The Leopard

James Meek on belonging

My family kept a leopard. It shared space with us, my parents and my brother and sisters, in every house I remember. It was with us in London, moved with us to Nottingham and crossed the border with us into Scotland when I was five. We had to bunk up two to a room in the early years in Dundee, my siblings and I, but there was always a place for the leopard. When we dispersed to university, we left the leopard behind with our parents. It’s still there, in the cool brightness of the porch of their house on the hill in Broughty Ferry in the east of Dundee, with logs and potatoes and an old sideboard hand-decorated by my mother.

The animal was killed by my great-uncle, Robin Meek, and a local huntsman, Belli, in the Nilgiri hills in southern India in 1931. Originally – that is, when I was a child – the leopard was in two parts, the skin and the head. The skin was backed with felt, the legs splayed out, the claws still attached. It roamed the houses we lived in, finding a place as a rug or draped over the back of a sofa, playing a part in our games. I hadn’t worn a leather jacket then and the weight of the once-alive on my shoulders was a primal kick. In my teens we had cats, live domestic ones, but the sensation of stroking the skin of the leopard was different, and not only because it was no longer alive. The fur was coarser, each individual hair distinct. If I rubbed it the right way there was a residual sleekness to it that wanted filling again with muscle, fat and sinew, the flesh that had been shared out decades before among the low-caste villagers on the tea plantation where my great-uncle worked.

The head was, and still is, mounted on a hardwood shield. It was stuffed and preserved by the Mysore taxidermist in such a way as to make it seem that a vengeful predator had been frozen in the act of leaping through the wall it hung on. The mouth is open in a snarl, the fur over the nose and around the eyes drawn back and furrowed in menace, the neck muscles, or whatever surrogate the taxidermist used, tensed in deep grooves. According to Robin, the leopard’s modus operandi in life was to charge its prey, leap onto the animal’s back, sink its teeth into the neck and wrench the head around with its forelimbs, breaking the spine. I used to like to test the points of the leopard’s fangs with my fingertips. The tongue fascinated me. It looked real, yet it was quite dry and rigid. Was it the real tongue, somehow preserved? Was it completely fake? Was it the tongue of another animal? Could my own tongue be preserved in that way, stopped and desiccated in the shallow cup shape of mid-roar?

My mother tolerated the leopard head as my father’s inheritance and one of the few objects the family possessed that linked to his Indian past. But the leopard skin is no longer around. It shed hairs like an old cat, and occasionally claws. The felt backing became loose and ragged. It was easier to get rid of it after Robin died in 1984. Before that we were, to some extent, keeping it for him. He visited us occasionally in Dundee, a better-looking and more powerful man than his older brother Jack, my grandfather, and projecting a sense of confidence and certainty. Although there was an Indian restaurant in Broughty Ferry my parents never ate there or ordered in and, when Robin visited, my mother cooked the lamb curry she’d learned to make, along with kedgeree, to meet my father’s yearning for Anglo-Indian food. She would prepare pappadums by sliding them under the eye-level grill to crisp. We, my father too, would break small pieces off them to nibble with the curry. My great-uncle silenced us by taking a whole pappadum and breaking it over his curry in a single crushing motion of his big hands. It made a violent, arresting sound, like a beer can being crushed, and the fragments rained down on his plate like the debris from a mid-air collision. It reinforced my impression that here was a man who knew the proper way to do things. Even as a boy I think I suspected that the proper way might have been a way of his own devising; but there seemed little difference between knowing the proper way and convincing others your way was right.

One of the few things he left behind, apart from the deconstructed leopard, was a set of reminiscences on audio cassette, including a forty-minute account of the killing that he recorded in 1976, when he was in his late sixties. Last Christmas I put the heavy chunk of plastic and magnetic tape into a player. It is not only in a redundant format, but in an antique form of a redundant format; the cassette is held together by metal screws. In a sure, deep voice, with an English private school accent (he and my grandfather were born and brought up in London, and went to St Paul’s) Robin describes the events of a May night and morning near the plantation where he was assistant manager in Kodanad, high in the mountains in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu. The previous night a leopard had killed a bullock belonging to one of the estate workers (my great-uncle refers to them as ‘coolies’) and tried to drag the animal away to eat in a thicket. The carcass had become wedged between two boulders, and the leopard had retired to wait out the daylight. Robin’s hope was that it would come back that night to feast on what remained.

