Immigrants’ Heartfelt Appreciation

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I recently had an immersion in a very different way of experiencing Britain than I or most native Britons tend to have. It was when I was invited to run a workshop at Morley College recently together with friend and colleague Steve Jackson. The workshop was entitled ‘What Does It Mean to be British?’ and was attended by about 130 students at the college, many of whom were working on improving their spoken English language skills. Most of the students present had come from a wide range of developing countries, and it seemed to me, from what they said, that they had only came to live in Britain in the last few years.

I gave a short talk about some of my ideas about British identity and culture, and we had small group exercises around tables, where the students wrote down together on large shared sheets of paper, about what being British meant to them. Then the students, who were all adults, had an opportunity to speak to the whole group about what was most significant to them. The passionate outpourings of feelings, which were unanimously positive, were moving to listen to, and revolved around a mixture of what they appreciated and valued in their adopted home. The main subjects included: Feeling safe; freedom of speech; having human rights; being accepted by other people; the tolerance of the country; feeling respect and being equal to other people; the health care system and the fact that those with disabilities received help; not having to be afraid of the police; being able to get an education. As one participant wrote:

“I love to be British; I am valued; I get the opportunity for education; I don’t have to worry if I’m ill; I dress how I like; I am protected from abuse, I am safe.”  

It gave me a fresh insight into what we have in this country and it was humbling to hear these numerous sincere and joyfully expressed sentiments. And it wasn’t an attitude of consuming; participants also expressed how they wanted to give back to their adopted country. The attitudes were a million miles from the mundane complaints of us jaded native Britons, who take for granted what we have. All the media coverage of immigration and its perceived danger of letting extremists into our midst – these people were more patriotic than the average Brit! I thought to myself how it would be a valuable and balancing act of therapy for all us native Britons to be exposed to a session like this.

 

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Sweet Thames Flow Softly

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I took myself down to the river Thames in London for a change of scenery and maybe a different perspective. I find that being by the waterside is alway medicinal. I end up sitting at a weathered wooden table in the late afternoon autumn sun by the window in a pub called The Grapes. Here I can palpably feel history and the continuum of time. This is a place where people have been sitting and socialising for the best part of half a millennium. Generations of seafaring folk and all those who plied their allied ship trades.

The pub, a narrow rickety building leaning precariously out over the Thames in London’s old docklands locale of Limehouse, is emblematic of London’s river life. The sound of the river swishing and lapping against the buttresses in the wake of passing ferries, evokes the sea; as does the ever changing tidal flow which reminds me that the sea reaches right up here into the city. Amazingly this ancient pub has survived the Great Fire, the Blitz and perhaps even more amazingly, the redevelopment of Docklands. Charles Dickens looks down rather gravely and pensively from his portrait on the maroon wall to the dark wooden paneling below. He was well acquainted with this tavern, already ancient in his day, writing of it in 1820 as,

‘A tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. It had outlasted many a sprucer public house.’

A complete and well-thumbed set of Dickens sits in the cabinet by my head, acknowledging the connection. It was from directly below this very pub that Sir Walter Raleigh set sail on his third and final voyage to the New World in 1616, on a quest to discover the fabled El Dorado; a voyage more equivalent in its time to a contemporary spaceshot to the outer reaches of the Solar System. How can we even comprehend what such a voyage meant in his day?

The river outside the window, glistening powerfully in the low sunlight, still speaks of movement and adventure, as it glides its way down towards the open sea. The gulls cascading over the waters, ever on the lookout for booty, hearken to the sea. Four or five hundred years have flowed past, yet really just a handful of generations. From Raleigh to Dickens, to us, to me. What those two great figures have done for us would be hard to encompass. We wouldn’t be who we are if they hadn’t lived and influenced our culture and history so profoundly. They contributed mightily to our creative thread and added new vistas both geographically and culturally. I can feel the living history in my heart, resonating in my being; it still calls out, like the cry of the gulls. Am I just being romantic – like the search to locate our ancestors so popular and beloved of TV shows today? I don’t think so. For also that search for ancestors is responding to a need because people are missing genuine connection and continuity. Oral history has long since withered as a means of spanning the generations.

