Sunday, 7 October 2007

What England Means To Me

Hot on the heels of England's Rugby triumph and the victories of Amir Khan and (hopefully) Lewis Hamilton. Here's my requested contribution to 'What England Means to Me' - A Domesday Book of the Mind

In 2003 British Asian writer, lecturer and broadcaster Kenan Malik met and interviewed BNP leader Nick Griffin for Malik’s critique of multicultural Britain in the Channel 4 documentary ‘Disunited Kingdom’. He started off by asking Griffin to define ‘English culture’. His reply was ‘You can’t describe it, you just know it….its like being in love, you either are or you are not’(1). Not only is this the mother of all cop outs on behalf of Nick Griffin, a man who attempts to vehemently defend and protect something he cannot even define from dirty foreign influence, but in itself it says something about English culture. English culture is something that is difficult to describe, but not for the reasons that Nick Griffin gives. English culture is indefinable for the very fact that it is an open ended, living entity. The English culture of today is not the English culture of the 50s, as the English culture of the 50s was not the English culture of the nineteenth century.

For Nick Griffin would look at the example of curry becoming the national dish as a sign of weakness within English culture, a sign of loss. However the English are merely doing as they’ve always done. That is seamlessly assimilating something foreign into its entity without losing its own identity, and even reinventing itself in the process. By the time of the mid 1990s the new movement of British musicians were deliberately recreating a form of music that to most seemed as English as Yorkshire pudding, as a backlash to American dominance of pop culture. The irony didn’t seem to dawn on others that while they were trying to ape the Beatles, back in 1963 they and all their ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ were the epitome of Americanization within England.
In fact Liverpool’s ascendancy to being the first city of British rock and roll was no accident. The Maritime city of Liverpool had many sailors who had made frequent trips to America often bringing back records that the rest of the country couldn’t get hold of. Also a major part of Merseybeat that has had a lasting effect on the culture of the city is the adoption of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, number one hit for scouser Gerry Marsden in 1963, as its unofficial anthem. However this Rogers and Hammerstein number originates from the Broadway musical ‘carousel’, not the pen of any Liverpudlian wordsmith.

Also as a direct result of the Britpop movement of the 90s, the ‘Mod’ culture of the 1960s had come to be defined as the archetypal English cultural style. This is despite the fact that it was heavily influenced by black culture, particularly black American and West Indian music and style, which had came to Britain with the migrant populations. As explained by Paolo Hewitt ‘as second generation Caribbeans moved deeper into British society…Braces, pork-pie hats and the return of the Crombie coat were some of the clothing items that were taken from the Rude Boy by his white counterpart’(2).

This is not the only part of English pop culture that has been taken from the New World Blacks. A vital part of the birth of white sock wearing Essex man with his Escort XR3i complete with furry dice was on the dance floors of the Lacy Lady or Goldmine nightclubs. The Essex Soul Boy scene was built with a soundtrack straight out of Black America. As is the case with today’s most famous Essex man – David Beckham. In his 2005 Channel 4 documentary ‘Black like Beckham’, British afro-caribbean journalist Paul McKenzie refers to this modern day icon of Englishness as ‘Britain’s most famous black man’ because of his incorporation of ‘Black’ Urban style and culture within his public persona. McKenzie states that in turn Beckham has ‘got black style and he’s accepted by black people as a hero’(3). Not only is this something that only the soft southern soul boys did, in the 1970s an entire culture of 24 hour party people sprung up across the north of England, playing obscure soul tunes by obscure soul singers. From the dance floors of the Wigan Casino and the Flaming Torch in Stoke came ‘Northern Soul’, an entire genre of Black American music whose sole definition is a geographical reference to the part of England where it finds its popularity. This despite the fact that barely any English Northerners played a note on those records!

This is also not a phenomenon of the 20th/21st centuries, even William Shakespeare did this back in his day. A quick browse through Shakespeare’s complete works shows settings such as Florence and Marseille in All’s Well That Ends Well, Athens in ‘Mid Summer Nights Dream’, Verona in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and of course the self explanatory ‘Merchant of Venice’. Shakespeare had used the imagery of cultures foreign to England, the result of which centuries later is that his work epitomizes ‘English culture’ in the eyes of others around the globe.

