Becoming British

Becoming British

Award-winning writer Eluned Gramich casts an eye on the experience of the British naturalisation procedure, as she witnesses her father’s ceremony.

We arrived at the black gates of the Mansion House an hour early at the same time as another family crossed the road towards us.

They must be here for it too, Dad said to me in German.

Yes, for sure.

This other family looked just as nervous and lost as we did. Dad was wearing his jacket and tie, his pantoffelschuhe and raincoat. His suit shoes were in the rucksack along with his papers, for later. We cut a strange pair – me, tall and clumsy in a too-cheerful cherry-red dress; my Dad solemn, compact, clutching an enormous umbrella. The other family seemed equally discombobulated. The mother in a fleece and jeans while her toddler was swathed in a princess-costume, and the father, like mine, formal and white-shirted, smiling at everything, as if saying to himself: Don’t make any wrong moves. Don’t take this away from me.

We regarded the mansion with some trepidation – closed gates, CCTV cameras – the entrance tucked away at the side: the wide doorway gave way to an imposing staircase, porcelain, chandeliers, paintings of George V striding a WWI battlefield, blonde-haired children frolicking in wheat fields, and busts of Field Marshalls and aristocrats. Everywhere you looked: the stamp of royalty, the symbols of Britishness.

The booming-voiced usher asked my father for papers. Dad knelt on the blue-paisley carpet and dug out his invitation which he had twice wrapped in plastic in case of rain. We were directed to the reception room, where we’d wait for another forty-five minutes. No one knew where to sit. Most chose the relatively sober window seats, wanting to remain inconspicuous, as if the sumptuous sofas and armchairs were not for them.

Slowly, all twenty-five people who would become new citizens trickled in. Fortunately, there were also many children, who saved us from the tense, pre-performance atmosphere with their questions, cries and giggling. The little boys dressed up in waistcoats; a girl elegantly clad in a pinafore, daisies in her hair and another with a purple tutu. But even the children did not run around the room, or touch anything, or go anywhere in the Mansion without their parents to hold their hand. They sensed that this was not the time nor place for play. Four of them would become British citizens too. I was moved thinking about how momentous this day would be for their future, and how little they would understand of this now.

I hadn’t understood it either, when I received my German passport for the first time at twelve or thirteen. Dad conscientiously solicited signatures from German civil servants and British doctors, prodding me into photo booths after school. My German passport means a lot to me. More now, perhaps, than ever before. It’s proof of my mixed identity, my duality, a confirmation of Germannes despite outward appearances. I can tell people I’m German because I have a passport; not I have a passport because I am German. No one can argue with a passport: it is the highest, most valuable emblem of identity.

And it was this passport that everyone in the room was waiting for. This: I am British because I have a passport. And because I have paid my dues to the Home Office (and not just the £1700 to cover the ceremony) and the Home Office accepted. We sat at the back of the room and observed the forty or so people, milling and taking selfies, nodding at their neighbours, but ultimately timid. We guessed nationalities – Cameroon, America, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Lebanon. Dad talked to me in German and then corrected himself: Better speak English. He still feared that something would happen to take it away. The day before he’d worried repeatedly that the Mayor would be ill, or the Lord Lieutenant. He worried that they’d have to reschedule it, and by that time Theresa May would have a new plan, a new policy, and he’d have to do it all again. Just like he did with the permanent residency he’d applied for and got, which has since been declared next to worthless.

But no. All was well. The ceremony did take place. There was a choice between oaths: religious or non-religious? (Welsh, it seemed, was not an option, although Dad had practiced it with me on the way, rehearsing the tricky words, dyletswyddau and rhwmyedigaethau. In the end, there was only English.) The red card was secular; the white card invoked God. Almost twice as many people opted for the religious oath, including the white-shirted father we’d met at the gates, after he’d asked his wife which one he ought to choose.

The man before me spent a long time in the bathroom. Nerves, Dad said. Funny, isn’t it? Why is everyone so nervous?

