I Come from Where?
“Where do you come from?” is a question everybody gets asked. Maybe when you’re at a party with your kids, standing awkwardly next to other parents at the bouncy castle, or when you’re waiting for the bus, people might, as a kind of conversation starter, ask “where do you come from?”. It can be a loaded question, especially in our current Brexit moment, but mostly when people ask “where do you come from” it’s just to have something to say. And when people ask me the question, there’s more than one answer I can give:
“I come from the lower-middle stratum of an economic system which was brought into being, in its modern sense, with the Industrial Revolution. This economic system, bearing in mind the concept of surplus value as defined by Marx, has led to an ever-greater concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. And my position within the system is due to the fact that very little of this wealth has found its way to the hands on the end of my arms. In fact, if it wasn’t for the invitation to this party, my children would never get to go on a bouncy castle because they’re too expensive to hire these days. So, to answer your question of where I come from, it seems necessary to offer some form of cursory analysis of the pervasive economic mechanisms that I live and work within.”
Or, I might say that:
“… As a straight white male (SWM) of European extraction, I come from a Judeo-Christian tradition which has been the dominant cultural force in the lands of my ancestors for centuries. Drawing on ideas and tropes that can be largely traced to the Renaissance (which, of course, themselves drew on classical models), my identity as a SWM places me in a privileged position in terms of both ethnicity and gender. I, for example, have never had to refuse to give up my seat on a bus to a SWM, because I am one. So, to answer your question of where I come from, it seems necessary to offer some form of cursory analysis of the pervasive cultural mechanisms that I live and work within.”
Neither of these answers tends to go down well.
In fact, slipping them into a conversation about mortgages or cars usually leads to bemusement, or people just leaving the room. So, now, when anybody asks me where I come from, I usually just say that I’m from Shetland. Because Shetland, after all, is where I’ve lived most of my life and seems just as sensible a thing to say as either of the replies above.
But is saying, “I’m from Shetland”, enough? Does telling people you’re from Shetland really give a proper idea of the kind of place you come from, or the kind of person you are? Because identity is complex, isn’t it? That’s what people say. Identity is complex nowadays, with people from different ethnic backgrounds living in places where they haven’t historically made their homes; with ideas about gender being challenged by the sexual revolution and the LGBT movement, identity isn’t a simple thing anymore. When people ask, “where do you come from”, the answer you give inevitably says something about the historical and cultural background of the person you are, even if people at bouncy castles don’t want to discuss it.
Knitting and Fat Ponies
Coming from anywhere, even Shetland, brings with it a set of ideas and assumptions that contribute towards a sense of identity. When people ask “where do you come from”, and I say “Shetland”, people might think about knitting, or about the fat comedy ponies we all go about on instead of driving cars. In fact, in an advert for phones a few years ago, some marketing wizard put the two things together and made a film of a horse wearing a jumper. It’s amazing what these creatives can think of when they let their imaginations run free.
But Shetland has a more complex historical and cultural background than you can represent in an advert for broadband starring a pony wearing a tank-top. The earliest Shetland people we know about, for instance, were building stone structures and making tools 5-6000 years ago. They erected standing stones, built unique burial cairns shaped like the heel of a boot, and we can see the remains of their houses in various places around the isles. We don’t, as yet, have enough evidence to say if they worshipped ponies or jumpers as gods.
Then, a bit later, in the Iron Age, in contrast to these small structures built by Neolithic people, we see the building of brochs all over Shetland. We don’t know much about how the building program was run – whether it was publically-funded, PFI, or a number of opportunistic private entrepreneurs getting in on the broch-building game – but in the late Iron Age these huge towers started to appear all across the north of Scotland. Many of the brochs are ruined now, mostly from people using the stones to build other things, but on the island of Mousa in the southern part of the Shetland archipelago, we have the best-preserved broch of all. So in Shetland we have dancing ponies, and the most complete example of an Iron-Age broch in the world. Take that, Orkney.
Although there were more than a hundred brochs in Shetland, nobody’s really sure what they were for. They’re a bit mysterious, and the debates archaeologists get into about them are vicious, usually ending up in the kind of brawling archaeologists are famous for. Once, Time Team came to Shetland to dig up a broch, and when Tony Robinson suggested that brochs might have been big farmhouses used to store cheese, Mick Aston leapt from a trench and attacked him with a trowel.
