We are all composed of multiple components, our sense of self informed by so many experiences in our formative years. Ask the question, “Who am I?” of others and from each you will get completely different answers. Some will answer that from a class perspective, some with religion in mind, still others considering ethnicity. A few might speak of my character, or some minor achievement. Most, I suspect, would simply shrug their shoulders.
In truth, few of my acquaintances have ever known anything about me at all. My closest friend at school knew nothing about my family, and had no idea where I lived. My best friend at college got me completely wrong, attributing to me the most ludicrous conjecture. At university, I would be into my third year before anybody learnt anything of my background. Throughout all of those experiences, it became patently clear that people of all cultural backgrounds carry with them a lot of prejudice and assumptions. Myself included.
My best friend at college was of a Muslim background. My erroneous assumption when we first met was that he was rather a lot like me: from a strict religious home, who would understand the expectations of behaviour that dominated our lives. That turned out not to be the case. In time, I would learn that he considered himself an atheist; no big deal, for I was an agnostic then. But where that worldview enabled him to break with every rule and restriction, I remained timidly subservient to the mores of my family culture.
It turned out we had little in common at all. He was into underage clubbing, and would try his best to convince me to make a fake ID card too. I offered up weak excuses as to why I couldn’t join him instead. At sixteen and seventeen, he was already drinking alcohol and smoking weed, having moved into the area after repeated trouble with the law elsewhere. His parents were quite strict, but only in so much as attempting to prevent their son from going off the rails. His serial girlfriends — always a white girl much younger than him — were a particular problem.
If you knew anything about me, you would be justified in asking how we became such close friends. I have often pondered that question too. To me, he was the embodiment of cool, so worldly-wise, with none my awkward insecurities. I felt privileged that somebody like him considered me a friend. Of course, it didn’t occur to me that maybe he felt the same way about me, for reaching out to make friends — both of us strangers — on our first day there. But more than that, just as I made an erroneous assumption about his background, perhaps he also did about mine. I was an ordinary white guy, unburdened by the yolk of religion and overbearing parents.
The truth? My mother had been ordained a Church of England deacon two years earlier. She was then ordained priest in 1994, amongst only the second cohort of female priests in the English Anglican church. She worked as hospital chaplain for the whole of the 1990s, while also serving as parish priest locally. My father, meanwhile, was both a successful solicitor and a lay preacher of twenty years. In the years I was at college, he had been made a church canon, meaning that he was responsible for administering the churches of the whole diocese, as witnessed in the evening job which kicked in no sooner was he back from work. In 2003, he was also ordained priest.
That was just the start of it. My family’s entire social life was orientated around the church. Several of my relatives were missionaries, one later ordained priest too. One uncle is considered a leading Christian authority on Islam, both teaching at theological college and working in academia. My sister was a church chorister. My paternal grandmother was a church organist. My maternal grandmother had first come to this country from Ireland as part of a Bible mission society. Christianity dominated our lives to such an extent that even as an agnostic, I continued to adhere to it morality and code of ethics.
Having risen to the height of his career as managing partner of the foremost firm of solicitors in the region, my father was wealthy. We lived in a large five bedroom house in one of the town’s most affluent suburbs, opposite the richest man in the county. By then, he had taken to driving an azure blue E32 7 Series BMW, with a built-in carphone, heated leather seats and CD interchanger. The height of luxury. In truth, he must have been very wealthy, for he managed to send all four of his children to private school. Yes, we had privilege, though I didn’t wear this very well, for it embarrassed me acutely.
It turns out I did a pretty good job of hiding my background. Indeed, so much so that most people I have known in life have never realised where I came from. My work colleagues have no idea about my religious upbringing, education or current religious profession. My next-door neighbours, witness to the small semi we live in today, could not imagine the home I was raised in. Fellow students at college and university could never conceive of the strict upbringing I had, which made their narrative about a serial philanderer all the more preposterous. I feared my family so much that even at twenty-four, they nearly talked me out of marrying my beloved.
So who am I? I’m a quarter Irish, English Muslim and Turkish enişte. Skin colour: a sort of beigey whitish pink, depending on the weather, my health and state of mind. Class: raised upper middle-class, downwardly mobile toward the upper end of lower middle-class. Wealth: living within our means. Character: a bit shy, socially-anxious, reticent. Descendent of a long line of Christian clergy. Socially conservative left-leaning liberal. Educated, with little to show for it. Northerner living down south. Common as muck. Eccentric. Hermit. Daydreamer.
Define me as you will.