Argus title : Bombs will not destroy Britishness
In common with most of the population of Britain, I like the M.P. Boris Johnson and his apparently bumbling self deprecation and wit. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him say anything personally nasty about anyone else.
He told a story against himself in the Daily Telegraph the other day, describing how he’d watched his daughter play Queen Victoria in a primary school play about the Crimean War. He’d watched her proudly, but with an increasing sense of frustrated superiority as she pinned medals on the chests, not just of Florence Nightingale, but also Mary Seacole.
His daughter had told him that Mary Seacole was a black nurse who was “just as important as Florence Nightingale”, but he hadn’t believed her. He hurrumphed about “political correctness” to the Islington mums about him, saying “She’s just been invented, hasn’t she?…they want to find a historic British role model for all those black nurses, don’t they?… “
In full flow, he suddenly realised his discerning neighbours were looking absolutely aghast. Uncomfortable, but sure he was right, he went home and looked up the name ‘Mary Seacole’. Of course, he was wrong.
Mary Seacole was a black nurse who returned from the Crimea a national heroine. Born in Jamaica of a Jamaican mother and a Scottish father, she became a skilled healer. When she learned of the appalling conditions in the Crimean hospitals, she decided to go there.
She went to the front line and became so famous that after the war a huge benefit festival was organised in her name at which a thousand performers shouted her name.
Johnson, an old Etonian and Balliol man, wrote ruefully: “I find myself facing the grim possibility that it was my own education that was blinkered, and that my children are now receiving a more faithful account of heroism in imperial Britain than I did.”
In his column, Johnson argued for a shared sense of Britishness and a common British history including all those who contributed to it – remembering, as he put it, the “number of Khans and Alis whose names are inscribed on the Menin Gate at Ypres.”.
It was an engaging piece of writing revealing Johnson’s struggle with new ideas and his awareness that a genuinely inclusive British history is most likely to unsettle white men such as himself. However, it also revealed an endearing delight at seeing the world in a different way.
This was just the latest journalistic contribution to the burgeoning debate about Britishness. Indeed, since the London bombings, most of the country seems absorbed in a discussion about what it means to be British. It will be perhaps be an unintended benefit of the killings if people begin to see each other differently – as British countrymen and women.
Certainly, if privileged white males such Boris Johnson are beginning to take seriously the contribution of black women such as Mary Seacole, things may just be looking up. Despite the reported increase in racist attacks since the bombing, I do get the sense of a new mood in the country. And strangely it is one of openness, quite the opposite of what might have been expected.
It is a cliché that we tend to understand the value of things only when we fear we may lose them. The effect of the bombings, which could have driven communities apart, has been in many cases to bring people together.
In a state of confusion, many of the indigenous white population seem to be looking afresh at the contributions of immigrant and ex-colonial populations that they used to take for granted. Though no doubt a significant number of indigenous British people have retreated into little Britainism, many have not.
Increasing numbers have been politicised by the Iraq War. They don’t trust politicians. As a consequence, they question what they are told and look behind what they see on television news.
I’ve been musing on such matters as I’ve sat at the Sussex County cricket ground recently. Cricket is quintessentially British. It was the imperial game. And yet, because it was the sport of Empire, exported by British colonialists to Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, the Caribbean and Australia, it has become truly international – while remaining peculiarly British.
The Sussex team is full of players born in former British colonies. Matt Prior and Mark Davis are from South Africa, Tim Ambrose is Australian and Murray Goodwin is from Zimbabwe. Mushtaq Ahmed and Rana Naved are Pakistanis.
I watch them all through the razzamatazz of Twenty20 matches, when Sid the Shark dances, the music is terrible and the crowd is happily riotous
I watch them play county cricket on soporific afternoons. The sun beats down on the men’s cricket hats, as they laze on wooden benches and drink pints of beer while ladies sip from thermoses. The sky is blue. The seagulls swoop down across the field, taking their lives in their wings.
The crowd discusses groin strains and wrenched shoulders, who should have been given out and who should not, and whether England can prevail if McGrath comes back from injury. Is the pitch right for the spin bowlers? Will Rana be here next season?
It seems a world away from bombs and discord. And yet, it was quite close by that the police raided a flat and subsequently charged 3 people. All are suspected to have links with the London Bombings.
But here at the cricket ground it is as if nothing has happened. Everyone knows, but no one will let it affect them. It makes no difference that politicians or the media point the finger at Pakistan. Sussex has an historic links with Pakistan.
Imran Khan played here. Mushtaq Ahmed, Sussex’s popular spin bowler plays here, as does Sussex’s new fast bowler Rana Naved.
Mushtaq Ahmed played a large part in securing Sussex’s County Championship win in 2003, taking 100 wickets. ‘Mushy’, as he is called by the crowd, may not be playing for Pakistan any more, but he’s the best wicket taker in the UK. And he’s ours.
At a county match the other day, Kirtley had just come on to bowl, following a period of rain, when a wag in the crowd standing just behind Mushy’s position on the field yelled “Bring on Mushy!” The crowd giggled and Mushy turned round to grin.
The wag wasn’t chaffing the bowler, who couldn’t hear. He was telling Mushy that nothing had changed. He’s still ‘one of us’.
Rana, who opens the bowling for Pakistan, joined Sussex just a short while ago. He too has quickly found a niche here. Everyone you speak to at the county ground wants him to stay on beyond the season.
I don’t know whether Mushy and Rana have experienced any change in public attitude since the bombings. What I do know is that my family and I haven’t heard any change in crowd behaviour. There’s no negative muttering, no unusual silences. It’s all as it was. Mushy and Rana belong.
Everyone knows Mushy prays in the changing room, occasionally brings the Imam to cricket and credits God with every success he has. People love that about him. They believe him to be – quite simply – a good man, as well as a brilliant cricketer.
Mushy’s said he’s happy here and wants to complete his cricketing career at Sussex. He recently described the team as “like a family”. He’s right. Players have come from all over the world and found a home here.
But, he needs to take his analogy further. For the club and its supporters form an extended family. From my daughter, who would truant from school to watch cricket if she could, to Brenda Lower who doesn’t miss a match and Frank King whose old dog Sophie watches play and scampers on the outfield when she can, to the senior police officer who always takes his children, they are all bound to each other. The Pakistani bowlers are part of it.
In a way, this represents the best of what this nation is – a laid-back kind of family. It’s a hodge podge of people (such as my own family) from every corner of the globe rubbing shoulders with native English (and even old Etonians), building an inclusive post-colonial British history.
It’s to be hoped that Rana stays and makes a second home here. His warmth and courtesy have already made him a favourite.
As for Mushy, he’s in people’s hearts. It will take more than a bit of explosive to dislodge him.