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THIS IS OUR LAND - OR IS IT?


NICHOLAS HANCOCK

THIS LAND IS OUR LAND - OR IS IT?

   BY NICHOLAS HANCOCK


Nicholas Hancock is one of those few writers who is so uncannily in tune with the reader (any reader) that one has the uneasy feeling that Hancock is not the real author at all - but you are. It is as if by some mysterious metaphysical alchemy the author of Metafizzical Essays and Others* has ransacked your brain of its ideative content, then flown off to his Liverpool roost to commit it to paper.

Nicholas Hancock was born in Sussex in 1933 but spent most of his youth in a Dickensian school owned by his mother in rural Wiltshire. From his 17th to 19th year he was a peón or gaucho in Uruguay. After his National Service, he worked, among other things, on a farm, in a shoulder pad factory and on a seiner on the North Sea before studying at the Sorbonne in 1954-55. In 1989 his novel La Béatification was published in French Canada. In 1990-91 Nicholas cycled extensively in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, being in Petra for the outbreak of the Gulf War and meeting his future wife in a Prague pastry shop. In 1998 Phénix published his French poetry in the collection Choses tristes while in the following year the National Poetry Foundation published some of his English poems in Window for a Monad. His most commercially successful novel: Daniel and Miriam was recently published by Acorn Publications and is available from most bookshops.

*Metafizzical Essays and Others: Available in paperback from Amazon price: £14.50

                                              THIS LAND IS OUR LAND - OR IS IT?

In the London of the forties I saw my first Indian. That that's what he was, there was no doubt. Though disappointingly he wore a dark suit his head was sublimely encased in a white turban. And I knew then and there that my life's ambition was to be an Indian.

Over fifty years later my aspirations have somewhat cooled. Now, when I see local traders in kameezes, I become unaccountably irritated, and a whole right-wing monologue unfolds behind my eyes: why do they come here when they don't even appear to like us? Is it for the political system (milder police brutality, better concealed corruption)? Is it for Benefits? Is it for greater commercial opportunities? Of course it's not only dress styles from the Subcontinent. There are keffiyehs, abas, yashmaks, burnouses, sarongs, saris and kimonos. There are Iranian women in hijab, Afghans in burkas, Sikhs with concealed weapons. And I tell myself there's a place for everything but that everywhere is not the place.

When I cycled out of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta into the abutting African town, I was delighted to see djellabahs among overladen donkeys and cones of spice. But that was Morocco, not Liverpool or Southall. I said that my irritation was unaccountable, but surely we should try to account for what is perhaps only superficially inexplicable. One of our most common complaints about immigrants is that they don't bother to assimilate; their mode of dress is at the same time the most conspicuous sign of this and the most superficial. It's as if they'd forced their way into our homes and not even recognised that we were there.

Thus the concept 'home' is extended to the whole of the British Isles - or at least that part of it we regard as our own. Now a moment's thought will cast doubt on the right of a people to say, 'This land is ours.' All 244,100 square kilometres of it? We're caretakers at the very most - and pretty bad ones at that. But owners? There is a minority of our citizens that have legal rights to smaller or greater portions of the land mass; but this is simply because, when the jurists were developing the law of land ownership, they hadn't read Proudhon's judgement that 'property is theft'. I'm not suggesting the socialist was completely right. How indeed can it be theft unless the land belonged to someone or something in the first place? But neither was he completely wrong. It's true that many animals are territorial. The redbreast's song sounds sweet to us but to other redbreasts is an aggressive warning; a wolf lifts a leg to mark the boundaries of his domain. Yet there's no right to land that's sung or urinated over in this way, nor is there any law of property inheritance for them. When the robin's call is silenced and the wolf's urine evaporated, others will become owners while they have the strength to do so. Indeed among humans the concept of property is not universal - though it is indeed rapidly becoming so.

Hunter-gatherers such as Plains Indians were bewildered by the spectacle of whites staking claims to the land, which they thought no one could 'own'. It's in societies based on agriculture (probably now between 90 and 95% of our population) that land law or custom prevails. In exchange for fees or services we are granted a magical document whose very name deed bears witness to its efficacy and power. However, this kind of ownership, chimerical as it is, is altogether different from that claimed by a whole people with a shared history for the land they live in. In the latter case we haven't legalised so much as sentimentalised; we use whatever fragments of the national culture we're in possession of to lay a very nebulous but heartfelt claim to the country.

When we were overrun by the Danes, the Saxons and the French, within a few generations it was difficult to see the difference. Now we feel we're being invaded, though by no foreign levies or armies, but by people who - without significant miscegenation - will still look different after centuries. It's not that we like our own people - we don't. It's simply that kameezies bring us closer together in a solidarity of trainers and sweat pants. Besides, mankind is seldom happy unless thoroughly miserable. There is no reason why these people should adopt our mode of dress, why they should learn to love us or why they should not sweep down on us in overwhelming numbers. I'm afraid that the kameez irritation is as unreasonable as the glamour of that first turban.

The Poet of Despair - The Works of Nicholas Hancock