Tag Archives: Immigration

Roots and Things

The children had a taste of their cultural heritage yesterday, spending the afternoon at the Chinese New Year celebrations in Newcastle’s Chinatown. It’s not that I think that my blue-eyed, blonde-haired children have more than the most infinitesimal portion of Chinese ancestry (if they’re lucky), but I’m a Geordie, so seeing St James’s and driving across the Town Moor always feel like they must count for something in the identity-forming stakes.

After we’d done with the dragons and the dumplings and the whole smiling-people-having-no-idea-what-they’re-watchingness of Stowell Street, we popped into the Discovery Museum for some warmth, as well as for its child-friendly displays. We spent a half-hour wandering happily through a history of Newcastle,  from understandably miserable re-imagined Romans right through to today.

A sense of belated homesickness for Newcastle has been growing on me for the last few months, after I’d thought it gone forever. Whether it’s the pull of family after personal tragedy, or whether it’s that my own particular brand of post-baby otherness is finally wearing off, I can see what is exciting and interesting there, rather than just what is expensive and inconvenient and scary. It’s a strange feeling, after twenty years away from somewhere, to feel a sharp tug back.  Then, as we were leaving, I came across this:


As an initiative, especially alongside the beautifully curated memories of Newcastle in living memory, it was incredibly poignant. As a proposition, against the backdrop of my questions about home and belonging, it struck me.

If we moved back, a scant 30 miles up the road,  I would – on paper – undoubtedly “belong”. My parents were both brought up in or near Newcastle; I was born there, and spent most of my childhood living nearby. My accent has blurred into generic semi-posh Northern, but I still feel most at home when surrounded by the sing-song chatter of Geordie accents. My family’s heritage on Tyneside is there, too: I can show my children where their great-grandfather drove fire engines out of a city centre station, where their great-grandmother’s family were bombed in the Second World War, where their uncle goes to watch the Magpies play whenever he can.

I could read the memories on that wall, and I could add to them.

But would my children belong?

They have a father whose name, appearance and family tree suggest that all genetic ambition was spent reaching Yorkshire from Scandinavia ahead of the Normans, and moving as little as possible since. They have a mother who, for all her creeping will to relocate to Tyneside, spent most of her formative years thrilling to any hint of Celt, and counting family fractions on her fingers to calculate quite how Irish she actually was (somewhere between a quarter and a half, if blood could be measured like alcohol). They have been born and grown, to date, in a small-ish community, nondescript to the passer-by, but which is nonetheless their element.

So, do they belong where they live? They undoubtedly feel they do, but I am not sure that a village in the throes of massive expansion has a clear enough ‘something’ there for it to be reciprocal or permanent.

In the delicious Italy Unpacked series on BBC2, Giorgio Locatelli spoke repeatedly of satisfying his “culinary DNA” in cooking and eating his way around his native Italy. It’s a deeply sympathetic image: I love to think of people with an unshakeable sense of self and heritage connecting with some profound, indefinable heritage. But it’s surely, to some extent, self selective and illusory.

Would Yeats and wild fiddle music have pulled at my heart were it not for the lethal combination of  red hair, finding teenagerhood unbearable, and the undeniable cachet of being Irish in the 90s? They certainly had less formative impact on my brown-haired, brown-eyed, more socially adept siblings. Is there even such a thing as cultural DNA anyway? Surely it’s just process of refined memory; nurture, not nature.

That’s the thing about belonging: it’s both a need and a choice. You can choose to belong somewhere, Facebook shows me daily updates of the progress of emigrated friends throwing themselves into their adopted new surroundings, apparently successfully. And yet, of course, it’s a two way thing. My children are no less ‘immigrants’ than plenty of others on the streets in Chinatown yesterday afternoon, but they’ll never get asked to qualify and quantify their allegiance at a national level, purely because the origin of their ancestors allows them to blend in more easily.

Belonging is infinitely appealing, but it requires unbelonging too.  However it’s determined – appearance, history, DNA – as long as we assert that someone belongs here, it must mean that someone else doesn’t. Furthermore, if you truly belong in one place, the obvious conclusion is that you can’t belong anywhere else. As we become ever more mobile, raising blended families who move frequently, what does belonging even mean anymore?



Dave’s Army

There are not many skills I brought from my previous job which are any help now that I spend my days playing trains, changing nappies and being a smile in an anorak at the school gate.

The capacity to maintain a straight face and an encouraging tone of voice while listening to a dubious Good Idea remains, though. It’s surprising how many similarities there are between a client who thinks he has found an instant solution to all his problems and a small child off on a frolic of his own.

