Sunday, 4 March 2012

... On Being "British" ...

I feel like I am being forcibly drawn into a debate that whilst at the one end of my personal spectrum, I actually do care about, but feel much has been said and little done about, and on the other end of my spectrum, I don't give a monkeys over. It's as if I've reached an impasse - I'm secure in myself and I will do what I need to do, live the way that I need to live and all without apology.

The debate in question is this documentary and the suggestion is that, like many northern ex-industrial English cities, Bradford is in economic sink, unpopular and religiously and racially segregated. I hasten to add that whilst I have not yet seen the programme and have no real intention to see it any time soon, this is not the first time this has been said about the place. There's no denying it - the truth is, it feels like an abandoned place and polarisation is very real.

The documentary has as the local council PR people and the regional media in flaps - but something tells me that it is less the reality of racial division and more the fact that it is being discussed in a very public sphere that is ruffling feathers. Ostrich feathers, I may add, since for too long, there has been much denial and the only investment in the city has been mediocrity. That last trait is the one thing that post-Thatcherite Britain finds very difficult in accepting of itself.

The counter claim by the local PR machine is lifted from the text of the Emperors New Clothes. That is, to see what isn't there. The claim, that the city is a culturally diverse place (i.e. melas and curries) - is patronising, at best. This is not London or New York, nor Mumbai, Karachi or Singapore, not that any of those is perfect or has race and equality completely figured. The difference is those places represent something of a melting pot and offer new, emergent identities.

I also don't get what it is to be British. I've tried and not succeeded at understanding this. I don't think many of the 'natives' understand it any better, to be frank. Over the years, I have seen the same liberals and working professionals who claim to love the 'cultural diversity' of places like Bradford, join the white flight to the suburban and semi-rural outskirts, thus decreasing real contact with the immigrants who moved in. They are complicit in the racism. And they are the ones whom I really distrust. The PR people and the media, thus, can in my opinion, jolly well shut up.

Significant numbers of that first wave of Pakistani Kashmiri and Bengali immigrants to British cities lived as the dinosaurs did - completely ill-equipped for the changes that were about to happen next, and it was just as disappointing to see the Brits - at the forefront of cultural contact through the reach of their empire - assume a supposed cultural/moral/racial high ground and reject the opportunity of coexistence with migrants coming in. Neither process of adjustment would have been easy, but without 'white' sticking power, populations just drifted apart. It happens everywhere, not just Europe, but here one feels it so much more than other places. The British response has been worse because they've never truly confronted their own angst and overall, no-one sitting in local or national government has really helped. I thus qualify what I said about this topic in my first paragraph - disconnection keeps me out of the politics, and offers me protection. I live as I do, with my own sense of identity.

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