Home > Uncategorized > Where do I come from?

Where do I come from?

‘Where am I from?’ With this simple question, every human being connects themselves to Place. Yet the answer can be surprisingly complex. Having spent my childhood in London NW1, lived in London again in my 30s, and parents who retired back to Camden town, I have long simply identified as ‘Londoner’. Indeed, as a child I was under the impression that to be British was to have significant Jewish blood and to be a left-wing intellectual. I now realise this is a very specific sub-ethnicity: ‘normal for NW1’, perhaps.

More to the point, this self-identification isn’t really true. Because In 1974, when I was 11, my parents relocated to west Devon: a deep England still relatively untouched by metropolitan niceties. I stayed there until I went to university, and thus it was there, not London, that many of my the most formative experiences took place. It is there that I encountered Brentor, triggering an engagement with ‘Place’, and with religious buildings in particular, which has been the guiding obsession of my working life. It is there I went on to explore local churches, climb local tors, and allow a rain-soaked landscape of granite and Hurdwick lavastone to seep into my very soul. It is there I had my first kiss, had my first drink, fell in love for the first time, swapped tapes of the John Peel show with my classmates – music I still listen to today – and found my first ‘tribe’: a gang of vaguely lefty nonconformists known to ourselves as the ‘Corner Lot’ for the location we traditionally occupied in the VI form block.

Perhaps, in reality, I am from two places: one cosmopolitan and urban, the other a west-country twist on a deep England: and it is habits of mind from both that have defined my life. After all, I have chosen to live in a rural village near a market town, replicating in my own kids adolescent rituals – inter-village all-hours Dad-taxi services, cities as a place to visit rather than to inhabit – that are more Devon than London. I feel spiritually most at ease in an Anglican context: what could be more trad-English? And yet there is much in my life that doesn’t fit Wiltshire stereotypes. We are a mixed-race family; I have come to know China better than any European country; and I still get off the train in Paddington and somehow feel ‘London! Phew: I’m back in my Manor’.

In other words, it is easy to construct a narrative of identity that doesn’t actually fit the facts; Place may be relatively immutable, but the stories we tell ourselves about it are not.  

This question of ‘where I’m from’ is intimately bound up with one’s parents’ identity. Where they are from is a part of where you are from; where they ended up is where you grew up. Perhaps that’s why I have found that, with their passing away, the loss of a ‘home’ in NW London has been bizarrely hard to adjust to.

In some ways, the answer to ‘where were *they* from is simple: one was from Edgware, in the 1920s effectively stockbroker belt country; the other from the East End. Their geography thus maps onto my London, which has been focused in NW1, NW3, E1, E8 and N16, quite closely.

But again, there is much more to it than that. My mother’s side, the Edgware one, had connections with Dorset as well as London, and included a very significant Huguenot branch. Enlightened middle-class nonconformists, then. My father’s side, the East End one, had fled Bialystok on the Polish/Russian border in about 1900: Ashkenazi Jews.

Yet in both cases, their family name is itself evocative of Place.

My mother’s maiden name, Suttill, is presumably from the Old English for ‘south hill’: a generic Anglo-Saxon place name (though given they have been traced back to medieval Lincolnshire a significant Scandinavian element would come as no surprise).

Meanwhile my own surname, Cannon, is the result of the decision of my great-grandfather (I think it was), Israel Zelich Cananovich, to Anglicise his family name. In its original form then, it presumably means ‘son of Canaan’.

Suddenly we have abandoned a ‘south hill’ in Lincolnshire for the contested edgelands of Poland and Russia, and then been tipped into the even more contested country of the Middle East, transported there through a place name that evokes perhaps the most profound connection of people to place in human history.

A name, too, that spins out into a realm of more mythical promised lands: Kingdoms of God, Heavenly Jerusalems, utopias. This concept of an imagined ‘perfect place’ is occurs in many cultures, from the phrase, attributed to the First Nation peoples of North America but it seems possibly a white settler invention, ‘happy hunting grounds’; to the Buddhist Pure Land. Perhaps the search for an Earthly equivalent is really what this is all about; where we are all from; where we will return to.  

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. janevsw
    May 20, 2022 at 3:25 pm

    Fascinating! And oddly similar things in my family: born S.E. London, originating Somerset / with a Huguenot line from the Essex-Cambridgeshire border, husband’s maternal grandfather the son of Russian/Polish Jews, changed his name from Moritz to Morland in the middle of his WW1 service…

    • May 21, 2022 at 4:22 am

      Jane, thank you. That is indeed remarkable — clearly we’re a good mix!

  2. Michael Butterfield
    May 23, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    This is an amazing story. Thank you Jon for sharing this!

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