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The Changing Face of Britain

by Michael Carberry

In her article in last month’s Only Connect - Unrepresentative Ads - Is this really how the UK looks today? ( - my fellow contributor, Lynda Goetz, argued that the advertisements she sees on television no longer depict a world she recognises; that “the world of television adverts is now largely black or coloured” in which the four-fifths of the UK population who are white find it hard to see themselves reflected. There is much that Lynda says with which I would agree, not least that we should not try “to rewrite history by viewing it through the lens of modern sensibilities” But there are parts of her article I find odd, even disturbing and, irrespective of whether her basic premise is true, I believe her explanation is seriously flawed.

The Britain in which Lynda and I grew up was a white country. We knew about black people of course. We saw them in cinema newsreels of the Queen visiting far-flung parts of the British empire, or in films like “Sanders of the River” (in which the black US American, Paul Robeson, acted a Nigerian) or “Tarzan” (often with white actors grotesquely blacked-up). At our church school we collected for the “Black Babies” (i.e., for missionary work among African children) and we even had a children’s book about “Topsy”, a little African girl and her friend the white missionary. But one almost never saw a black person in real life – at least certainly not in rural Fife where I grew up. The first black person I remember meeting was a real-live Topsy: a little black girl from an orphanage whom some friends of ours had taken to stay for a holiday. I was fascinated by her tight curly hair and asked if it was natural. When assured that it was, I remarked that my mother would be very jealous. She regularly put “Curly-top” on my baby sister’s hair to make it curl but it remained resolutely straight. That seemed to amuse the grown-ups no end. But in all the schools I attended there was not a single black or brown face with the exception of one half-Burmese boy whose father had been a soldier in Burma.

But times were changing. Already in 1948, the Empire Windrush had arrived at Tilbury marking the beginning of Caribbean immigration into Britain. The following year the National Health Service (NHS) began actively to recruit Caribbean nurses and in 1956 London Transport began direct recruitment of staff in Barbados. By then we had moved to South Yorkshire in England, so when, at the age of ten, having visited Sheffield for the first time and encountered a West Indian bus conductor, I rushed into the house to tell my mother I had seen a “darkie”. That was not in any way a racist comment – at least not intentionally so; it was simply how we referred to black people at that time.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s South Asians also started migrating to Britain. Many worked at Heathrow Airport (incidentally establishing a Punjabi Sikh community in Southall) or in the foundries of the West Midlands. Again, South Asian medical staff were actively recruited by the NHS because medical schools set up by the British colonial government in the sub-continent conformed to British standards of medical training. These immigrants were inevitably concentrated in the larger cities. In 1965 I met my firsts Asians and had my first taste of Asian food when a new Indian restaurant opened opposite my place of work in Sheffield. Returning to the city many years later I was struck by how a whole area which I had known was now predominantly Asian, exemplified by the presence of a new, very large and very striking mosque. Although the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 and the Immigration Act of 1971 severely curtailed primary immigration from the Indian Sub-Continent, from about 1964 Africanisation policies in the former British colonies of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika saw Asians with British passports coming to Britain in large numbers. Then in 1972 the expulsion of all South Asians from Uganda by the dictator, Idi Amin, brought another large wave of Asian immigration; having been given British passports by the colonial regime they naturally came “home” to the UK. Since then, we have seen many other immigrants settling in Britain including, recently, Ukrainians, Syrians, Afghans and Hong Kong Chinese. So, it is certainly true that, when travelling around the UK or looking at British television, I no longer recognise the country in which I grew up. But is this something which should concern us?

The apparently harmonious white Britain in which Lynda and I grew up concealed a more complex reality. At my all-white school, I had friends, Dick, Stan, Mike, Fred and Tony; Yorkshire lads who spoke with local accents and loved cricket. It was only their surnames: Jerziorski, Jaggiellevich, Kentzer, Manfredi and Barbierato which revealed them to be the sons of immigrants; Polish servicemen who had remained in the UK after the Second World War or South Italians come to Britain in the 1950s to work in market gardening or open ice-cream shops. Some of the boys spoke Polish or Italian at home and in varying degrees took pride in their parental language and culture. But they were first and foremost British. And as we attended a Catholic school, almost half the boys had names like O’ Callaghan, Riordan, Murphy, O’Connor or indeed Carberry; the sons, grandsons or great-grandsons of Irish immigrants who had streamed into mainland Britain since the great Irish famine of the 1840s to build the canals and railways or work in the coal mines, and would continue to do so until the 1970s. My own great grandfather migrated from County Mayo in the west of Ireland to Scotland in the late 19th century. But this massive immigration was simply a continuation of what had gone before. Indeed, since the arrival of the Beaker People in prehistoric times the British Isles have seen successive waves of immigration: Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Dutch (to drain the East Anglian fens), Italian merchants, French Huguenots, Irish navvies, Eastern European Jews, Hungarians (after the 1956 uprising) and many others. Some of these were political refugees seeking asylum in Britain but the vast majority were economic migrants simply seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Each of these groups have made their own contribution to the English language and what it means to be British. Contrary to what many people like to believe there is no such thing as a British race – only a melting pot of peoples in constant flux and evolution. And that process continues today. If ease of international travel and the legacy of empire mean that more recent immigrants have come from beyond the boundaries of Europe, they are no more foreign than those who have come before. Indeed, it is arguable that English-speaking migrants from Commonwealth countries, often British passport holders, had a rather better claim to settle in Britain than Poles, Italians or other Europeans.

