Bloody Foreigners

23 September 2005

It’s recently been my pleasure to read Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners: The History of Immigration to Britain. I originally bought it to while away a long train journey a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been continually going back and re-reading chapters I’d already covered; not because it was too difficult to grasp, but because there was just a simple pleasure in reading it and going over the rich history that he had written.

As well as being well-written (and packed full of amusing anecdotes and trivia), Winder has managed to organise his material incredibly well; generally, each chapter tells the story of a particular minority group and their arrival in Britain, but he does it without forcing artificial divides, and manages to include groups that I had never really considered before – it’s not just about the Empire Windrush, but covers Britain’s history from pre-Roman times up until today: medieval Jews, freed slaves in the 18th century, German dissidents in the 19th, Polish servicemen after the War – they all have their stories told. The final chapters, on the asylum seeker hoodoo whipped up by the media and turned into a temporary national psychosis, are an excellent and dispassionate account of the recent stupidity and misinformation (Chapter three of Nick Cohen’s Pretty Straight Guys is another good reference, incidentally).

Out of the book come a couple key themes. The first is that immigrants are not scroungers (as the right paint them), but neither are they meek and helpless (as some patronising parts of the left paint them). Rather, they are strong, willing and capable individuals themselves – to migrate to a new land, often overcoming barriers in one’s homeland and leave behind the place of your birth is an act of bravery, not cowardice. The other is that despite the current anti-immigrant mood, and past blots on our record such as Moseley and the National Front, Britain has generally been a receptive and hospitable home (“tolerant”, with its implication that immigrants are a nuisance that have to be put up with, is not an ideal word) to newcomers (especially when compared with many other parts of the world), and that should be something to be proud of.

The book flags a little at the end – a chapter discussing what national identity means is a little muddled and doesn’t draw enough on the preceding 400-odd pages of historical account. There are too many ideas in it, and it could have been spun off into a separate book entirely, to be honest. But that’s a minor quibble, overall the book is a superb and informative read, and thoroughly recommended.


One Response

immigrants are not scroungers (as the right paint them), but neither are they meek and helpless (as some patronising parts of the left paint them). Rather, they are strong, willing and capable individuals

Jarvis Cocker hit on a terrifically potent image in “Weeds”. (If you haven’t got We love life, get it forthwith – or as soon as you’ve got the King Creosote album, anyway.) We see immigrants as weeds – weakling rejects cast out by their own countries – but also as weeds – invaders who don’t wait to be accepted but flourish, threateningly, on the margins – and at the same time as weeds – a wild, exotic addition to our sober civilisation.