It is with this one remaining transferable skill (assuming – perhaps wrongly – that there is no call for playing trains, changing nappies, or indeed smiling in anoraks, at Westminster) that I respond to the proposal in yesterday Queen’s Speech that we all, in our own way, adopt the proud mantle of Defender of the Borders. A kind of Dave’s Army, if you will, turning signposts the wrong way and scanning the shores for suspicious looking arrivals (oh no, sorry, that was Hartlepool)

Without having seen the proposals in detail, it’s hard to know exactly how it’s envisaged that this will work. The general idea, as far as I can tell, seems to be that wherever nasty furriners pop up to scrounge avail themselves of any kind of service or amenity or job, their residence status should be checked by the person dispensing it. The initial suggestion is that this would apply to private landlords and medical professionals, but the obvious extension would be teachers, advisers – hell (possibly wrong word) even clergy. What simpler way to stop someone from taking advantage of a something to which they are not entitled than scuppering them at source?

The problem is (adopting the gentle tone of voice in which I explain to my son that it’s a little late for his father to become a professional footballer and make us wealthy beyond our wildest dreams) that it just wouldn’t work.

Immigration law is fiendishly complex, governed by legislation, regulations, treaties and charters both domestic and international. If even the Government can’t pin down whether an obvious undesirable such as Abu Qatada is legally entitled to remain, it seems a bit rich to suggest that a hard-pressed nurse in A&E ought to be able to make a snap decision. Who, actually, will be deemed to be entitled and how is it to be proven? At the very least it would need some kind of sooper-dooper, infallibly efficient system spitting out red, green and amber cards each time an individual’s circumstance changes. Perhaps we could go one further and fashion them into an easily wearable shape. A star, perhaps?

Even with fail-safe, up-to-the-minute identity documents (carried at all times, by all who need them), there are an awful lot of questions. Will front-line service providers (I can’t even get my head around the idea of how this could apply to private landlords, so will stick to the easier to grasp notion of healthcare) be fully trained and given appropriate refresher courses each time the law changes? Will they have their contracts updated to include a new duty to check entitlement before providing care? What will the consequences be if they fail, and who is to do the enforcing? How will they know whom to challenge, and will they be indemnified against a claim for racial discrimination if they decide simply to play it safe and ask every patient with an accent or a non-white face? Similarly, I assume the Government will put in place indemnity insurance to protect those who wrongly turn away someone who then dies – surely an inevitability.

It couldn’t work, and even in not-working it would cost a fortune. A naive observer may suggest that putting money directly into the beleaguered Border Agency, would perhaps yield better results in terms of monitoring who is here and on what terms. A cynic may suggest that the Government knows perfectly well that this idea is a non-starter, but, in these UKIP-flavoured days, is throwing a crust to those who are encouraged to believe that uncontrolled immigration lies at the root of all our ills.

Me? I think that the Government is acting unforgivably in proposing that everyone, in Michael Gove’s words, should play a role in upholding immigration law. One person’s patriotic Captain Mainwaring is another’s racist vigilante, and in an environment where suspicion and resentment are officially endorsed, tragedy is likely to ensue. I may nit-pick at the practicalities of the proposal, but I despise the tone of the debate.

How to be a local person

I like to think that where I live is a village, but it isn’t really. It almost is; it used to be; but it isn’t anymore. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it now.

The problem is that it doesn’t really know what it is, either.

You see, we have a problem with immigration. You wouldn’t think so to look at us – in the shop, at the school gates, in the doctor’s surgery, the faces look the same and the voices are all pretty similar. Nonetheless, a richness of brownfield sites has been transformed over the past decade and a half into those kind of estates of detached houses which people like to sneer at, but which are just what lots of young families want.

So they (we) came, and they (we) multiplied. The result? A comfortable, prosperous, pleasant place to live – with an identity crisis. Those who were here before the new housing are left, baffled and rather resentful, turned inwards to each other. The newcomers, attracted originally to the prospect of life in a village, get involved in community activities, but that in turn sometimes leads to ill-will and silent feuding where toes are inadvertently stepped on.

Pressure on an over-subscribed school only adds to the problems: people whose children can’t get into the same primary which they themselves attended are (understandably, if unreasonably) unlikely to look kindly on those taking “their” places.

How do you belong to somewhere that wishes you weren’t there? Or, perhaps, how do you belong to somewhere which isn’t sure what it is? Travelling and living in Spain, I was always struck by the strong sense of local identity. A village would celebrate its own saint’s day in its own manner with traditions children inherited as their birthright; a fantastic spectacle to an onlooker, but one which depends by its nature on continuity and exclusivity.

Of course, places do change, and what we see as static and age-old would probably look very different to a visitor from a century ago. My village/suburb/whatever will doubtless take on a new identity over time, but no-one wins if we pretend that nothing was lost in the process.