One theory about the brochs is that they were defensive structures. You know, you’re back in the Iron-Age, quietly going about your Iron-Age business, and you see some marauding invaders on the horizon. So you get all your cows and your wives and head into the broch until the invaders get fed up and head for Orkney, where the people are weak, retarded and backward. And if there was some cheese in the broch, that would be a tasty bonus.
But, as I say, we don’t know that much about the people who built or used the brochs. There’s some sketchy evidence about Picts inhabiting Shetland in the late Iron Age, but it isn’t concrete enough to cite in a serious historical article like this one. Whoever was living in Shetland in the early ADs, though, got a shock when, in about the year 800, the Vikings arrived.
Vikings are one of the other cultural markers people might think of when they hear you come from Shetland. Vikings are something we’re famous for and, every year, Shetlanders hold a number of festivals called Up-Helly-Aa, in which people (mostly men, in fact exclusively men in the biggest Up-Helly-Aa in Lerwick) dress up like Vikings and set fire to a Viking boat. They love the Vikings, the Viking people who go to the Viking celebration of Up-Helly-Aa. They put on Viking helmets, they go about with Viking axes and Viking swords drinking Viking drinks like Tennent’s Lager and Bells Whisky, and they march through the Viking streets of Lerwick, which all have proper manly Viking names like King Harald Street, King Haakon Street and Cockatoo Brae.
It’s hard to imagine there was much celebrating when the Vikings came to Shetland in the first place. They appeared sometime in the ninth century AD and we don’t know exactly what happened when they arrived. Maybe, when they landed here, the Vikings quietly integrated with the native population, and spent nights in the longhouse teaching Shetlanders how to make Danish pastries and telling tales about the successful Scandinavian model of social democracy, in which public services are properly funded due to the relatively high rate of taxation, but the reality probably leans a bit more towards the enslavement-and-slaughter model of international relations. What we do know for sure is that the Vikings changed all the placenames in Shetland to Norse ones, and that the islands were part of Scandinavia for the next 600 years. Changing the names of everything doesn’t really suggest a sensitive and respectful study of the native culture. Rape and pillage, two of the Vikings’ favourite pastimes, were probably much more fun.
Back at the bouncy castle, where two children have now been taken to hospital with concussion, this historical background plays through my head when somebody asks “where do you come from?”. I think to myself – Can I feel the blood of the Picts, or the blood of Viking heroes like Erik Bloodaxe, Magnus Barelegs, or Sven AK47arms, coursing through my veins?  Is a twenty minute historical presentation at a children’s birthday party the best way to respond to the question? Is this rich local heritage, for somebody who was born in Shetland, a birthright? Does this set of cultural markers define who I am and where I come from?
As a little boy does a somersault, I decide it’s probably more complicated than that. Just speaking about some things that happened in the place where I live doesn’t seem to capture the complex nature of my identity. So to answer the question, “where do you come from”, I start to wonder if it’s maybe necessary, in addition to a detailed look at ancient history, to say something about the environment I grew up in. After all, everybody is inextricably shaped by the social and cultural milieu they experienced in their formative years.
I grew up the 1980s, which is now best remembered for a few things. They had leg-warmers back then, and there were those keyboards you wore like a guitar, and they had the widespread and systematic sexual abuse of children. In fact, when I watch the news nowadays, it’s a bit difficult to understand how I managed to grow up in the 80s without being sexually assaulted by a pervert scout leader. Other kids from the 80s weren’t so lucky, and, although it’s too late to save anybody from the likes of Rolf Harris or Gary Glitter, at least these characters are getting some kind of comeuppance now.
What crosses your mind when you hear about a Saville or a Glitter – men who were really high-profile figures when I was growing up – is that somebody most have known what they were up to. It can’t possibly have been a complete secret, but somehow they were able to do the things they did. For years. Without anybody stopping them. While presenting a children’s television show that millions of people watched.