Why indeed? After a long wait, we were summoned to the ceremony room where Queen Elizabeth II gazed down over our heads, framed by flags. We were cowed into respectful silence. That is perhaps the best word for us guests and citizens-to-be: cowed. Because hardly anyone spoke, although everyone knew each other, guests and families silently took their seats, smoothing their dresses and skirts over their knees. We were cowed into silence by the gold gilt, the dignitaries, the knocking on the door, the announcements – the Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Lieutenant – and the national anthems: first Welsh, then British. Dad sat on the atheist side with a row of men and, behind him, were three young women in hijab, also swearing the secular oath. I saw only the back of his head when he took the oath and became British. The back of his head and the front of the Queen’s sash.

My father never thought he’d swear allegiance to the Queen – why should I? He’d said. Why become a subject when I am a republican? But look, within a year, how things have changed. He is now a loyal subject, a Brit, a pomme, a citizen, as the Mayor described it, of this wonderful country, a contributor to our society, and exporter of a foreign culture to our shores. (Everyone, said the Mayor, brings their bits to our country. What bits will my Dad bring I wondered?). The EU flag was still to be seen, nestled between the Union Jack and the red dragon. The children could not make much of the complicated words on the cards, but they did make much of the occasion, fiddling with their unfamiliar clothes and looking around the room in open amazement.

I will bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, according to the law …

I’m suspicious of patriotism, but I admit I couldn’t help but relax my guard when they pressed play on the CD and bade us all stand up and listen, the Mayor merrily mouthing the words of Hen Gwlad fy Nhadau. I confess I was swayed by the musical pomp, when the choir took over and the trumpets blared… Isn’t it always the music that does it, makes you feel? That reaches for your heart and, despite all your cynicism, takes hold of it, if only for the time it takes to reach the end of the chorus? O’r bydded yr hen iaith barhau and all that. Pure sentimentality! But my heart beat faster even as I wished it didn’t. Then I woke up again, and the film of patriotism dissolved.

But this was not about me. It was my father who swore the oath; the one who would have to be faithful. Despite his ambivalent feelings towards the citizenship, and despite the tragedy, really, of the situation that brought him here, he was happy: There, he said, showing me the certificate. I can’t believe it. There, look. My name. They even spelled it right. Naturalised, it read. Made natural, thank god, because his existence had become increasingly out of joint with the times.

The occasion would be captured by an official photograph with the Mayor and Lieutenant. More handshaking; more well dones, as if the new citizens were all children who’d come through a particularly difficult obstacle course. Which, in a sense, they had.

The Lieutenant asked: What country are you from?


Oh, how flattering, she said.

Flattering – did she say that to all the new citizens? Britain must live in a constant state of flattery; it’s almost always the country of choice, the dream destination of the refugees in Calais, for example. And outside Calais, the whole world is busy learning English: an expensive, time-consuming and ongoing act of flattery.

The mayor pressed his hand in mine one last time, saying, thank you very much, and I was left with this: the knowledge that nationality is more profound than I’d thought (which was, I’m sure, the point of the ceremony). Nationality decides how we enter the world and how we leave it and everything in between: our retirement, health, language, work, attitude, and the people around us. It frames and shapes our lives in ways that we aren’t always truly aware of. It shows just how much power the Home Office has over millions of people. The power to take all this away. To play with nationality is to endanger the core of our being, by simply saying: you’re not welcome here. You are no citizen.

Dad had paid his fee, sat his exam, filled in his paperwork, as had the other 25 citizens that day. He had his eyes scanned, the prints of every single finger recorded, his biometrics taken like a criminal. But they could have easily demanded more: more hoops to jump through, more work, more money. The Home Office could set any price, ask anything: they have all the power and the people in the room had none. After the ceremony, though, that power-imbalance has changed, at least. The white-shirted father could leave without having to worry about his family, work, all that he’d built. Yet many don’t have that luxury. The 3 million who are living in limbo, watching the news, perplexed and hurt, just as my Dad had been for the last year since June 23rd. He will never forget that morning when my mother turned to him, tablet on lap, and said: We’re out.

Thankfully, that state of crisis has passed. When we left through the black gates of Cardiff’s Mansion House, giddy with relief, he described it in German: Mir ist ein Stein vom Herzen gefallen. I feel like a stone has fallen from my heart.