Friday, August 24, 2007

Individuals and their families

The thing about reading and writing for a living is that it eats into reading for pleasure. At one time it was unthinkable to still be reading the same book two days in a row. I first read Excession with unheard of extravagance – and took almost a week.

Now the things that don’t have to be read or edited or proofed get carried around in my satchel for getting on for months. I’ve found niches for pleasurable reading, too, where work can be forgot. So I’ve got Tarzan in our bathroom and Bloody Foreigners for the train.

The latter is a quite incredible history of immigration to Britain, and is very recommended. Since people first stumbled upon this woody, rainy island they have fought with them that followed. Some groups have been more fought off than others, but as a general rule it’s the same depressing story as you get from the Princelet Street Museum; each generation of immigrants persecuted by the kids of the last lot.

Robert Winder’s story is engaging and full of facts and telling details. Often he follows the stories of specific individuals and their families, their struggles to do better and to provide for a future. But I think his real strength is in tying together so many different groups and details into a history we already know.

It doesn’t come as news, for example, that the UK has always been a mongrel nation. The first recorded black people in the UK were Roman soldiers, here to quell the savage natives.

Another one we should all know is that migration works two ways. Emigration not only balances out the numbers, but affects what it means to assimilate. British ex-pats in their second homes in Spain expect the food and booze and language just like it is at home.

Nor is it radical to note the positive effects of immigration: cheap labour in the first instance, but cultural and economic boons that have lasted centuries. Winder explains the beginnings of the vindaloo and Marks and Spencer, Bombay Mix and music. And this all adds weight to his argument that those prepared to give up their homes and go live somewhere else often have very pressing reasons to do so; that those with the get up and go to start up somewhere foreign are exactly the kind of ambitious lot we want. It occurred to me that Norman Tebbitt’s famous reply to the Brixton riots is a call for economic migration.
“I grew up in the 1930s with an unemployed father. He did not riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he went on looking until he found it.”

Norman Tebbit

Despite the many and varied successes, Bloody Foreigners is no comfort read. It’s rather a history of national stupidity and meanness. The horrific increase in violence and intolerance in the last hundred years is particularly disturbing. Events from the 70s and 80s are particularly appalling, with institutional racism effectively condoning the violence of the National Front. It is little solace that our record was better than much of Europe.

A few times I’ve tutted at generalisations. For all he critiques the “establishment” tarring a whole race with the behaviour of a few individuals, Winder does use his specific examples to make sweeping statements about large groups. I'm not sure how else you could tell a history like this, but there have been times when I felt him guilty of the same "them" and "us" mentality he otherwise pulls apart.

There’s also a couple of not-quite-right bits. He describes the Vikings as “the horn-helmeted tribe from across the Baltic” on p. 26. As well as the relativism of seeing the Vikings as barbaric pillagers, they also never wore horns.

But these are minor quibbles with an extremely engaging, insightful book. Winder draws few conclusions himself, rather letting the story tell itself. But there’s an implicit liberal agenda of compassion and tolerance, perhaps best put when he explains the word “xenophobia”:
“The word is mostly defined as a nationalistic hatred of anything foreign, but at its root is the Greek word xenos, meaning ‘guest’. So xenophobia is, literally, a fear of guests. This does indeed seem a distinctive national terror. Guests might eat all the food! They might outstay their welcome! For a people whose bungalows were their castles, the thought of unexpected visitors, the inconvenience of having to lay an extra place at supper, was enough to make anyone turn pale.”

Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners, pp. 326-7.


Anonymous said...

True dat, although:

a) Tebbit also came out in support of Polish immigrants, citing how jolly pleased we all were to have them around when they were flying alongside the RAF in WW2.

b)"Xenos" means foreigner, stranger *or* guest in Greek, so it is disingenuous indeed to forget two of its meanings and then extrapolate the leftovers into some sort of witty point.

c) as I am sure you would have added if your point had not been made well enough by the whole "horny helmet" thing -- Vikings weren't a tribe.

Anonymous said...

All very salutary, but I'd be far more interested in what you made of Tarzan.

Rob Stradling said...

Upon endless recommendation - yours included - I've begun to tackle the Iain Banks Culture series. 1.5 books in after only a month is "unputdownable" by my standards, although I'm still finding it easy, rather than inspiring, reading. When does it get really good?

awcdni - how indeed? I would have.