Looking back at this grotesque situation, it’s hard to believe that a world of famous sex fiends is what provides a fair bit of the historical background of my childhood. It seems hardly credible that an environment like this could even exist, and incredulity is maybe what let these people get away with it for so long. There were apparently rumours for years about Saville – that he was a necrophiliac for example – but maybe people thought that the stories were so outlandish they couldn’t possibly be true, and that any victim that spoke up would never be believed. In other words, Jimmy Saville and other 80s celebrity paedophiles operated in a culture that in some way allowed them to sexually exploit vulnerable children all across the country. The culture they lived in and helped to create (by, for example, using their wealth, power and status to threaten legal action against anybody who threatened to give the game away), was complicit in what they were doing. It either gave the wink or turned a blind eye when the door closed in some dank dressing room backstage at Jim’ll Fix It.
If Jimmy Saville can teach us anything, it’s that there’s a reciprocal relationship between people and their wider cultural environment. The culture allows individuals to behave in certain ways, and individuals are, in turn, able to shape the culture. Saville used the culture for the worst possible ends, but the way culture guides and steers us, and the way we influence that culture, is a loop we have to negotiate all the time. Our culture moulds us, it permits or encourages certain ways of being in the world and disallows or proscribes others. And we can all do things to reform and change our culture: we can write poems or songs; we can work as teachers or journalists or documentary makers; we can try to bring up our children as sensitive, kind, accepting people and hope they make a positive contribution to the world. The shaping of our culture is a collective project we’re all engaged in, and everything we do has an effect. Some people have more influence than others, of course, but even the most ephemeral chatter, in the queue at Tescos or on our social media accounts, does something to mould the cultural background of our lives. In a world mostly run by maniacs, it’s maybe an optimistic notion to say that people can change anything for the better. But what else can we do but maintain the naïve belief that we can, and then try to make some kind of worthwhile contribution to a better future? If a culture can be created which tacitly permits the worst kinds of behaviour, there’s no reason it can’t be slowly and patiently reshaped to make people behave in more positive ways. We can all try to form a culture where everybody is treated with respect. Where inequality doesn’t exist. Where racism or sexism disappear. Where people don’t say homophobic things. We can all be generous. We can all be kind.
At the birthday party, the bouncy castle has now been switched off and is slowly deflating, like a huge yellow plastic soufflé taken out of the oven too soon. The kids have all been given dinosaur party boxes. They’re ignoring the sandwiches and getting into the Curlywurlys. Some of them are struggling with the juice boxes. People have stopped talking to me, mostly because they’ve had enough of pre-Medieval local history or shell-suited sexual perverts from the 1980s. I realise now that neither topic is a good one for a children’s party. But, when another dad comes in late and sees me on my own, all this historical background is still swirling in my head as he shakes hands and kicks of the conversation by asking, “So where is it you’re from?”
I start to mumble something about Neolithic burial chambers but then think better of it. Despite having a whole stack of things I can call on to give an idea of where I come from, none of them seems to get anywhere near to defining who I am. And then I realise that we can’t just pick a few historical and cultural ideas to build an image of who we really are. When somebody asks, “where do you come from”, it’d be easy to say “Shetland” and then tell them, as a way of demarcating my cultural and social uniqueness, about how everybody in the isles is actually Norse rather than Scottish. But you can’t reduce a person to a handful of cultural Lego bricks jammed together to make a little plastic man. A Lego human can’t even move. Or go to Up-Helly-Aa.
So I tell the other dad, as we watch the swirl of candyfloss machine, that I’ve come to the conclusion we’re better off not making too much of where we come from, or getting too locked into our ideas of local/national/ethnic/gender identity. Because, I tell him, even though there are still real and important struggles to be had in the fight for equality for all historically disadvantaged or marginalised groups, it’s much too easy to get comfortable inside a little house of cultural Lego. He asks me if cultural Lego is the present we brought to the party, but I tell him that, no, it isn’t. We bought some My Little Pony stuff, which the mum told me they already had at home. I still had the receipt, though, so the present could be changed. The birthday girl, said her mum, would be excited to go and pick something she hadn’t even thought about yet so it all seemed to end well enough.
