and people like me can fit in the cracks between these. The vagueness of what it means to be British is what makes it feel so open.
The funny thing is that people have been assuming that I am actually British, or I suppose English, for a long time now. Somewhere along the way I lost much of my accent without meaning to, and adopted the mannerisms of a middle class twat. I “pass” as English, without meaning to. I suppose part of this was a desire to fit in with somewhere I had chosen to live, but it is not something under my control. It was bound to happen. My first language is English. I grew up immersed in much British culture — from Enid Blyton to Shakespeare, Dickens to Blackadder. I played Henry Higgins in a school musical for God’s sake.
But I was born in South Africa, as were my grandparents, as were most of my great-grandparents. I am descended from European immigrants to a distant continent in search of a new life. The two I know the most about, my mother’s grandfathers, both left Scotland towards the end of the 19th century. Both were skilled workmen — one a carpenter, the other a builder. I assume to young men at the time a life at the other end of the world seemed filled with opportunity. One of them, everyone called him Mac, was originally bound for Australia, but hated being at sea so much that when the ship stopped over in Cape Town he refused to get back on.
I am telling you this because I see the strangeness that, just over a hundred years later, their great grandson would make the return journey and take up the citizenship they had dropped so easily.
I can’t help but marvel at the audacity of these men I am related to — while at the same time I am aware of the fact they were part of a colonising, imperial land grab. But they got on a ship to a place they had never seen, with few possessions and little money, never to return, never to see their family or home ever again. It is almost inconceivable today, the idea of such permanent separation. The longest time between visits back home to South Africa has been two years, and that proved almost impossible to bear.
Here is the burden of the man who chooses exile — London is my home, but homesickness still builds like sand, grain by grain, until suddenly you feel weighed down, held down by it. I have spent most of my adult life here, in this city, in this country, but still, I miss my childhood in another country, in another place that grows warm and hazy in memory.
People have been asking me this week if I feel different, if I feel more British. The answer is complicated. It turns out that becoming a citizen is about more than the final paperwork and the passport. But citizenship, and the passport that goes with it, are only the official recognition of something that has already happened, a confirmation of something long underway. My general affection for the country has grown and deepened. Initially my love was almost exclusively reserved for London, but this has changed. I have stood in the rain squinting through the downpour at the Queen sliding past on a barge while drenched opera singers managed to get a tune out through their chattering teeth. I have stood on a beach in Cornwall and pretended the sea wasn’t too cold. I have learned, vicariously, all about 80s and 90s classic British children’s telly, and pretended it was great. I have sat in a park in the summer with friends drinking too much, while surreptitiously, through my sunglasses, watching hot boys kick a football about. I have sat on a sofa with my younger sister, crying, sobbing really, as Jessica Ennis crossed the finishing line to win gold at the Olympics.
The effects of all of this, and much more, is cumulative. Before long I found myself saying “we” when talking about the British. Don’t get me wrong. London is still first on the list, but once a man has supported the English Rugby team, in any game, there is no going back.