Tag Archives: immigrants

London is no longer an English city and who won World War Two anyway?

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Recently, John Cleese told an Australian interviewer: “London is no longer an English city… it doesn’t feel English.”

Last night I saw Arnold Wesker‘s 1959 play The Kitchen at the National Theatre in London. It was two hours twenty minutes long.

Good acting; showy direction; but it could have done with at least an hour cut out of it, an actual central plot added in and a decent end line with a point.

What was interesting about The Kitchen, though, was that it was set in the – no surprise here – kitchen of a large restaurant in 1959 with characters who were, in alphabetical order, Cypriot, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, West Indian and I think others… oh and English.

London, according to John Cleese, is not an English city in 2011.

But London was not an English city in 1959.

London has not been an English city for centuries – Jews, Huguenots, Flemings, Kenyan Asians, Poles, Albanians and, before them, Saxons, Normans, Danes and many many others all flooded in on different waves of immigration and invasion including the English.

The truth is, of course, that London was never an English city in the first place.

London was created by the Romans – a load of bloody Italians with all the foreign hangers-on who made up their army… all of them coming over here without a by-your-leave, taking our jobs and women and opening corner shops all over the place.

The Angles and the Saxons came later, lowering property prices in Londinium and Camulodunum – or Colchester as someone-or-other eventually re-named it. Camulodunum was not even a Roman town; the Celts had been there before the Italians arrived with their legions and ice cream shops.

The idea of London or anywhere else in ‘England’ being an English or even a British city is a myth, just as the idea that the British (and, as always, arriving late) the Americans won the Second World War is a myth.

The ‘British’ forces included Australians, Canadians, Czechs, Indians, New Zealanders, Poles, South Africans and many more troops from around the British Empire and elsewhere.

I remember a historian (an Italian one) telling me about the siege of Monte Cassino in Italy towards the end of the War. As he put it:

“A large Allied army composed of Americans, Moroccans, Algerians, Filipinos, Indians and Poles stormed the Cassino front.”

After the War, he got to know a German Panzer commander who had fought at Cardito, a hilltop a few miles away from Monte Cassino. The German remembered:

“We used to wonder each morning what colour the men coming up the hill would be that day. Coloured men of many races came up in waves. At the end of May, the Poles made it up to the top of the hill; they were the only other tall, blond men around apart from us.”

The Second World War was not won only by the British and the Americans.

And London, founded by the Romans, was not even originally an English city.

The English were and are just one group of foreign immigrants among many.

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Shoreditch dreams – Satanic stand-up comedy and Lycra-clad policemen

Perhaps it was the fact I only had two hours sleep the previous night.

But what is it with Shoreditch in London?

It seems to have aspirations to be trendy Islington but its pockets of aspiring Yuppieness have been dropped down into what, at night, seems like a set from a Jack The Ripper film – jet-black stone streets with added 21st century traffic. It’s like King’s Cross but darker and with less investment.

Shoreditch is a dark night-time nether corner of schizophrenic Hackney, where partly-trendy-yet-immensely-downmarket Hoxton meets a corner of Hackney proper and the world that was the Kray TwinsBethnal Green, which now has 1950s Brits intermingled with penniless immigrants who have nothing but hope in two generations time.

And round the corner from all this sit the glass towers and stone solidity of the City of London.

Shoreditch is a very strange place.

The area is like some darkly surreal imagining on the thin border where a dream may or may not turn into a nightmare.

So, a couple of nights ago, I went to Shoreditch after only a couple of hours sleep the previous night with these thoughts in my mind and comedy in my heart.

Yes, I have no fear of bad writing.

I went to see the weekly Cantaloopy Comedy show run by Miss D aka the interesting part-comedian, part serious journalist that is Daphna Baram.

Last time I went, the Cantaloupe pub cat stole the show, meandering across the stage and occasionally finding high points from which to look down disdainfully at the performing comedians.

This time, sadly for me, there was no cat but also, sadly, no headliner Arthur Smith, whose mother had had a bad fall. Daphna reckons I am bad luck when I go to one of her gigs. She may be right.

But the Cantaloopy bill was so choc-a-bloc, the lack of the two main attractions did not damage the show.

One highlight for me was Janet Bettesworth, who is just plain weird and I cannot for the life of me figure out why.  It had nothing to do with my lack of sleep. It has something to do with her Joanna Lumley voice, the dry sometimes almost literary delivery, the unexpected shock of red hair and her extraordinary transformation late in the act into a comedy ventriloquist with Hammer Horror hints. It was like watching a refined relative talk sweetly to you but with a whiff of the Satanic and dark deeds behind the curtains of Middle England wafting from the stage. I began, at one point, to think I must be hallucinating.

Highly entertained and utterly fascinated… but hallucinating.

This can’t be happening, I thought.

Yet it was and I was pleased it was.

