LOOKING BACK AT MY ORIGINS

'Where do you come from?' is a question often asked. It was always amusing to me during my yearly holidays in England how people had problems in guessing my background or 'placing me' socially, as the English are so wont to do. My accent is clearly English but the exact area of the South is unidentifiable, my reactions and attitudes are not quite what are expected, my clothes are often a mix of English and Scandinavian cut.

Surnames and heredity can be revealing of local history. Born in the Cotswolds at Cirencester, Gloucester, my surname is that of a very ancient and small village in the Mendip hills close to the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. My paternal grandfather's family all hailed from the West Country , so I have fancied freely that perhaps one of our previously nameless ancestor's was from Priddy and was named after it on the occasion of being conscripted into some war. However, I read once in a book on West Country history that there was a quite well-known wandering musician and ladies' man called Priddy living in the area sometime in the 1700s.

Though I was also briefly a footloose musician, I was never much of a ladies' man, but my genes must have some West country in them. This was firmly brought home to me by an incident during a year's stay in Britain when I was 46 years old. A man I brushed against in a shop stared at me, but I did not recognise him. He seemed expectant and a bit offended, so I asked him if I had met him before. He asked if I didn't remember him from Bath, where we had held a long conversation on philosophy in that section of the public library, in which field 'I' also worked at the library. I had recently been to Bath, but never went near its library, so I questioned him further. He was convinced he knew me. I asked if this person was also wearing a pony tail - a very uncommon hairstyle in 1982. He assured me that 'I' had. Though I knew it was certainly not I, it was extraordinary, for I had then been a lecturer in philosophy for the previous two decades.

Until then I had never come across or heard of anyone resembling me so closely, apparently my virtual double. I never tried to trace that librarian philosopher in Bath, though I'd have liked to see his face if I had.

Seen at some distance, in my country's present struggles with the expanding challenges of Europeanisation and what for the one-time Empire might be called re-globalisation, I still discern a distinctive British identity. There remains a culture of civility which, though doubtless also under threat, is all too uncommon in the wider world today... much genuine politeness and helpfulness, aided by traditionally English social skills such as ease of conversation, non-perturbability and humour. Another characteristic that stands out is the culture of understatement. It is both a way of thinking and verbal expression one in which many English revel and pride themselves.

The laconic style of British understatement (i.e. 'not half bad') differs from the exuberant overstatement of much Latin and American use of words ('Fantastic!') and the more ponderous Germanic and Scandinavian serious thinking and lack of subtlety. But, apart from the sophisticated wit it usually involves, it also reflects some less admirable qualities still not shaken off; ingrained class consciousness and long-lingering insularity that probably comes of their previously not having had to cater much beyond sheer necessity to foreign subjects' languages, cultures or value-systems.

I still notice that many middle class and not least their upper class paragons are hedged about with indoctrinated mores, and though considerably less so than in my earlier days, they variously cramp the natural self. These unspoken conventions make people think to little in terms of 'I' rather than 'one' - the collective and impersonal 'one' who does not say this, do that. By contrast, in my various involvements with British working class people, I often find them relatively uncomplicated, more forthright and not so split or perhaps alienated from themselves.

When my Norwegian wife and I stayed in Britain in 1981-2 - my first long spell there since I was 23 years old - it was only very gradually that I began to pick up the well-concealed communications behind exterior behaviour, which remained a mystery to her. These signals are partly hints, partly subconscious traits which either add to or even belie what is actually said. The class awareness involved in some of this non-verbal language had shifted ground and become less conspicuous than in my youth, but they were still there. This kind of understatement also leaves unsaid what those 'in the know' understand - those who are 'in', while the circumstances and a situation - plus inculcation in the (often class-based) mores of British society - provide the unexpressed meaning. Much understated humour involved the put-down of those of 'lower' origins - originally by the hereditarily privileged of higher learning - through oblique remarks and references understandable to those 'in the know'. The denigatory comment helped keep the more forthright and uneducated in their place as did the scathing snubs of racialism and national chauvinism towards foreigners. Still today, biting sarcasm is an accepted weapon in public life and has a long tradition in the island race, much more so than in other Nordic cultures.

My uprootings and many changes of environment doubtless weakened my sense of specific social identity, but also strengthened me personally, for I became relatively unattached. I began to learn early on never to behave as anything other than myself, for my uprootedness led me to see through various social and national illusions and develop self-reliance and independence of selfhood. The insight that accrued from my various backgrounds enabled me to see things from both sides of the class divide and meant, paradoxically, that I often had the view of an outsider too, though not necessarily being excluded because of it. My leaving England and settling abroad mirrors this, a move from a class-ridden society to as classless a nation as there is.

However, he who falls between groups soon finds their conventions tend in the long run to eschew those who are on good terms with 'the other camp' as not fully integrated. If this allows a certain freedom, it has obvious disadvantages too. For example, as an Englishman in Norway, however welcome and at ease, maintaining the identity of culture and birth rather than becoming just like Norwegians in general means that I am kept peripheral in various social respects and always feel at a certain distance from the culture. Both formal and informal gatherings Norwegian style are, in the main, unattractive, uninteresting or still somehow lacking verve (alcohol is still often the main substitute for such deficiencies).

The sense that I could always 'move on' when things were no longer to my liking, a shifting of jobs, social environment and so on only perpetuated or increased my rootlessness. It is with both sympathy and repulsion that I now watch, from my fairly rooted spot in one of the most traditionalist societies of Europe, Norway, to what extent this highly-mobile kind of lifestyle, often leads to a detached and alienated kind of personality and the destruction of tradition and culture. Meanwhile, there is a welcome change in the ideals that mid-century England held before my post-war generation, those of classiness and more or less emulating aristocratic manners and values. What 'having class' means in England today often seems nothing more now than being prosperous, fashionable and showing one's money. The 'loss of roots' seems to be spreading ever wider as all means of travelling and global communication improve while migrating populations from the culture multitude seek refuge and work in our midst.

In expanding my sphere, seeking out new social possibilities and moving on towards the next place, other persons, and fresh outlets I think I mostly failed to realise what I was leaving behind. It was fine for me to get away from the dreariness that would regularly overcome me in England, to move ahead in looking for greener grass. That I was leaving familiar pastures with flowers among the weeds, I was largely unaware. It always seemed as if there would be a way back anyhow. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Instead, the Beatles' heart-moving song says it all, "Once there was a way, to get back home again..." I don't think it hits you before its too late, until people have moved away and are lost on the winds, until the old place is torn down by developers, until the bird of time has flown... then you realise what a little way it had to flutter.