Well-heeled new Dockland immigrants stand at the bar alongside working class descendants of the old dock industries of rope making, shipbuilding and chandlering in once-grimy Limehouse. The London Docks were the greatest docks in the world; and it was only in recent times of course, that all have decamped downstream to container ports in the estuary. There is never a break in history; it is the story of our lives, our struggles and our development, pushing improbably against the entropy of the universe, to create ever more ingeniously, instead of the to-be-expected gradual settling into dissolution. Modern thought breaks up experience and history into discrete events and dates. It’s a useful shorthand, but also a fiction. Reality is, and always has been much more of a stream, a process where everything influences everything else, and one ‘occurrence’ flows into the next in an endless succession of becoming. As writer and philosopher Owen Barfield said,

‘We need not pay too much attention to those historians who cautiously refuse to detect any progress in history, because it is difficult to divide into periods, or because the periods are difficult to date precisely. The same objections apply to the process of growth from child to man. We should rather remind them that, if there is no process, there is in fact no such thing as history at all, so that they themselves must be regarded as mere chroniclers and antiquarians – a limitation which I cannot fancy they would relish.’

What does it mean to be British, anyway?

cropped-book-cover.jpgThis is a subject that people in this country always seem to find fascinating, leaving aside, for now, the related question of whether you personally identify more as being British, English, Scots or Welsh, etc, which is another whole question.

As I sit in a cafe writing this blog, a woman at the bar calls across to my table to ask me what am I doing. Am I working? I reply that I’m trying to. She persists, wanting to know what am I writing about. I’m say I’m writing about being British. Immediately, that gets just about everyone in the cafe turning towards me, interested in what I’m doing. A woman remarks that the words we speak – meaning our English language – is such a mixture from various foreign sources over many centuries anyway, that what does it mean to be British in the light of that? 

Just what does it mean to be British is actually very hard to pin down. A few years ago, an eminent panel was tasked with writing an official handbook for aspiring British citizens. The main conclusion that the experts came to, after long deliberation, was that living in the country was the main hallmark of Britishness. Predictably this was greeted with considerable derision by the press. And it is true that it would be hard to imagine a similar finding, were the country to be, say the USA or France. But eventually a citizen’s handbook was arrived at, including a lot of facts about British culture, history and politics.

Yet this doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have any national identity or character. Nor does it mean that there aren’t values and culture which are distinctively British. It can easily feel like we are losing or have almost have lost our sense of national identity, especially if you spend too much time reading The Daily Mail or Express. Certainly we are in a period of great transition and uncertainty, and many of the old stereotypes about Britain are long past their sell by date.

Not quite knowing who we are or what we stand for can feel like a weakness and a vagueness, but there is also an interesting flip side to this inability to define ourselves very clearly. This flip side is actually a strength and ironically constitutes an important part of who we are. Being British isn’t based on blood or race, and hasn’t been for quite a long time. It isn’t based on religion, belief or ideology or political allegiance or to adherence to a written constitution (of course we don’t have a written constitution). You don’t have to have been born here to be British. You can become British. Funnily enough, I can sympathise with why the eminent handbook writers came to the conclusion that they did.

US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson is famously remembered for his observation back in 1962, that ‘Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role’. This caused great offence at the time in Britain, though Acheson was a staunch Anglophile and did not intend to criticise the country. He was trying to helpfully point out an obvious truth; obvious at least, to those who weren’t British. And we Britons are arguably, half a century later, still not sure who we are and what we should be doing or not doing as a nation.

The British Empire had an unexpected benefit in one regard: it helped create a sense of Britishness which was not based on blood or race. The Empire project drew together generations of young people from the disparate lands of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, eager to seek their fortune and escape their lack of prospects at home, all under the united banner of being British. And in far flung foreign lands, there was shared identity and belonging between these servants of The Empire. So the sense of Britishness become more about their shared project, the institutions and values, rather than being based on one’s race or blood. Understandably, with The Empire gone, we are now left with no clear sense of who we are as a nation. And for many sensitive and liberal native Britons, The Empire is now a source of embarrassment and shame.

Yet being British still has the admirable quality of being not based on race or blood, but rather on more liberal values. Here’s what political philosopher John Gray – who is not not usually someone to praise old Blighty – says on this subject.

‘With all of its drawbacks, the British state has the overriding virtue that it is not founded on blood, soil, or faith. In their ways, the United States and France are both doctrinal regimes. To be a citizen of those countries is a matter of belief; it means subscribing to some sort of civil or political religion – in other words a creed, at once highly contentious and claiming to be rationally self-evident. In contrast… no doctrine of faith is required in order to be British. The British state is a cosmopolitan regime – a state to which one can be loyal without having to belong to any particular tribe or hold to any faith. Cosmopolitan regimes have the invaluable feature that they allow identity to be largely elective, and also plural.’

This doesn’t mean though, that being British is a vacuum or completely amorphous. There are values, customs, culture and institutions that are very British. For example, fair play, tolerance (or more accurately phrased as ‘acceptance’ rather than ‘tolerance’); respect, free speech, individual liberty; the Parliamentary system – and plenty more. And of course, you don’t need to be born here to accept these values; they can be adopted. So I find it interesting that a seeming national weakness may rather turn out to be a strength.