This post has nothing to do with the history of science, so if you come here just for that, you don’t need to read this.
I just had an exchange on the Internet with an acquaintance, who knows that I’m British (at least according to my passport) but had forgotten that I live in Germany. He suggested I would pay for something in pounds sterling and I pointed out that it would be Euro for me. His response was that many of us live away from home: he’s an Irishman who lives in America. This exchange reminded me of a post that I started to write but never finished and inspired me to finish it.
Recently the UK’s prime minister Theresa May said, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere”. My immediate response, as a nominal British citizen, was the title of this post, because I have, I think, every reason to consider myself a citizen of the world. I will explain.
My father’s family were lowland Scots but he was born and brought up in London, although his parents made sure that he stayed in touch with his Scottish roots. My mother’s family were Northern Irish protestants but she was born in Rangoon in Burma, a third generation colonialist in British India, and spent the first thirty plus years of her life living in Burma and Northern India. Her family were tea planters. My brother, the eldest child of the family, was born in Lahore, at the time part of India today in Pakistan. My eldest sister was, like my mother, born in Rangoon, in fact in the same hospital. My father served in the Royal Indian Army during WWII, which is how he met my mother. She was the matron of the hospital where he was treated for malaria. After the war he became a civil servant and they settled down to life in India. However in 47/48, with independence they moved back to Britain, to Derbyshire. My younger sister was born in Buxton. In 1951 they moved to North-East Essex and I, for my sins, was born in Clacton-on Sea, although my parents lived in an agricultural village about seven miles inland, where I spent the first fifteen years of my life.
I then spent two years at boarding school in Colchester, Britain’s oldest city (or so they claim); living in central London in the school holidays. Having been thrown out of my boarding school, thank god, I spent one year living in central London and going to school in Holland Park. Having acquired a ropy set of A-levels I trundled off to Cardiff in Wales, which would be my main base for the next ten years. Whilst based in Cardiff I had periods of living in Brussels in Belgium and in Malmö in Southern Sweden. I have now lived in Middle Franconia in Southern Germany for thirty-seven years. Are you still paying attention at the back there?
I have a younger half sister (we share a father), who like her mother is Dutch, although her mother was born in Java and spent a substantial part of her childhood in a Japanese concentration camp. My half sister also has three mother tongues having grown up in England, Holland and Columbia. My step mother (not my half-sister’s mother), who is an fantastic lady and one of my best friends, is English but spent part of her childhood in the Middle East and as a young woman married an Indian and lived in Northern India for several years. Expelled from Burma following the war my mother’s family all moved to Western Australia where they thrived and prospered. I sometimes have the feeling that I’m related to half of the population of Perth. My brother’s daughter, my eldest niece, married an American, who she met in Munich when they were both working for Siemens, and now lives in Florida with her two charming American daughters.
I have lived in five different European countries – England, Wales (and don’t make the mistake of thinking England and Wales are the same country), Belgium, Sweden and Germany. Although I was born there, I was always regarded as an incomer in the conservative, rural, North-East Essex community where I grew up and after my mother died, when I was fifteen, I became effectively rootless, a vagabond whose home was wherever his bed was. In later life I have found a home in Middle Franconia, Erlangen is my Heimat, a German word, which is not really translatable; it means much more than simply home. However my true home for the last ten years has been the Internet and the readers of my blogs, the people I follow on social media and who follow me and the people I communicate with through comment columns and email come literally from all over the world. A day in which I converse with people from Australia, India, North and South America and half the countries of Europe is a normal day in my current life.
Although I now call Erlangen my Heimat, I still identify with North-East Essex where I grew up and first found my way in the world. I identify with the London of the late 1960s where I discovered sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. I identify with Cardiff and the ten years of my life that did most to shape the person that I am today. I identify with Brussels where I learnt for the first time what it means to live is a foreign culture, although I had a strong inkling of this from my time working with Welsh language theatre companies. I identify with Malmö, where I discovered both the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of science and for the first time set myself the aim of becoming a historian and philosopher of science; an aim of which this blog is the end product. Being a historian of the subjects has also taught me that the evolution of mathematics, science, medicine and technology has never respected national, cultural, religious or language boundaries. I am drawn to Asia not only because it is where my mother came from but also because my father was a lecturer for art and archaeology of South-East Asia and I grew up as much on anecdotes of lands such as Viet Nam and Indonesia as any tales of European countries.
I am a historian of astronomy and all those who have looked up to the stars, rather than down to their feet, have always been awed by the vastness of space. On a cosmic scale we cling to the surface of a very small lump of rock, circling a comparatively small star, on the edge of a not particularly big galaxy of which there are a couple of zillion out there. For me national boundaries, counties, continents and whatever dividing lines people think up, and they are all of them artificial constructs, have very little substantive meaning. I am a citizen of the world and if that makes me a nowhere man then it’s a label that I wear with pride.
Theresa May’s comment, which sparked this mild tirade, has the stench of the parochial, racist tinged, xenophobia that is so typical of a certain strain of English thought. It is something that my truly cosmopolitan parents made me aware of, and also warned me about, from a very early age. It is an aspect of English society that I detest and reject with all my heart. My parent taught me to embrace the world and they taught me well. In my youth I was for many years first a Cub and then a Boy Scout, it was one of the few social activities for children in the village where I grew up. One of the Scout laws is (was?), ‘a scout is a brother to every other scout, no mater to what country, class or creed the other may belong’. I have tried to live by an extended version of that law, ‘a human is a sibling to every other human, no mater to what country, class or creed the other may belong. We’s all just humans baby!