He paid labourers to build a box-like machan, or hunter’s hide, in the closest tree to the kill, and after work climbed the ladder to the hide with Belli, a member of the Badaga people who worked as estate carpenter and was a renowned shikari, or huntsman. Robin poked his shotgun out of the same small opening they’d climbed in through, facing the dead bullock, 25 yards away. He’d waited in similar machans several times before for big cats to return to the carcasses of their prey, without ever seeing one, and was surprised when after half an hour the leopard appeared, ‘large, young, and beautifully marked. Its coat was dark golden, and covered with magnificent sable rosettes … Its head gave the impression of great solidity, compact power, and it had, from certain angles, an almost reptilian look, and I felt I wanted to stare at it for ever.’ He released the safety catch, and prepared to kill it.

At that moment, they heard the voices of local estate workers passing on a nearby road, and Robin, with Belli’s nodded agreement, put down the gun, for fear he would only injure the leopard and unleash it on the labourers. The animal vanished. It grew dark, a few raindrops fell on the leaky brushwood roof of the treehouse, and it swayed a little in the wind.

The leopard came back soon afterwards and began to feed on the dead bullock. Robin aimed at its left shoulder and fired. The leopard made no sound but when Robin’s vision had recovered from the pink flash of the gun, he saw it spinning around in shock and pain. He hesitated, waiting for it to stop moving until he shot again, but before he could process the urgent whispers from the unarmed Belli to give the leopard the second barrel, the animal unwound itself and flew away with a rasp of claws on the rocks.

The next day Robin got a gun for Belli and they went to track the injured leopard with Belli’s dog, an old black labrador, and a team of beaters. Belli found it in the forest, resting against a boulder, and hit it with another shot. It found the strength to flee, got as far as a stretch of open ground bounded by the rim of a thousand-foot precipice, and sat down –‘couched,’ Robin says, ‘like some heraldic beast’. It could escape only by charging the cordon of hunters and beaters. Before that could happen my great-uncle delivered the coup de grâce, at close range.

It happened to be the year the blue neelakurinji flower, which blooms once every twelve years, was out. The memory of that moment, of the gold and sable flanks of the leopard lying among the blue flowers in the harsh sunshine at six thousand feet, at the edge of a great cliff stained with the droppings of generations of vultures, makes my great-uncle’s voice speed up and a self-consciously practical, unemotional man turn lyrical, like a mannered Victorian poet, even though, as he admits, he was recounting the memory of a memory. ‘For long enough,’ he says, ‘I used to smell again in memory the reek of the dead feline, and it’s there, the nutty smell of gun oil from weapons heated in the sun, the wood smoke smell from Belli’s clothing, and mixed with all these ranker odours, the sweet, rather mysterious scents that were ever about the high forest.’

The beaters slung the leopard from a pole and carried it back to the plantation bungalows, singing a chant of triumph. Photographs were taken and the animal was skinned and the skin and head salted and wrapped in hessian and sent off to the taxidermist. By the time I met the leopard the gold had faded to beige and the black spots to donkey-brown. Once I took the photos into primary school, thinking to impress the girls with the exoticism of my family history. It didn’t go as I’d hoped. It wasn’t that they mocked the notion of an undersized ten-year-old in grey flannel shorts and National Health Service spectacles claiming kin to leopard-hunters. They frowned. They were sad and angry, those Broughty Ferry girls. They looked at the photo of the mighty, beautiful animal, its feet bound roughly together, hanging upside down from a pole, and saw an atrocity. ‘Poor thing,’ they said.

