Thursday, February 05, 2009

[one of us] and one who will never be one of us

When Kim Philby was finally sprung in the 60s, there was widespread incredulity that he had betrayed his land and his people but even more incredulity that he had betrayed his class.

This latter was the one in which he remains unforgiven.

Difficult to know why the pointers to him doing this weren’t noted by more people. His family background and then his education at Cambridge, the past and present communist hotbed of intellectual England, the times in which he lived and his actions in distancing himself from his past – these all pointed to the possibility of his being a bit suspect, to say the least.

In the end, the phrase which was more often than not used about him was that he had been ‘one of us’.

This post is not about him nor about anyone even half interesting like him. It’s about me, so skip it if the topic is a bore.

Two years ago, one blogger described me as an anachronism from a long forgotten era and that epithet sits nicely. Look, mine was no more nor less than a typical white English, nominally Church of England upbringing or more specifically, Yorkshire upbringing but if you were to meet me today, you’d detect no Yorkshireman in me, either by accent or in attitude, except in a certain curmudgeonly dourness on occasions but that could equally be put down to age and my father, around whom I voyaged.

The fly in the ointment is the Australian connection. There are anomalies everywhere with me. For a start, my mother’s side is Protestant Irish and yet her family name is from the deep south of Ireland, County Cork and is spelt in the Catholic manner. My father was straight Yorkshire, living between the city of the mills and ‘oop on’t moor’ and he couldn’t stand Australians, so he really did well for me, di’n he, eh? Shades of Johnny Cash’s Boy named Sue.

I suspect I have Jewish blood somewhere but nothing in our genealogy suggests that.

In Australia, there were four main classes in those days: the colonial Australians themselves - the vast majority, then a smaller educated class, with family ties to the land or to the old country – the Macarthurs are the type of family I’m thinking of, then a class of English expats who settled in certain areas and finally the new immigrants from Europe and the older Chinese brigade. Oh … and in the outback were the aborigines. Sorry … koori.

Being one of the English expats and also, to an extent, of the educated class by upbringing, your humble blogger was a hybrid. Enough of my formative years were spent out there to develop a ‘twang’, also exacerbated by rhinitis, to make me acceptable to the French and I have ties to France too.

So, Australians always consider me a Pom, from my la-di-da manner of speaking; the Brits are divided on the issue. The uncritical place me as a convict but the shrewd can’t quite place it – I often get, ‘South African, yes?’

In Russia, it was even more weird. Drivers who gave me a lift placed me according to their own education level and exposure to the west, together with my level of Russian on that particular day.

On a bad day, I was asked, ‘Amerikanetz, da?’ through a range up to the highest level I ever achieved: ‘Pribaltica, da?’ This meant that they thought I was from either Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania.

Only about a dozen times did someone phone and take me as Russian, then get annoyed when I didn’t understand what she wanted.

In one way, this was high praise for my Russian speech but from the Russian point of view, Pribaltica was a derogatory comment – I was someone bastardizing their language, one step above Chukcha. When they found out I was British, their attitudes changed for the better, of course.

The most common assumption was that I was Yugoslav, which ties in with my first life partner who was Serbian and a wild beauty at that. She was the type you’d die for [and very nearly did] and I had no defences. On that score, I also had an attachment to a Ukrainian girl and maybe that explains how I slipped into the Russian lifestyle so quickly and why, even today, Olga Kurylenko makes the heart skip a beat [but you’d be hard pressed, in my opinion, to go past an English rose].

Yesterday, in ASDA, I saw a lady with that particular leather jacket and that particular manner and a jawline I recognized immediately but up here, she’s more likely to be Polish, whom I don’t know.

The Americans have always been onside with me and vice-versa. Maybe I think like an American or am educated in their history and culture. I spent every year in America in the 90s and in Canada too, on the strength of a certain lady I was enamoured of, a Vancouver lass.

The Americans are ultra-friendly to most people anyway but still, the point stands – I’ve always been made to feel accepted in America, which is more than I can say for my homeland. Two days ago, I was told I was not a Brit but I’m used to that now.

So, coming back to Philby - there was a man who spoke in a distinctive manner, whose background was impeccable, who also, to many, ‘betrayed his class’. With me, I’ve never been accepted in the first place by any nation or by any class as ‘one of us’.

Sometimes I see myself as the Flying Dutchman, doomed to rove the world eternally, [violin out at this point, maestro and play a mournful strain], forever suspected as pulling a fast one on the locals, wherever they happen to be, due to huge background gaps and therefore my credibility as ‘one of us’.

Let’s just say that, on occasions, it makes me sigh.

By the way, yesterday I joined the ranks of the ratepayers. Bloody outrageous too – over £1000. Does that count?

I said to the council lady, when asked to state my ethnicity, ‘I really must apologize, you know. I’m from a social grouping discriminated against these days – the ageing, white, British male. I’m afraid I can’t even claim to be homosexual [although I did try it out when I was a boy scout], disabled, nonCofE or even riff-raff. Sorry.’

Actually, I didn’t say that at all.

Well, maybe a bit.

Well, most of it, really.

Anyway, she laughed and we plan to meet up again soon.


  1. Yes there seem to be labels for just about everything these days!

  2. I forgot to say that although people place labels on me they often reassess them at a later date. It makes me smile :-)

    I try not to place labels on anyone, it is a much better idea to get to get to know someone without the prejudice of a label.

  3. A very interesting post James. It's very hard to avoid labeling people, even when you know you're likely to be wrong!
    Your rates take my breath away!!!
    In spite of the fact that I've not been over here for some time I've kept a distant eye on your progress. I'm glad things are going well.

  4. Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby , OBE. With a name like that, how he Philby not be considered one of the "boys."

    I rather believe that all humans look for something in others to enable them to use the pronoun "we." "We" would rather have you with us than against us.

    Of course to become part of the "we," one must cut through the superficial shit such as race, national origin, education, socio-economic status, religion, sexual preference, etc. Then, if you pass the superficial, we usually include you as one of "us."

    Good show,James.


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