The main conclusion that we can come to here is that the English are among the most misrepresented peoples on earth. Far from being the insular conservative reactionaries that we are often portrayed we are among the most receptive of peoples on god’s earth. People often note the rudeness and bad behaviour of English tourists and yet not only fail to note that this is a minority of people who get disproportionate coverage, but also the fact that once a European holiday came within the financial means of most English people a caravanning holiday on Canvey Island or St. Osyth was never going to cut it ever again. In fact over one million people from the British Isles have emigrated around the med, so contempt of foreigners surely cannot run that deep.The high number of people who emigrated from these shores have recently been misconstrued by the right wing press as a sign of decline and, even more ridiculously, because so many foreigners are coming here. Again the English are doing what they’ve always done, emigration out of Britain was higher than immigration into to Britain for over 300 years, England has after all repopulated entire continents in its time. This had only changed in the 1980s because countries such as Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the U.S., who had always received immigrants from Britain started to restrict our entry. In essence the English are a people that do not believe that the world ends at the white cliffs of Dover and that rather than shut the world out would rather see what it has got to offer.

This is isn’t the only part of England’s historical culture that the right wing has misconstrued, for when the least pleasant of those who follow the fortunes of our national Football side are singing ‘with St. George in my heart keep me English’, they might want to dwell on who St. George actually was. He was non-white Palestinian born in Modern day Turkey and a soldier of the Roman Empire, who had not even set foot in England. The reason for his sainthood is that in 303AD the emperor of Rome had authorized the systematic persecution of all Christians across the whole empire. George was ordered to participate in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticized the imperial decision, which in turn lead to his torture and execution. George is also the patron saint of Aragon, Canada, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Russia, Palestine and also the cities of Genoa, Beirut, Ljubljana, Freiburg and Moscow. So why is George the patron saint of England then? The answer to that one is simple – the actions and ideals of the man meant more than his place of birth.

And that Mr. Griffin, is the explanation to the secret to England’s culture, and why that culture is so enduring. If you take into account that an incredible number of the world’s inventions came from these shores, you know that the English have always appreciated the merits of a good idea, regardless of where it came from. After all we would not have been able to have stayed ahead of the game for as long as we have if we did not. Also the title of this site says it all – a doomsday book of the mind. William the Conqueror was not English at all, he was born in modern day France. The fact that he came here and invaded us should fill us with revulsion if we were anywhere near the Daily Mail stereotype of what we are. The fact we took on board a lot of what he brought speaks volumes about the English and what the English actually are.


2) Hewitt, Paolo, The Soul Stylists: Forty Years of Modernism, Mainstream Publishing 2000:76


Wednesday, 3 October 2007

The Windrush Myth

On the 22nd June 1948 the Empire Windrush had docked at Tilbury in Essex and the official history of Britain prior to this date is thus defined as B.C. (Before Colour).

This is an inaccurate picture of British history and quite why it has become part of historical fact is an interesting question On the one hand it is about romanticism, like the America's Mayflower bringing pilgrims to a new world and the birth of a new nation. On the other hand it is cynicism, an all white world that was polluted on that day in 1948 by an impure influence.

It is also myth that the 1958 Nottingham/Notting Hill Riots were Britain's first ever race riot, as there was a reported race riot in Liverpool two weeks prior to the docking of the Windrush. In 1919 there were also race riots as 'the local white population clashed with black workers and seamen, many of whom were left unemployed at the end of the war. In Cardiff, in particular, white ex-servicemen, including Australians stationed in the area, headed lynch mobs that terrorised the city's black community during a week of violence that left three men dead and dozens more injured'. (

The history of non-white migration within the U.K., although commonly believed to be a post second world war phenomena has a longer history. Many port towns and cities in the U.K. have had a pre-war non-white population, for example Liverpool, Tiger Bay in Cardiff and the East End of London. The latter (and not Soho in the West) was the site of London's original 'Chinatown' and has had a Chinese population for over 200 years. There were many reports of hostility towards Chinese migrants based in the East End in the 1800's who faced assaults, racist attacks and jibes that the Chinese were dirty and immoral.

A common accusation levelled at the East End Chinese were involvement in white-slave rackets and vice dens of Opium and gambling though 'the real Chinatown bore little resemblance to the lurid underworld of the hack writers. Opium smoking and gambling certainly did take place, but most people in Chinatown were too busy trying to make ends meet' (

Along with the Chinese inhabitants, Indian servants and nannies known as Ayahs had settled dockside because 'if they could not secure another job with India-bound passengers, they had little option but to remain in London' (O'Neil 1999:49). There had also been 'dark skinned' sailors of various backgrounds such as Somalia, Yemen, and the South Asia collectively termed 'lascars' who had 'jumped ship and stayed, putting down tentative roots which, in some cases resulted in the organic growth of a close-knit community such as that in Limehouse' (O'Neil11999:49). Lascars were taken on by the East India Company because like the Chinese and Irish immigrants of the East End, they would do hard, dirty work for lower rates than British seamen.