My great-uncle justified his shooting of the leopard by the threat it posed to the livestock and people of Kodanad. They knew, he says, by measuring the tracks, that the same animal had already killed several cattle and a buffalo calf. He was clearly entranced by the charisma of the living leopard. It is just as clear from his recording that he was seduced by the opportunity to enact the role of the imperial big game hunter, like the army colonels and senior plantation managers whose stories he listened to in the white men’s club in Kotagiri, who told him that when killing big cats you needed to aim for a good breaking shot into the heart.

I suspect that the day he and Belli killed the leopard was the best of his life. He was only 25, and the empire had given him freedom and power over men and access to the atavistic ethic of the primeval hunter, whose adoration of the sublime in a wild animal can be consummated only by making a fetish of its corpse. His confidence, his sense of the done thing, which I saw at our dinner table, never left him, but sureness in action is not necessarily attached to worldly success, and might even be an obstacle to it. He never married and never had children. My father believes there was one great female love in his life, and that he wasn’t a man who loves men, but we know no more about his loves than that. He left London to seek his fortune in British India in 1930, lived there until Indian independence in 1948, returned to Britain to do various jobs, and ended his days in London, not unhappily I think, as one of the lay brothers of Charterhouse, a venerable almshouse for impecunious gentleman pensioners in Clerkenwell. It was in his little room there, one of dozens of snug bachelor units off Charterhouse’s splendid panelled corridors, that he made his recordings. And yet this old empire man, this Londoner, never thought of his essential identity as being either of those things. He thought of himself as Scottish.

*

Among the few papers left by my great-uncle is a photograph of him in, I would guess, his early sixties, striding down some small-town British street in a kilt and grey tweed jacket. He looks rather fine; the confidence again. He knows exactly where he is going, and even if it is only to some bed and breakfast, or a wedding, he is sure he is in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, in exactly the right clothes. When he died, the disposal of his estate was put in the hands of a firm of Glasgow lawyers. Despite his having never lived in Scotland, apart from a mysterious few years in Orkney, despite his having died in London, where he had lived for so long, the notary record of his small savings declares, in the section marked ‘domiciled in’: ‘A native of Scotland. No known or fixed domicile except that the same was in Scotland.’

Robin and Jack, my grandfather, had claim to be Scottish, despite their London upbringing. Their parents were West Coast Scots who settled in England at the beginning of the 20th century. The brothers’ move to British India – Robin to be assistant manager on the tea plantation, Jack to work on the electrification of Madras – was in some ways a flight from bad times at home. Their Glaswegian father John’s business putting up electric party illuminations in the gardens of the West London gentry never recovered from the blackouts after the zeppelin raids, and the financial help the family got from his wife’s father, a one-time miner turned wealthy Lanarkshire industrialist, stopped when John took to the bottle and he and his wife divorced. But I’m not sure Jack or Robin thought of their move to British India as a flight, still less an emigration; I imagine them vaguely conceptualising a shift to a more congenial environment within the greater Britain of the empire, where they could act as Scottish as they liked, and enjoy the trappings of the culture they most strongly identified with, the Scottish Lowland upper middle class to which their mother belonged: armies of servants, big houses and neo-aristocratic leisure pursuits.

My father was born in Madras (now Chennai) in 1936. Apart from a brief visit when he was six months old he first saw Britain aged nine, at the end of the Second World War, from the guard rail of a passenger ship lingering off Liverpool, flying the flag of quarantine. Up to that point his life had been wholly Indian, albeit the India of the Anglo-Scots. I asked him not long ago whether he ever thought of himself as an immigrant from India. I hoped he’d take to the idea, that it might amuse him, at least. I suppose what I wanted was to mitigate the shame of imperialism through my father’s family having some claim to the subcontinent that was not of money or power or the memories of the touristic and picturesque but emotional, as of some Eurasian culture with a validity of its own, now lost beyond restoration. I wanted something like the sense of happiness I felt when I realised, listening to Robin’s tape, that he’d learned to speak Tamil. Instead my father looked at me with dismay, almost shock, as if one of his own had betrayed him, and made some mildly indignant assertion of his non-Indianness.