All of these groups have faced resentment and discrimination. My brother-in-law was one of several brothers who came from the west of Ireland to work in the building trade. When his elder brothers first came to London one still saw notices in boarding house windows saying “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.” Even in the 1970s I was shocked to hear a café owner in Sheffield expressing her disgust at the Irish: “They’re filthy and breed like rabbits!”. When we moved to Yorkshire in 1955 as part of an influx of Scottish miners and their families into the Yorkshire coalfield, I was dismayed to find that Scots boys like myself were regularly and unfairly blamed for any vandalism or yobbish behaviour simply because we spoke with different accents. I vividly remember Enoch Powell’s 1968 “rivers of blood” speech in which he claimed that “in 15- or 20-years’ time the black man [would] have the whip hand over the white man”, and the rise of the neo-fascist National Front Party in the 1970s in response to increasing Asian immigration. Early in my career when teaching in Scunthorpe I shared lodgings with a fellow teacher, a nice young man called David, with whom I became good friends. I could not understand our landlady’s undisguised hostility towards him until she muttered darkly that he was Jewish and “not like us”.

It is that perceived difference which is at the root of all discrimination. But while we can change our accent, our language or even our name in order to blend in to the society around us we cannot change our skin colour. Anyone who, like me, has lived in a non-white country, is aware of what it means to be ethnically different from the people around one and to be treated differently because of that. In my own case I could hardly object because I was a foreigner and, as a white person in a developing country, I was generally treated with respect. It would have been different had I been born there or was looked down on because I was the wrong colour. A senior police officer in Liverpool told me how the first generation of Caribbean immigrants had invariably been hard-working, law-abiding citizens. But there was a real problem with the younger generation – disaffected, young black men born and raised in Britain but who felt themselves to be second-class citizens in their own country. Unlike my Polish or Italian school friends, they could not simply blend in to British society because they were still perceived as and treated as “immigrants”.

Lynda argues that the apparent prevalence of black and brown faces on television is a product of a “woke” culture, a vocal minority more interested in diversity than television, and it is here that she and I part company. The term ‘woke’, much beloved of right-wing newspapers like the Daily Telegraph and the current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has become, at least in the UK, a catch-all ‘boo-word’ for anything remotely liberal. To my mind, the use of such a pejorative term already detracts from the objectivity of Lynda’s article and hence the credibility of her arguments. But that aside, she is simply wrong. Most black and Asian actors will tell you that they have had to fight long and hard to achieve anything like appropriate representation on UK television precisely because they were typecast as black or Asian actors rather than being selected on their acting ability. That may have changed in recent years, but Lynda’s particular complaint is about TV advertisements. The irony of course is that these advertisements are not produced by the ‘woke’ establishment or “rubbish directors“ but are very carefully crafted by highly-paid, hard-nosed advertising executives (most probably white) and usually after extensive and expensive market research. If there is indeed a disproportionate number of black and Asian characters, (and that is debatable) the question is why? The ad-men themselves would say that they are merely reflecting the diversity of contemporary Britain and there may be some truth in that. But a cynic might see ulterior motives, playing on the envy felt by many white people towards successful black and Asian citizens. Keeping up with (or ahead of) the Patels can be a powerful selling point. In any event, the main problem for advertisers is cutting through and getting their advertisements noticed. In that respect there is no such thing as bad publicity. The fact that these advertisements have elicited a whole article from Lynda shows just how successful that strategy has been.

Lynda argues that only 15% of people in the UK are of Caribbean, African or Asian origin. That is true but these groups are not evenly distributed throughout the population. Walk down Southall High Street or Brixton Road in London, or the centre of Bradford or Leicester or parts of any major city in the UK and you will get a very different impression. Do not these populations also have the right to see their daily reality reflected on television? In the end, do the percentages matter? I note that BBC TV weather forecasters have names such as Tomasz Schafernaker, Stav Danaos, Elizabeth Rizzini, Katerina Christodoulou. Should we be alarmed that we have a disproportionate number of people of immigrant origin (Schafernaker was born in Poland) or descent forecasting our weather? Are we concerned about the number of people in TV advertisements with red hair or blue eyes? Why should having the pigment in your skin as opposed to in your eyes or hair make a difference?

The single, half-Burmese boy in my school happened to be in my year and sat next to me in class. John Finn was small, quiet and very shy but a gentle and intelligent boy who was universally liked by his classmates. In 1961 we had a new geography teacher. While teaching us about Australia, she mentioned, with seeming approval the, “White Australia Policy” which operated at that time and which forbade people of non-European ethnic origin from immigrating to Australia. When one boy asked incredulously, “Miss, does that mean Finn would not be allowed into Australia?” she shrugged and said airily, “I suppose so.” The shock-wave which ran round the class was palpable. John Finn may have had straight black hair, high cheek-bones, almond-shaped eyes and a light-brown skin but he was one of us and our friend. Nothing could have better highlighted the absurdity and injustice of treating people purely on the basis of their ethnicity. In the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the Sidney Poitier character gently chides his father saying, “You think of yourself as a coloured man. I think of myself as a man.” Lynda’s ‘problem’, if I may call it that, is that she persists in seeing characters in television advertisements as black or brown people rather than simply as people. That is a problem only she can resolve.


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