In earlier history of migration there had also been examples of inter-group fighting between non-white migrants, it was reported in the East End of London on October 12 1806 that there had been a riot between 300 Chinese and a group of Lascars and Irishmen that numbered around 150 (O'Neill 1999:54).

Black residents prior to the windrush had also been in positions of power, including two queens of England. Queen Phillipa of Hainault who reigned as Queen Consort from 1328-69 ( Also Queen Charlotte who reigned as Queen Consort from her marriage to King George III in 1761 to 1818, who was 'directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House' ( Queen Charlotte is also the Grandmother of Queen Victoria and thus blood related to the present day monarch.

And although never a resident of England, its patron saint - George of Lyddia - was also non-white. He was born in Modern Day Turkey and was of Palestinian origin.

So the influence of non-whites in Britain was felt long before 22 June 1948.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Whiteness and Britishness

What do Tracey Ullman, Lou Macari, Sharlene Spiteri, Noel Gallagher, Liam Gallagher, Cliff Richard, Roger Whittaker, George Michael, Daniella Nardini, Tom Conti, Ronnie Ancona, Dominic Matteo, Armando Ianucci, Lena Zavaroni, Lawrence Dallaglio, Anita Roddick, Joe Calzaghe, Dario Gradi, Cherie Lunghi, Michael Greco, Helen Mirren, John Lukic, Imre Varadi all have in common?

One answer is that they are in, one way or another famous. Another is that they are all considered famous British people. What's more, they are all famous British people who's parents migrated here from another sovereign nation since the end of world war two. And what is more there is very little recognition that any of that list are anything other than British.....oh and by the way they all happen to white.

Yet despite this very few people would have these people in mind when considering post war immigration to Britain. In fact if you asked the average 'man on the street' to name someone born in Britain to immigrant parents it is possible that the names of Lenny Henry, Frank Bruno, Cyrille Regis, Floella Benjamin or Sir Trevor McDonald may have been ahead on the list. Post-war immigration does come colour coded in most people's minds, and why? because most immigrants during this period were black? Well no, for most years post WW2 immigrants were usually white - the original immigrants in the 1940s were the displaced from the European Volunteer Workers Scheme from places such as Poland or Italy. There were many who came from the old commonwealth and former colonies in political turmoil, such as in East Africa. The biggest ethnic minority group in Britain throughout this period are the Irish.

So what can we conclude from this? When we wash away the lip service of political correctness can only white people be 'British'? Why after all can the second generation Gallaghers drape their guitars in the union flag, yet black groups like Soul II Soul or the So Solid Crew who's parents were here before Tommy and Peggy Gallagher never could? Why is New York born Boris Johnson in the running for London Mayor, despite those non-whites born in our capital city nearing 50% not getting a sniff? Why was it hard for John Barnes to convince England fans of his Englishness, yet not so hard for Owen Hargreaves?

Well one look at the history of white immigration, either past of present would tell you that being a member of the white club has certainly never been such a certainty for inclusion into 'Club Britain'.

One consideration that needs to be taken into account is the degree to which a 'white' race is one that is as socially constructed as that as 'Asian' or 'Black'. This is a point which is made by Alastair Bonnett in his essay 'constructions of whiteness in Europe and American Anti-Racism', when he stated that 'whiteness is addressed as an unproblematic category, a category which is not subject to the constant processes of challenge and change that have characterised the history of other 'racial' names…..this myth views 'being white' as an immutable condition with clear and distinct moral attributes, which often include: being racist, not experiencing racism, being an oppressor, not experiencing oppression, silencing, not being silenced. People of colour are defined via their relation to this myth….the characteristics of white people are removed from social context and set outside history and geography' (Werbner and Modood, 1997:177-8).
There must therefore be recognition that as with, for example the term 'Asian' carrying many sub-categories within it (e.g. Indian/Pakistani/Hindu/Muslim), the term 'white' carries no less uniformity.

An example usually held up by sympathisers of migrants and asylum seekers, as well as those subscribing to the school of British tolerance is the migration of Huguenots from persecution in Catholic Europe. According to Gilda O'Neil in her book 'My East End' the Hugenot migrants 'assimilated comparatively quickly such was the extent of their intermarriage with the host nation' (O'Neil 1999:18). Although the Hugenots shared a common religion with the host nation, they were not exempt from hostility. The Huguenots brought weaving skills to Britain when they arrived however the onset of the industrial revolution had made those skills obsolete due to technological advancement and competition from Mills in the North of England. The Huguenots had joined the growing ranks of low skilled workers in the East End and 'the once sought after weavers protested, their grievances spilling over into anger and eventual rioting and they became, like so many immigrant groups before and after them during tough economic times, targets for threats and violence. The tragic result of one altercation was two men being sentenced to hang outside the Salmon and Ball pub in Bethnal Green' (O'Neil 1999:19).