He found me out, in fact. The question did make him uneasy, I think. But my question was really to myself. What his expression might as well have said to me, as a mirror reflecting my own unease, was: ‘Has this referendum made you so unclear about who you are that you have to construct an Indian immigrant narrative for your father in order to answer the question “Where are you from?”’

*

I’m not eligible to vote in Scotland’s independence referendum in September because I don’t live there. This will be the third Scottish referendum I’ve missed. In 1997, when Scotland voted for devolution and got its parliament, I was living in Moscow. In 1979, when Scotland voted for devolution and was denied self-government on a technicality, I was living in Scotland, but I was 16 and too young to vote. Alex Salmond’s predecessor as leader of the Scottish National Party, the social democrat Gordon Wilson, happened to be our local MP in East Dundee. The gap between him and radical socialists like George Galloway, then cutting his teeth in the bear pit of the Dundee Labour Party, was great, but seemed neither so great nor so significant as the gap between both of them and Margaret Thatcher’s Tories, who came to power after Wilson withdrew his party’s support for Labour in Westminster. Scottish nationalism didn’t appear to be about the separation of Scotland from the UK so much as one aspect of a global struggle for self-determination and the redistribution of power and wealth. At school the socialist deputy head of English covered our classroom in the bright blue of Methuen editions as he took us through the work of Berthold Brecht, while the nationalist head of English pitched us into Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and it didn’t seem as though they were pulling in opposite directions (as James Leslie Mitchell, his real name, Gibbon was, after all, a socialist internationalist). For the rebellious, rebellion was still an individual, not a corporate activity; not the rebel as Mel-Gibson-as-William-Wallace plus army, but the rebel as Sid Vicious or David Bowie.

For many Scots, self-determination, rather than nationalism, remains the cause. Now, 35 years later, were I living in Scotland, I’d vote yes to independence, despite the short-term economic problems it would bring, and despite Salmond’s disappointing plan to compete with England and Ireland to offer foreign multinationals the lowest tax rates. Salmond isn’t for ever. In the context of England’s hostility towards Europe, Scottish independence seems, like Ireland’s now, a choice to continue a Europe-wide struggle between social democrats and tax-dodging global capital from within a community of half a billion people. The small country that seems to want to cut itself off, the insular, isolationist, separatist one, is not Scotland, but England. That is why, selfishly, as a resident of England, I think Scotland should vote for independence but hope it doesn’t: I don’t want to hear the door slam north of Berwick and find myself locked in a room with Nigel Farage.

*

Whatever the result of the Scotland referendum, something’s already changed. There’s nothing like discussion of the reinstatement of old borders, of the transformation of conceptual national-ethnic identities into bureaucratic, juridical ones, to exacerbate the discomfort of those, like me, who are already ambivalent about their national and ethnic identity. It never used to be a problem, in response to the question ‘Where are you from?’ to say that I was born in London but grew up in Scotland. Scots, friends and acquaintances, have been tolerant of my linguistic shifts. As a boy in Dundee I’d unconsciously adopt a Scottish accent at school and the southern English accent of my parents at home. I realised I was doing it when I was round at a friend’s house and called my mother from his phone. My friend, Mark, began literally rolling around the floor. ‘I’m at Mahk’s house! Maaaahk!’ he giggled, imitating my suddenly ‘r’-less enunciation. After Edinburgh University the accent oscillations stopped with the pointer stuck at ‘English’, but if that occasionally annoyed someone, it wasn’t so much because I seemed to have chosen English over Scottish as that I seemed to have chosen a toff’s voice over the voice of the common man. (Actual English toffs unfailingly identify a twang of otherness in my speech.) The then news editor of the Glasgow Herald told me in 1985 that he liked my writing but would never give me a reporter’s job because of my accent. His point was that if he sent me to doorstep the neighbours after a murder they’d be too distracted by my vowels and lack of ‘r’s to spill the beans on the killer. He may have been right. But most of the time, inside the baggy enclosure of permanent Britain, the deviation from certainty about belonging to one nation that was represented by accent was harmless and obscure. In Ukraine and Russia in the 1990s I was as Scottish to the Slavs as I told them I was. Since 1999 I’ve lived in London and been more or less of Scotland: Scottish with an asterisk referring to some small print nobody bothers to read. Now in the harder-edged Britain of 2014 I begin to visualise forms, lists of options to check and a box at the end of each marked: ‘Other – please specify.’ I think of citizenship. I think of passports.