I knew it wasn’t my lack of sleep. I had seen Janet Bettesworth before and was equally mesmerised before.

I had never seen David Mills before despite the fact he was recently crowned New Act of the Year – the highly prestigious award formerly known as the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year and proof that something good can occasionally come out of Hackney.

But I was amazed how a totally top-notch professional camp American of this quality had  escaped my radar. Especially as he has apparently lived in the UK for a decade. Much like Maureen Younger being a new act for me at a Pull The Other One gig a couple of weeks ago.

Curiouser and curiouser.

A few weeks ago, someone mistook me for Antipodean intellectual Clive James. At Cantaloopy, David Mills said I reminded him of Shrek. I know which I prefer. But alas I know which is more realistic.

Altogether an unusual night in Shoreditch especially when, on my walk back to the car, I bumped into Noel Faulkner just leaving his Comedy Cafe venue and, after crossing Shoreditch High Street, he became fascinated by the sight of two police cars pursuing a man on a skateboard.

“The guy should just keep going,” Noel said to me. “Police cars will never catch a skateboard.”

When I reached my own car I saw, up an adjacent side street, two policemen and a policewoman milling around in the middle of the road while another two policemen were climbing up on a wall to look over railings into a graveyard.

I wondered what the man had done. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a spate of major skateboard robberies which will be countered by Scotland Yard establishing a Skateboard Squad of Lycra-clad coppers.

Or perhaps I just need more sleep.

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Lies, damned lies and Census statistics: there are too many foreign immigrants here in Britain…

I wrote a blog a couple of months ago about how Britain is full of immigrants.

Well, last night, I filled in my Census form.

I didn’t mind doing it, but a friend of mine was more incensed than Censused because her father was in the British Armed Forces and they lived in a variety of other countries around the world as well as the UK, employed by Her Majesty’s Government.

My friend was born in Malta. Her brother was born in West Germany.

The Census form, which partly aims to get figures for immigration and to see how many non-Britons are living in the UK, has buggered it up good and proper and the figures on which the government bases its future social policies will be wrong.

The form asks Were you born abroad? There’s no category for British citizens born abroad, let alone the children of British Forces born abroad while their fathers and/or mothers were  sometimes risking their lives for Britain. So an Italian born in Rome will appear in the statistics on an equal footing with a British passport holder born abroad – both will count as foreigners who entered this country to stay here.

The form also asks, in effect, when you first moved to the UK full-time. My friend’s father’s last posting abroad was in West Germany, so the answer to this question might be 1973. Or it might be 1958, a couple of years after she was born and first came ‘home’ from Malta; but that was not permanent residence.

As far as the Census figures will show, she (born in Malta) and her brother (born in Germany) will be two non-British people who became foreign immigrants into the UK.

In fact, by anyone’s standards, they were two British people – technically “Forces’ dependents” – returning to Britain.

And don’t get my friend talking about other ways in which the children of Forces’ personnel are disadvantaged – “I feel like a stranger in my own land,” she says. “Always have done. Probably always will.”

She once applied for a clerical job with a defence industry company in the UK but was turned down – after at first being accepted – because the company said it could only employ people born in the UK.

She presumably counted as a security risk because she was not “British”, despite the fact her British father served in the British Armed Forces and she was born in a British military base.

So these bloody foreigners have been coming over here, stealing our jobs and getting free healthcare for years, haven’t they? Not just children of the British Armed Forces but all those bloody Indian immigrants  – like Cliff Richard (born in Lucknow) and Joanna Lumley (Srinagar).

It’s been going on for years. The place has been inundated by Indian immigrants – There’s that one who starred in Gone With The Wind – Vivien Leigh (born in Darjeeling, lived in Calcutta), comedian Spike Milligan (born in Ahmednagar and he became so pissed-off with not being considered “British” by Whitehall bureaucrats because of his birthplace that he eventually took Irish citizenship)… and then there’s that bloody foreigner LibDem MP Paddy Ashdown (born New Delhi).

They should all have been sent packing back to where they came from. Back to… err… erm…

And let’s not even mention that dodgy cross-dressing comedian bloke from terrorist-friendly Yemen – Eddie Izzard (born in Aden)

Or William Makepeace Thackeray (Calcutta).

So who is British?

Now there’s a question.

One that the Census won’t adequately answer.

In fact, one that the Census figures will mis-represent.

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Filed under History, immigration, Politics, Travel

Britain is full of immigrants

Allegedly, the USA is the ‘Land of Opportunity’ where any immigrant can arrive with nothing and create a new life for himself or herself with unlimited potential. But you cannot become President if you were not born in the USA.

What’s that all about?

I have a British friend whose parents were Indian – they arrived and settled here in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. She told me (and I admit I was surprised) that she had never experienced any racial discrimination in the UK. She never encountered it until she lived in the USA.