And as we shared what was left of a cheese pizza, I told him that we didn’t bring cultural Lego because I hoped that the little girl having the party would constantly try and grow as an individual, without walling herself inside a prison of preconceived ideas. Some of those ideas, I said, might be really worthwhile, and that I hoped she would always fight for equality, but I had come to think, during the last hour and a half, that we always have to question and transcend the cultural inheritances we find ourselves holding on to. Because if we start to see everything through a window that’s made from a set of cultural markers – whether they be markers of sexuality, nationality or anything else – we run the risk of getting too comfortable with our own sense of who we are, and of seeing everything in terms of our own prejudices and unquestioned notions. That seemed like a limiting thing, I said, and then I asked him how grasping too tightly to a cherished set of historical and cultural ideas would help us to evolve as individuals, or to alter the cultural milieu we live in? We can still play with Lego, I told him, but we don’t always need the instructions.
But when I started to explain how, in our house, we encouraged the children to only practice free improvisational Lego because we didn’t them to conform to pre-set notions of what Lego could be, he said that when he played with his son they liked following the instructions together. On hearing this, I immediately saw the two of them as the worst kind of conformists imaginable. What I’d been saying about our cultural and historical backgrounds imprisoning us; about us as free-thinking humans engaged in the evolution of both the individual and the wider world towards a better place; about how sticking slavishly to the instructions in a metaphorical Lego set was an inherently conservative and limiting path to follow – all of this had obviously been a massive waste of time. I could see that he was content to follow the rules, that he was content in his little prison of belief or faith or whatever system he unthinkingly accepted. But then he said that playing Lego with his son was one of the best things they did and that he really cherished the time it gave them together. So I decided it was probably best not to suggest that the two of them were responsible for the failure of the human race to evolve beyond its current late-capitalist malaise.
A few weeks later, the man’s little boy came over to play Lego with my kids. I mostly left them to it, popping in to the sitting room now and again with some crisps or Ribena and keeping an eye on what they were doing. And what I saw was that the boy had built what looked like a pretty good model of a broch. When I asked him about it he told me that him and his dad had worked out a broch-like design which provided a really solid foundation for all kinds of Lego buildings. I handed him a packet of Jelly Tots and, as he opened them and started to chew one thoughtfully, he said that he hadn’t been sure if I’d approve of this use of historical ideas in a contemporary Lego build, but that he really believed there was much to be learned from the past. He had studied the work of the builders of Iron-Age towers and Lego that had gone before him, and he was comfortable with the use of local cultural signifiers without feeling beholden to them. It’s easy, he told me, to criticise and exclude people for not living up to some notion of cultural, historic or social authenticity, but the stuff we find in the Lego box of our pasts is all there to be used if we want to. He just happened to be a Lego builder in a place where brochs and Vikings had existed. There were lots of other Lego traditions and he liked doing those too.
As he ate his Jelly Tots, I could see that he was keen to get back to the building. My daughter said that they were planning to build a docking bay for space ships in the side of the broch, and that a radar antenna would be necessary so the space-broch could communicate with other planets. They seemed to have it figured out, so I took the empty popcorn bowl and went back to the kitchen. Maybe they’d like fajitas for tea.
 Building walls to keep out people you don’t like the look of is an idea that’s still with us. If Trump, instead of building a wall the length of Mexico, just built a wall around himself, nobody would make much of an objection. As long as he couldn’t go on Twitter and ramble on about how his huge, phallic tower was bigger than Kim Jong Un’s
 The earliest use of the Latin word Picti is found in a text by Eumenius in AD297. Picti means ‘painted or tattooed people’, and the term seems to be a generic one for people living north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus who came south to fight with Romans. Tattooed and (presumably) bearded guys, heading off for a punch up – a kind of cross between an 80s football casual and a modern Shoreditch hipster, then.
 It’s kind of hard to understand why Shetlanders love Vikings so much. Having a series of festivals honouring the Vikings is a bit like having a Ratko Mladić day in Srebrenica, or a Cambodian parade honouring Pol Pot. But every year in Shetland there are a dozen big events to celebrate our heritage of murderous invasion. Go us.
 Not all of these names are historically accurate.
 In a recent newspaper article, paedophile football coach Barry Bennell was described as ‘Britain’s most Prolific Paedophile’. Hardly a title that many people are looking to win. You wonder, though, if the estate of Jimmy Saville read the headline and felt they’d been usurped.
 This really happens in Shetland.