Were Scotland to vote for independence in September, I’m certain I’d qualify for citizenship of whatever the rump Britain was called. I was born in London, I live there and my mother was born in Essex. Despite my father’s Indian birth and early childhood, I’d be pushing my luck to ask for Indian citizenship. My mother’s mother was Hungarian, and under that country’s sweeping new citizenship law, that would be enough to get me a passport, providing I learned to speak Hungarian. As for Scotland, it, too, plans generosity for the prodigals. I’d probably qualify for Scottish citizenship on three grounds: my father’s mother, Ena, was born there, of impeccable Scottish parentage; I lived there for more than ten years continuously, from 1967 to 1984; I have a ‘close and continuing relationship’ with Scotland. My parents live there. My elder sister lives there. Some of my closest friends are there. My memories are there. The publisher of my novels is there. My bank account is there. I like it there. I have been fostered as a writer there in a way a Yorkshire or Cornish or Mancunian writer would not have been. Scotland has been kind to me. I’d have to apply, though. And perhaps I shall live there again, one day.

In bureaucratic terms, the transition from a non-EU England to an independent EU-member-state Scotland would be one of re-immigration. And there is nothing unexpected about that. The legal immigrant is one of the two worthy statuses the world recognises today, the other being the native. The native, who is absolutely of a country; and the legal immigrant, who is in the process of becoming a native – or at least her children are – but who is permitted to celebrate, and is even admired and loved for celebrating, the culture of the country of which she was a native. There are other statuses, but these are ones of crisis and transience, subject to suspicion from native and legal immigrant alike: asylum-seeker, migrant worker, illegal immigrant, tax exile, fugitive.

These categories are not exhaustive. There’s another category, often reviled and hard to define, which the potential independence of Scotland makes me claim for myself. Not rootless cosmopolitan exactly, but deracinated cosmopolitan: one for whom the container of nativity has been abolished, or has not yet been created, and who thus cannot be a native or an immigrant, for they have nowhere to emigrate from, except the place from which we are all emigrants, the past. The severed head of an Indian leopard on the wall of a house in Scotland is the emblem of the abolished polity within which my father’s family were most at ease in their Scottishness, the pre-1948 British Empire. I’m glad that empire has gone, but I’m not going to deny, forget or renounce my family’s part in it. If the Britain I was born in, the Britain that came into being in 1922 with Irish independence, is to be abolished, so be it, but I see no reason to deny my Scottishness, or Englishness, or any of my -nesses, as a result. There’s one other country I’m pretty sure would offer me a passport: Israel.

*

In the year of the abortive referendum of 1979, my last year at school in Dundee, my Hungarian grandmother, Anne, died of Hodgkin’s disease. She and my maternal grandfather, Paul, were living next door to my mother’s sister in London at the time. Not long before she died, lying weak in bed, my grandmother said to my aunt: ‘There’s something I have to tell you.’ She made the confession, or acknowledgment, that besides being Hungarian, she was Jewish.

Why Anne went to such lengths to conceal her Jewishness – entirely successfully as far as her two daughters and her grandchildren were concerned – we don’t know. She came from Budapest to England in the 1930s after Paul, who’d met her in Europe on his literary-journalistic wanderings there, wrote her a letter including the sentence: ‘I suppose you could come to England and we could be married.’ Presumably the letter was in response to one from Anne telling him how difficult life in Budapest was becoming for Jews. She fled from an explicitly anti-Semitic country to one that was hardly philo-Semitic. My aunt speculates that she thought it would be better for her daughters not to know she was Jewish. What if the Nazis invaded?