It does seem to me – in a vast generalisation – that the US is a land of separated peoples. They define themselves as Irish-American or Swedish-American or African-American and they tend to retain their original nationalities in social clubs and by living together in areas, sometimes ghettos.

In Britain, after a couple of generations, people define themselves as British.

People talk about Britain having a 2,000 year history – since the Romans invaded. But that’s bollocks. The Romans didn’t even control the whole of Great Britain – the main island of the British Isles. They invaded and controlled what is now England, the lower part of Great Britain; for a very brief time they controlled parts of what is now Lowland Scotland (Hadrian’s Wall is south of the current border); they never fully managed to control Wales; and, as many have, they pretty-much gave up at the very thought of controlling Ireland.

Last century, actor Gordon Jackson was the definitive Scotsman. He played the butler Hudson in the original ITV series of Upstairs, Downstairs and, whenever movie-makers wanted a Scotsman in their film, he was their first call. He epitomised Scottishness.

Occasionally I used to work with one of his sons. When he (the son) reached his 40th birthday, he told me that, the older he got, the more Scottish he felt.

“Where were you born?” I asked.

“Hampstead.”

Hampstead is in North London. But then, if you are the son of Gordon Jackson, you are going to feel Scottish. His mother was Scots too and, though brought up in London, they had a holiday home in Pitlochry.

I remember standing in an office in the London Weekend TV tower looking out at a misty, drizzly South Bank and Westminster scene and saying to this Son of Gordon Jackson:

“Now that is dreich.”

“Definitively dreich,” he replied.

Dreich is a Scots Gaelic word which is virtually impossible to define in English. You have to see what it describes if you want to understand it.

There is an interesting theory that the Welsh – or, at least, the people in the middle of Wales, the mountainous parts, the parts that ironically get at bit uppity about being called British and insist on keeping the Welsh language afloat – are actually the only remnants of the original British, pushed back into that western bump of Great Britain by successive invaders from the south, east and north of the island.

The original British were killed-off or bred out of existence perhaps 1,500 years ago.

Basically, everyone in Britain is an immigrant except, possibly, the forefathers of a few Welsh people.

In the legend of the Knights of the Round Table, the point is often forgotten that King Arthur was killed. The invaders, in reality, won. The losers possibly fled West.

My surname is Fleming so, at some point, my forebears came from Flanders/Belgium/Holland. But, despite an uncalled-for English accent, I am Scottish. The Scots and Irish are allegedly Celtic but, to my eyes, are clearly Scandinavian – pale skin, light hair, sometimes freckles. I used to have dark brown hair and a ginger beard. That’s Scandinavian.

The Welsh are said, like the Scots and Irish, to be Celtic; but the Welsh are in generalised physical terms nothing like the Scots and Irish – they tend to have dark hair, for one thing.

The Celts, again in very general terms, came from Central Europe. So they are sort-of German though, when I worked in the Czech Republic, the locals reckoned the Celts had actually come from what is now the Czech area of Central Europe.

The Anglo-Saxon English are from what is now Germany – the result of invasions by the Angles and the Saxons.

A Danish TV director I know, who worked with both me and Son of Gordon Jackson, told me he once drove round Yorkshire and recognised most of the names of the towns and villages: they were either recognisable Danish names or bastardisations of Danish names.

Hardly surprising, given that Denmark ruled most of England for so long.

To be a racist, you need to be ignorant of history. To talk of “racial purity” anywhere requires a deep ignorance of history. To talk of “racial purity” in the UK requires a remarkable level of crass stupidity.

I am old enough to remember TV documentaries about the last Yiddish language newspaper closing in the East End of London. Some of the street signs there – around Brick Lane – used to be in Yiddish; now they are in Bengali. Limehouse in East London used to be a Chinese area. Now there’s a little Chinese area in Soho (artificially created, it has to be said, by ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone). Everything is constantly changing.

The English language has thrived on constant new inputs from foreign languages; it is constantly changing. The ‘British people’ (whatever that means) have thrived on constant new cultural inputs and there is constant, vibrant change. Britain is constantly being re-born. Unlike the USA, we seem to have integrated and assimilated our immigrants over time. Admittedly we have had longer.

Britain, depending on how you define it, didn’t even exist until 1603 (when James VI of Scotland became James I of England) or 1707 (when the Act of Union was signed). The flag which the British Army flew at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 in support of their Hanoverian monarch was not the current Union flag. The current so-called ‘Union Jack’ did not exist until 1801 when another Act of Parliament united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland.

If/when either Northern Ireland or Scotland breaks from the United Kingdom and becomes independent, then the flag will have to change again.

No-one in Britain is, when it comes down to it, actually British. We are all immigrants. The British are long-dead, except perhaps for a few distant relatives in Machynlleth.

What “Britain” means is a moveable feast.

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Filed under History, Racism