Attending a theological gathering in North Wales in January, I endeavoured to explain to one of the participants that I was English, “Oh, yeah,” he said, looking at me with disbelief. Attending a similar gathering last week, my claim to being from England was only accepted on the basis that it was the place where I grew up. Holding a British passport, the only property I own being in my native Somerset, being a monoglot English speaker, having only attended schools in England, to someone who probed, it would hard to maintain the pretence of an Irish identity, (anyway, all they would have to do would be to type my name into Google and check the full story), but people make assumptions.
Re-invention of oneself often seems not so much a question of the identity that one assumes, as the identity that is assigned to one by others.
A friend I met a few years ago seemed to have achieved re-invention on the basis of assumptions. From growing up with an unpromising future; serving as an ordinary squaddie in the British army; then working in a string of manual jobs; he began a transformation. Workman’s clothes were replaced by slick suits; factory floors by an office in Mayfair; sandwiches in a lunchbox by expense account lunches with clients; package holidays by trips to India or Peru; hatchback car by classic Mercedes; fun for him was riding his Ducati 999 motorcycle out for a day from his Surrey home or drinking in a wine bar on the Embankment.
Over a glass one day, in my accent which passed as soft Ulster to the ears of those who did not ask, I asked him, “You don’t actually tell people that our school was a public school, do you?”
“Of course not”, he said, “it’s just that when I talk to them at the club, they make assumptions”.
It seemed reasonable. If you meet someone with a sharp Home Counties accent, in a gentlemen’s club in London, who talks about days at a boarding school, you tend to make a string of assumptions.
Of course, when the re-invention is challenged the immediate response is to hold up one’s hands to the truth, otherwise one might find oneself in the situation of Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s information minister, who had re-invented himself as an Angl0-Irish public schoolboy. Bracken had attended a primary school in Dublin’s north inner city with Emmet Dalton, but upon meeting Dalton in London in 1941, pretended not to know him. Emmet Dalton was blunt in exploding Bracken’s new persona, “If you don’t remember me Brendan, I bloody remember you and those corduroy trousers which you wore day in day out until you stank to high heaven. The smell is not out of my nostrils yet.”
Brendan Bracken must have spent years fearing being found out. If re-invention is to take place, it’s much safer to let others do the re-inventing.