Anne, who’d been educated at the Sorbonne and hung out with poets in gilded cafés, found that she’d transplanted herself from the populous glamour and grandeur of one of Central Europe’s great cities to a small cottage with an outside toilet on the Essex-Suffolk border, near the village of Bures. It was simpler for her to be plain Hungarian there – alien enough for the locals – rather than Jewish Hungarian. Her scattered family, most of whom survived the war by emigration or concealment, didn’t visit. She seldom talked about her Budapest life, or, during the war, about what was happening to the Jews in Europe. In rural eastern England in the 1930s and 1940s her daughters never knowingly encountered Jewish people. My mother and aunt left home, went to university and married. Even when my aunt chose a man who was partly Jewish for a husband, it didn’t provoke a revelation from her mother. In 1957, Anne was baptised into the Church of England, without a whisper to her daughters that she was renouncing the faith she was born into.

I knew her as a small, dark-skinned, slightly stooped woman with a strong accent who smoked Benson and Hedges, drank strong percolated coffee and doled out goulash, strudel and walnut chocolate cake to her pale, skinny northern grandchildren. She could be kind to the point of over-sweetness and viciously hostile to anyone she felt belittled her. She would clean the house every weekday, pausing to straighten up and let out doleful sounds, half moan, half sigh, loud enough for us to hear and understand her suffering, although we didn’t. I feared her disapproval and loved to light her cigarettes and was very fond of her. She went to church on Sunday in a twinset and pearls, with a hat and a handbag, and smiled at the vicar as she shook his hand. She prayed with great intensity. For some reason I always imagined her praying for herself. Her maiden name was Bajan, except that later we found out it wasn’t: they’d changed it from Blau to sound more Hungarian. Friends went to Auschwitz and Belsen. A sister and brother-in-law went to Hollywood. Like my mother and aunt I lacked the knowledge to put her in the context from which she came. My Scottish comprehensive school was a study in white Protestant monoethnicity. The Catholics had their own schools. There was one Scotticised French boy and towards the end of my time an English lad called Smurf who made no special effort to fit in and so fitted in immediately. At 16 I’d only left Britain once, for a family holiday to France, and barely knew Glasgow or the big English cities. I didn’t know, and wouldn’t have cared if I had, that Muriel Spark was half-Jewish or that Ivor Cutler came from a Glasgow Jewish family. What I knew of Jews was gleaned – not that I was trying to glean – from news about Israel, from books and films about the Holocaust, from a TV play by Jack Rosenthal set in London called Bar Mitzvah Boy, and from Woody Allen films. I’m not sure I was even conscious in the 1970s that Woody Allen was Jewish. He was a funny American comedian who looked a bit like me. I had no Jewish experience. And then came Granny’s near-death announcement and it turned out me and my sibs had been having one. Not knowing we were having a Jewish experience was our Jewish experience.

Quarter Jewishness might seem a small and meaningless thing, and perhaps should be. It was Jewish enough for the Nazis to designate it as a particular category, ‘crossbreed of the second degree’. Under the terms set by the Wannsee Conference they were to be left more or less alone unless they had a particularly ‘Jewish appearance’ or ‘a political record that shows they feel and behave like a Jew’, in which case they would be exterminated along with the others. Israel, accordingly, under its Law of Return, offers citizenship to those with at least one Jewish grandparent. One day just after the turn of the millennium I was sitting in the canteen of the Knesset interviewing an MP for a newspaper article about proposed modifications to the Law of Return. At some point I mentioned my own grandparentage, which, having conferred Jewishness down the maternal line, made me of the tribe, halachically speaking. Before then the encounter had been rather stiff and remote; afterwards my interlocutor relaxed, smiled, chuckled, and made me understand that as long as his political rivals didn’t meddle with the law, I’d be welcome. It seemed an arbitrary offer to make an atheist who couldn’t say what and when the Jewish feast days were, or speak one word of Hebrew or Yiddish, and who had no intention of becoming Israeli. It was friendly, and gave me a warm buzz, yet it was odd. Like a credit card offer, I’d been pre-approved for membership, using the same criteria with which my forebears had been singled out for execution.

