12 October 2017

A Sense Of Belonging

A primal need.

By Lynda Goetz 

I happened by chance to listen to part of a programme on Radio 4 this morning on the choral history of Britain.  In it, the British baritone and composer Roderick Williams OBE was exploring the way music used to be much more a part of everyday British life than it is today; how, although there is currently a revival of interest in choral music, daily singing is not part of most people’s lives the way it used to be in a past when workers sang together as a way of helping to get through the working day.  I then read about the new series which Neil MacGregor, former director of the British museum, starts on Radio 4 on October 23rd,  ‘tracing 40,000 years of believing and belonging’.  I was suddenly struck by how little many of us living in modern Britain today really have much sense of belonging to anything.

A majority of us voted back in June 2016 to leave the EU, an institution in which, as Theresa May pointed out in her Florence speech, ‘The United Kingdom has never felt totally at home’.  So what do we all feel we belong to?  Britain, England, our county, our town or village, our company or workplace or simply our family?  In many ways, this is one of THE questions of our times, as countries like the UK, Scotland and Cataluña question their position within the larger associations into which they have been ‘assimilated’.  As individuals, we cannot even safely try to identify what constitutes the smallest unit of community, the family, without falling foul of some politically correct definition and upsetting others. Globalisation in all its aspects, cheap air travel and the loosening of community bonds affect all of us, and the pace of change has accelerated dramatically in the last fifty years.

Neil MacGregor posits the theory that Britain is the first society effectively to operate without any shared religious beliefs and rituals at its heart.  Mr MacGregor claims that as a result of our loss of religious faith, “We are trying to do something that no society has really done.  We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time.”  Speaking at the launch of his BBC series, he explained: “It’s not about individual belief; it’s about how patterns of belief have shaped societies and given societies coherence”.  He also takes the view that religion and politics are inseparable and considers that it is a ‘very 18th century European idea that you can separate the two’.  All this may well be arguable, but the consideration of it is undeniably interesting.

Where then does this leave us, or the EU for that matter?  Attempts to reinvent the essential fabric of societies have of course happened in the past; a number spring to mind, with Communist China and Soviet Russia at the forefront.  These failed experiments have damaged the societies they attempted to reshape, but those societies have sprung back in many ways unchanged.  The Chinese have reverted to being the thrusting trading nation they always were.  As for religion, although China is officially an atheist country, according to a 2007 survey there were 300 million religious believers in China, mainly Buddhist and Taoist, but nevertheless with millions of Islamists and Christians (although these have been heavily persecuted in recent years).  October 2017 is the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.  Those who have studied Russian history are well aware that it was not the first Russian revolution, nor the last.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also interestingly, no real embracing of Western democracy.  Might this be partly attributable to an inherent characteristic of the Russian nation?

Royal Leamington Spa

If we Brits are no longer to be part of a larger institution such as the EU, does this mean we will be cast adrift and lost in the world?  In what do we actually believe, if anything?  Some, in response online to the article on Neil MacGregor, have suggested the answer to be scientific facts.  That is one possibility, but given the paucity of our knowledge in the overall scheme of things it hardly provides any sort of solid foundation.  It would be reassuring to come to the conclusion that these days people believe in themselves, in each other; that it is humanity itself that is the uniting factor.  However, at a time when ‘stress’ and ‘mental health’ feature frequently in headlines and discussions, it is apparent that most do not even have that reassurance.  Our vain struttings mask a fear that has perhaps never been greater.  If we are not part of anything larger than ourselves, then what are we?  Clearly, a brief column in The Shaw Sheet does not set out to answer the sort of existential question which has bothered mankind since those first artefacts, found in caves, were created 40,000 years ago.  But perhaps as we face the future outside the EU (which incidentally has ‘nurtured’ us for a mere 40) we should consider a little more, not only our history, but our communities and, to return to the musical thoughts which initiated this article, start ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ (perhaps even in harmony as opposed to the current discord).  On the other hand, however, maybe we should not even worry – according to a recent Rightmove survey, happiness is living in Royal Leamington Spa.


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