Friday, November 10, 2006
My wife and I were drinking coffee in our hotel in Barcelona this week, when a journalist, translator and interviewee settled down on a sofa nearby. My wife recognised the interviewee as British author, Andrea Levy. My wife had read Ms Levy's 2004 book, A Small Island, which the interview was clearly to promote (perhaps it has just been published in Catalan?). She thought is was quite good as social history, if not very well-written.
We were minding our own business, but couldn't help overhearing the interview, by a Catalan journalist. As it progressed, we became more and more irritated.
Ms Levy's book is based on her parents' generation's experiences as new immigrants to Britain in the 1950's, including - inevitably - their experiences of racism. I am sure they had some. Equally inevitably, Ms Levy was asked about her own experiences of racism. She can't be blamed for the question, but her answers were disappointing.
She talked of being the only black girl in an otherwise all-white school, but couldn't come up with a single concrete example of anything bad happening to her. To her credit (thank you, Andrea) she didn't make anything up. However, we had a real sense that she was disappointed that she couldn't trash her former schoolfriends more powerfully than by hinting at their sense of her being different. Pathetically, she mentioned that she "wasn't that dark," as if her schoolfriends would have shown their true racism if she had only been blacker.
Moving on to contemporary racism, she commented - even more pathetically - that racists are so subtle now that sometimes she thinks "is it just me?" How desperate is she to cling to the idea of racism, that she is unprepared to give the benefit of the doubt? Frankly, Andrea, if you can't tell if they are racist, it probably is just you. Imagine how tense they must feel, knowing that you are straining every nerve to detect racism on their part! Any slight sense of unease you may detect might reasonably be attributed to that, don't you think?
She waxed lyrical about establishing a separate identity of "Black British." Frankly, that took the weevil-infested biscuit. What is on offer in Britain is the chance for anyone who wants it to become British, pure and simple. Our national identity is not of the "blood and soil" variety. It's a club. Sign up, join in and you will be welcome.
I have friends descended from Poles, Germans, Hungarians and Russians. All of them are utterly English; thoroughly steeped (as is Ms Levy) in our language and culture. None of them feel the need to establish a separate identity. If we Britons had ever sought to impose a separate identity on them, we would no doubt have been accused of racism. I am sure their ancestors endured a bit of mockery when they first arrived, with curious accents and a weak grasp of how things worked in England. But that did not stop them becoming full members of the club.
I accept Ms Levy, without reservation, as my fellow-citizen. I am happy she is a prize-winning author and - presumably - a financial success. All I would ask is that she would do the same for me, despite my skin being lighter than hers and despite my family having had the poor taste to live in Britain since before the Norman Conquest.