*

That photograph I took to school of the dead leopard is poignant not only because of the indignity of the trussed-up carcass but because the animal’s body perfectly obscures the face of the huntsman Belli. The Indian without whom Robin would have struggled to kill the leopard has a name but no face in his story. Robin learned Tamil but never conceptualised the possibility that, by living in India for so long, it had become part of his identity in ways beyond his control. My grandparents were the same. My father was born and spent his early youth as a privileged child of colonial Scots in the institutionalised injustice of British India. He was seven in 1943, when three million Indians died in a famine the colonial administration could have prevented. My grandfather wasn’t part of the government, but as head of the General Electric company in southern India he was part of the colonial system that continued in attenuated form even after independence. My grandparents stayed on until the 1960s. They retired to what they thought of as home, to Britain, only to find it wasn’t whatever it was they hoped it would be. There were no more servants. They hadn’t become rich in India. Old friends who’d been equals in India turned, in the British environment, into acquaintances from different castes and tax brackets. My grandparents found they couldn’t settle down. They moved from house to house, each smaller than the last, as redecoration and new curtains whittled away their capital. They spent their last two decades in Scotland; for most of the time I knew them they lived in a small flat at the top of an Edinburgh tenement. It was perfectly comfortable, apart from the stairs, and we visited every few weekends, but they never seemed at home.

In the most glib liberal simplification, my father’s parents would belong to the class of ‘oppressors’ and my mother’s mother to the class of ‘oppressed’. And yet towards the end of their lives there was a convergence. Indeed my Hungarian Jewish grandmother, heir to thousands of years of making a home out of not having one, ended up adapting with more vigour to the superficially alien world of rural England than my theoretically Scottish grandparents adapted to their theoretical homeland after thirty years in India. Where the ancestors of Don Fabrizio, the princely hero of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, actually became the leopard – they sank their teeth into the land and peasantry of Sicily, and in so doing, merged its substance into themselves, making themselves part of the nativity of the place – my grandparents partook of exploitation without the yearning to possess and be possessed by. As bourgeois they went to India and as bourgeois they returned. My uncle didn’t buy his leopard in the market, and yet it is, for us, a souvenir, whereas Don Fabrizio is the Leopard, at bay, besieged by bourgeois unificationists.

There is a natural rivalry and affinity between the historically dispossessed of homeland and the geopolitical orphans of abolished empires: each has to make their way against native scepticism in whichever nation state is their patron, their residence and their place of obligation. Sometimes the two merge, as in the case of the Jewish Austro-Hungarian writer Joseph Roth, who ended up broke in Paris, mourning the dissolution of ‘my fatherland, the only one I have ever had’. ‘His birthplace had been ceded to Poland,’ writes Michael Hofmann, ‘his country – the supranational Dual Monarchy comprising 17 nationalities – was a figment of history, and he lived off his wits, out of a couple of suitcases.’

My uncle lorded it over the Indians until they quit the empire, yet he stepped out in tartan garb that was, no matter how cosily parsed by Walter Scott, an emblem of the once rebellious Gaeldom the English and their Scottish allies systematically destroyed. My father speaks with sadness of the nearly twenty years of isolation from his parents he experienced, in the time before Skype and cheap air travel, between coming to Britain as a child in 1945 and them returning from India. His younger brother moved even further away, to New Zealand. In reaction my father sought settlement, family, home, domesticity. He sought to re-racinate. My mother and he found each other at Oxford; they had children and moved to Scotland, where they’ve lived now for nearly half a century. Was their marriage, I wonder, in some unconscious way, partly an alliance between two different traditions of deracination, the post-imperial and the diaspora?

