Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Citizen Zen

I am British because I was born in Essex. My child is British on more slender grounds, having been born in Brisbane. Mrs Zen is not British, although she has no problem living in the UK, can work and gets by fine with the day-to-day.
I daresay I would scrape through the tests Mr Blunkett wishes for new citizens. My wife, though, would fail miserably. She has no idea how this country's constituted, and she doesn't know any British history.
Why should she? It's not as though most Brits know much history. "We won two world wars and one world cup" would be about the size of it, a history of wars, winners and losers, Agincourt, Trafalgar, bits and bobs of last century's wars.
I'm not particularly interested in Britishness. Sure, I cheer England at football, and I'll be barracking for the rugby team at the world cup. I feel lucky to have been born here – but that's not the same as feeling proud. What's to be proud of? I didn't achieve anything in getting born, and the people I come from didn't achieve any of the "greatness" that our tabloid papers so lament the diminishment of. My people were peasants, simple people with simple lives. History went over the top of their heads.
We don't live that history. We live in the here and now. When I walk home from the tube tonight, hip hop will contest the air with banghra, urban and Eurohouse. Curry will mix with liver and onions (and dogshit, it has to be said) in my nostrils – a warm, enticing smell, which means, to me, home. The people I pass will be speaking Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, Panjabi, Farsi, Turkish – some will even be speaking English. Some wear shalwar khameez, some of the women hijab, some even chador, although it's rare.
I fucking love it. I love the idea that a place can fit all that difference in and fit me too. I missed it when living in the narrow world of white Australian society, one of those places where "multicultural" means "lotsa ghettos".
I agree with Gary Younge in the Guardian, which isn't often the case. Celebrating Britain does not mean reinforcing the narrow stereotypes that demand that we be proud of an imperial past that destroyed the lives of millions. It means celebrating a land that has always been diverse, rich in its human capital as well as the resources it plundered – rich enough to supply the world with many of its greatest writers, artists and musicians. It means loving our neighbours, because they are helping create the environment that nourishes creativity, a great stew of Britishness. I dip my spoon. I will not join Mr Blunkett in demonising the unfortunates who want to share from my bowl. I have plenty and I am proud to live in a place where sharing is not – yet – a thing we've forgotten completely how to do.


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