Britain had also experienced a number of migrants from Germany throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. A major influx occurred between 1708-9 of around 13-15,000 Palatinate Germans who arrived in London, however many faced widespread persecution and left for Southern Ireland and North America. An example of such hostility is from newspaper reports of the era complaining about 'several poor Palatines begging about the streets….begging from door to door'

By the time of the 1891 census there were 27,000 German born London residents. Anti-German sentiments however, were still evident over a century later. When Beckton Gasworks had opened in the late nineteenth century there was much protest that a considerable number of jobs had been taken by German migrant workers. At the start of the twentieth century in Stepney (know locally as 'little Germany') there had been the formation of the 'British Brothers League' who had referred to themselves as 'a tiny band of East End Patriots'. The stated aim of this group was to 'stem, if possible the great flood of alien immigration that threatens to wash all remnants of previous English occupation of East London'.

However according to Panikos Panayi 'no immigrant minority in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain has had to endure the level of hostility faced by the Germans during the first world war'. Government and public opinion was at this time geared to 'eliminating German communities from Britain'. As the Great War escalated to the great carnage that it was, the British government had 'eventually imprisoned all German males between 16 and 70. Many were deported back to Germany, so that people who had lived in England for 50 years or more were suddenly sent back to a Germany disrupted by war. Even British wives and children were deported, although they knew no German, and had no family there!' (

The Irish had also experienced discrimination during this period, although not physically different to the indigenous population of the U.K., Irish immigrants were overwhelmingly of the Catholic faith, as opposed to Britain whose state-endorsed religion is of Protestantism. It is also fair to say that in two constituent parts of the U.K. - Scotland and Northern Ireland - who have experienced a relatively low amount of non-white migration, this sectarian divide is more socially dividing than racism. In Scotland this sectarian divide is most famous for the formation of Irish immigrant Football clubs, such as Glasgow Celtic, Dundee Harp (renamed as Dundee United) and Hibernian in Edinburgh, as a result of exclusion from indigenous clubs, particularly Glasgow Rangers.

Rangers, particularly had pursued a discriminatory policy of not employing Catholics as late as 1989, the club had signed Mark Walters - it's first non-white player eighteen months before lifting the ban on Catholics, signing former Celtic player Maurice Johnston.
Sectarianism in Scotland had much deeper social roots than separate Football clubs, the descendents of Irish migrants in Scotland were considered 'Irish' rather than Scottish or British as recent as the second world war and considered 'disloyal, disruptive, inferior and untrustworthy….in Scotland they appeared to have struggled longer than those who settled anywhere in the English speaking world' ( Irish migrants were scapegoated during the inter-war depression. The creation of the Irish Free State during this period, led to the Church of Scotland to call for the deportation of unemployed Catholics, despite many having never visited Ireland.

The Irish experience south of the border had been not much less hostile, they had been portrayed by members of the host nation as ill-mannered, less intelligent, drunken and lazy. The height of Anti-Irish sentiments had culminated in the Spitalfield Riot of 1736, in which 'poverty stricken workers were pitted against one another by employers wanting to pay the lowest rates, when the Irish under bid the locals, rioting broke out' (O'Neil 1999:56). The irony was not lost on the author of 'My East End' who stated 'the Irish were not labelled drunken lazy wastrels this time, but accused of being hard workers prepared to labour for a pittance'. The effect of Irish migration had been the accusations of keeping wages low though the desperation of poverty lead to exploitation by employers.

Throughout the post-war period, there had been a thaw in relations between white immigrants and indigenous Britons, because of the increase in non-white immigration in Britain during these years. Prakash Shah in the book 'Refugees, Race and the Legal Concept of Asylum in Britain' notes that 'Eastern Europeans in the 1950's and 60's who came to work in the U.K. were considered 'potential Britons'. The political opposition to the Eastern Bloc and 'racial acceptability' of European refugees in Britain combined to inform the reactions to further refugee movements and the institution of a further western led international agenda for refugees' (

The reaction of acceptability towards Eastern bloc asylum seekers and even regarded 'potential Britons' contrasts sharply with that of British Asian citizens from East Africa in the late 60s/early 70s, who sought refuge from the 'Africanization' policies of Kenya and Uganda. It must be noted though that there has been an increase in hostility in the post-cold war years, towards economic migration and asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, especially since the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU in 2004. Whether such hostility will outlast a generation however, or whether their offspring will be termed a 'second generation migrant' is another matter entirely.