There are other forms of deracination. Even my other grandfather, Paul Chadburn, who was born in England, lived in England and died in England, had something of the unsettled about him. Were he judged by his 1953 novel, Treble Chance, the only one he published, you’d think him an anarchic 18th-century Tory, a folk-Anglican raging in the ruins of London against the welfare state and the BBC (where he worked for a time) and the difficulties a postwar English gentleman faced in getting steak and claret. Yet this was the same cosmopolitan European who hung out on the fringes of the Isherwood set in Berlin, read Dante in Italian, bought Ulysses when it first came out, stood next to James Joyce in a Parisian pissoir but was too shy to speak to him, and who even in his eighties could give my mother a hard time for not having quite reached the end of A la recherche du temps perdu. I like to think he would rather have been a pre-Reformation cleric, when the Church was vast enough to support writers and thinkers who didn’t bother with liturgical matters, who might be of one country but flowed across Europe down capillaries of Latin – the medieval cosmopolitanism of which modern academia is the counterpart.

In his contribution to the recent collection Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence, Alasdair Gray addresses the native-immigrant distinction – natives implicitly, immigrants explicitly. He divides immigrants into two kinds: ‘Immigrants into Scotland, as into other lands, are settlers or colonists. English settlers are as much a part of Scotland as Asian restaurateurs or shopkeepers, or the Italians who brought us fish and chips. The colonists look forward to a future back in England through promotion or retirement.’ This is restrictive. It doesn’t allow for those who simply come, stay for a while, and then go again – back to where they came from, or to be immigrants somewhere else. Nor does it allow for those who immigrate but aren’t certain whether they might move again. Neither of these groups are necessarily settlers – or necessarily coming to Scotland with a colonial attitude towards the natives – although they may be. It’s not clear why it would be wrong for an English maths teacher, for instance, to move from Nottingham to Glasgow for a few years, do their job conscientiously, send their children to the local schools, pay their taxes, take part in the life of the community, then depart for a better-paid job in Exeter or a worse-paid job in Bogotá.

The potential exit of Scotland from Britain and of Britain from Europe comes at a bad time for my peace of mind, coinciding as it does with the armed intervention by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, a country at whose birth I was present in 1991. When I arrived in Kiev from its twin city of Edinburgh, where I’d spent three years working on the Scotsman, I was probably as much of a Scottish nationalist as I’ve ever been, and saw a connection between the Moscow-Kiev relationship and the Edinburgh-London one. Today my sympathies are still with Ukraine, tainted as its selfhood is by the atavistic chauvinism of Halychyna. The manner of Russia’s seizure of Crimea was treacherous, aggressive and unnecessary. But as I sit in England, contemplating the breaking away of Scotland, I have a better understanding of what lay behind the downcast, unsmiling faces of old men in Sevastopol in the early 1990s. The Soviet Union was being abolished and divided up; it was already a broken thing. Yet it was also the place in which they were young, wrote their boy’s poems and fell in love.

While I was working in Edinburgh in the late 1980s I took a holiday to visit a schoolfriend who’d become a diplomat, learned Arabic and been posted to Algiers. One day we went with his family on an outing to Tipasa, whose Roman ruins by the Mediterranean were so beloved of the young Albert Camus. Among the stones and trees near the sea’s edge, in the warm salt light, was a memorial stone with an inscription quoting the writer: ‘Je comprends ici ce qu’on appelle gloire, le droit d’aimer sans mesure.’ Camus, the pied noir who settled in France, struggled to accept the violent rejection of the French presence by the Arab majority in Algeria, a country he thought of as part – his native part – of the greater ‘patrie’. Everyone has roots. But they may extend from places scattered in space and time, and they may be roots from which one has become separated, or which have been designated in some way unsound. Seen through the prism of what happened in Algeria, Camus’s phrase ‘the right to love’ takes on a plaintive cast. But there is no self-pity in it. Better to insist on the right to love one’s diverse roots than to insist on being loved for every set of roots one has.