One of the strange things about being a nomad is that you lose a sense of where you are from. You’re not quite from where you live, not having had grown up there, but you’re also not quite from where you are from because that place and you have changed.
It sneaks up on you slowly, this feeling of having one foot in two worlds, till they drift far enough apart that really, if anything, you’re from the gap.
When you become an immigrant, you also become an emigrant, a stranger to two worlds — or, in the words of former British Prime Minister Theresa May, “A citizen of nowhere.”
The sense of being a gap dweller, a citizen of nowhere, was brought to my attention in a unique and rather surprising way while I was – in a very symbolic way – inhabiting the gap between worlds. As I wended my way through Lisbon Airport, preparing for a flight back “home” to Edinburgh, I was getting missed calls at check-in, phone calls at security, text messages in the cafe and video screens at the gate: Queen Elizabeth II was dead.
Long live the King.
How strange it was to have been resident outside my country from these four years of Brexit arguments and the final, inept split from the European Union, COVID, two changes of prime minster, a cost of living crisis, a crumbling union, and to find myself arriving in the midst of one of the biggest events in more than 70 years: the death of the monarch.
Not only that, she had died in her residence in Scotland, and Edinburgh, the city where I was visiting, would play an important role in the following days.
Here I was, a citizen of nowhere, with a front row seat to a drama unfolding, seeing it from both an insider and outsider eye.
As a British — a Scottish — citizen, I have mixed feelings about the monarchy. It is both strange and troubling that members of one family are allowed (and also required) to be the rulers of the country according to archaic laws and rules. But if that is where that responsibility lies, the former Queen took it on with a sense of devotion and some apparent political skill that made her a popular figure.
On the other hand, although a politically neutral monarch, during her long reign various British governments acted literally in her name and therefore, by her decree and with her tacit approval – and many of the actions of these governments, both at home and abroad, have been problematic, to say the least.
But as a witness to history, she’s an enthralling figure, straddling seventy years of enormous changes in society but a single point of continuity. She became queen the year my father was born and was crowned the year my mother was, the queen my grandparents would have known for more than half of their lives.
And as an outsider, a resident of Portugal, or citizen of nowhere, I find a morbid and curious sense of humour at how bizarre the United Kingdom and its people are.
It was strange to be arriving in the UK in this moment when nobody quite knew how to react or what it meant for the country, for themselves. There were, funnily, little coincidences, like having lunch in a typical British cafe the day after her death – and being told that the Coronation Chicken has run out – that I’d have missed looking on afar from Lisbon.
The next day, I had the opportunity to wait by Edinburgh Castle in a not-so-large crowd of curious onlookers and be part of the story in a small way. We waited for the Queen’s body to be driven from Balmoral to Holyrood Palace two days after her death and I had a sense of being part of this place again. The coffin passed by, there was a pause, and then a spontaneous round of applause broke out. It’s Scotland, so it was polite, respectful, unemotional and brief, and then everyone drifted off to get on with their day.
But from that point, things got weirder, more alien, more strange.
Not quite from here, but not quite not
Everything in the UK ground to a halt. The only news was this piece of news, but very little substantial happened for days. So, every television channel ran the same non-stories. The Queen will be moved from here to here. Here is where people can go to pay their respects. Every single minor celebrity in the country has been dragged out to perform variations of a theme of “what a nice old lady, she done right by us.” People making strange tributes, like the Edinburgh massage parlour displaying in their window a watermelon carved to say RIP Queen Elizabeth that slowly disintegrated and started to rot.
In many other ways, Britain is in crisis. A new, not entirely popular king and an even less popular prime minister, rampant inflation, soaring energy prices, culture wars, nationalism, a general sense of pessimism and of a place not going well. This was also reflected, but not well reported, in the public response, from posters demanding lower fuel bills over an expensive coronation, and “not my king,” booing and the arrest of protesters.
But there is nothing the British do well like ceremony and tradition and doing really bizarre things because it’s the way they do things. For that moment, Britain was winning, if the game is for the rest of world to look on in bemused, confused awe at this strange little Atlantic island nation.
And so, as a dweller of the gap between worlds, I could experience a significant moment in history with a detached, amused curiosity alongside a sense of belonging that is part pride, part frustration and part familiarity. Not quite from here, but not quite not.
See more about Britain here in Dispatches’ archives.
Craig is a Scottish designer, researcher and traveller living in Portugal, where he is working on a PhD in Speculative Design alongside being the creative director of Unreal Cities, a creative space in Barreiro, in the South Bay of Lisbon.