Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Review: Bloody Foreigners

If you’ve walked amongst the crowds on Oxford Street in London, picking up snatches of conversation from the mass of moving humanity, and wondered where these thousands of tongues and faces are from, then Robert Winder’s “Bloody Foreigners” might have a few answers for you.

This rich tale aims to tell the story of how people came to settle in Britain, without ringing all the usual alarm bells about “overcrowding” or “swamping.” In fact Winder makes very clear at the outset that asking whether immigration is “good” or “bad” is as futile as asking whether growing old is good or bad. If anything he tries to show that we are all from somewhere else and so we are all immigrants depending on how far back you choose to go.

Much of what and who we assume to be quintessentially British – Marks and Spencers, Tesco, Dorris Lessing, T.S. Eliot – all in fact have immigrant roots. ‘Bloody Foreigners’ is a thoroughly entertaining, compassionate and inspiring story about immigration into Britain and Winder has so many interesting anecdotes up his sleeve that even the most seasoned ‘Britisher’ might look at his or her country differently after reading this book.

There is no Statue of Liberty-like greeting to immigrants sailing into a British harbor but throughout history these shores have witnessed the disgorging of thousands upon thousands of entrepreneurial fortune-hunters, liberated freedom-lovers and persecuted asylum-seekers and despite the grumbling, whingeing and occasional open hostility, these people have been accepted and many have flourished. For all practical purposes, Winder’s story begins with the coming of the Romans and continues swiftly down the ages to modern times with the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers from war zones in places like Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Britain has had its fair share of dark chapters through this period like the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 under Edward I, the witch-hunt against Italians after Italy entered the Second World War on the side of Germany and the racism directed at African-Caribbeans and South Asians.

In describing these chapters from history, Winder really lifts the narrative with incredible anecdotes. After the Jews were expelled their houses were sold and some of the proceeds from the sale were used towards some new stained glass windows for, shockingly enough, Westminster Abbey. Soon to replace the Jews in the finance industry were Italian immigrants and the legacy of families like Ricardi and Frescobaldi are evident in place names like Lombard street in London. The Huguenots, persecuted in France crossed over to England where many of their master weavers set up humming looms. The old Threadneedle Street owes its name to their industry.

One of the problems, however, with Winder’s account is that he romanticizes immigrants and inadvertently demonizes the “hosts”. Many immigrants cling to old ways so strongly that they can sometimes become active partners in their own alienation. The other problematic area is diaspora politics where immigrants can reveal all the same biases and hypocrisies back home that they may complain exist in their new country. But Winder doesn’t pause on this for breath at all.

This criticism notwithstanding, Bloody Foreigners, is a refreshing take on a subject that is more often discussed by invoking doomsday scenarios of crowded streets rife with crime.

Britain has produced Edward I, Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell, Nick Griffin and many like them. But throughout this period, the waves of new arrivals haven’t stopped. Britain didn’t stop being a place where immigrants thought they would get a fair shot.

Winder’s description of the suspicion and contempt in which Italians were held during World War II is reminiscent of the recent reaction towards Muslims. Every age seems to expose a new group. But there is little doubt that this is an onward march of progressive legislation and changing attitudes. Race relations have continued to take one step back and two steps forward, withdrawn again and then leapt forward. Bloody Foreigners is a paean to this saga of migration.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Are You Potty-Drained? Early Lessons in RVing.

In an RV Park off the George Parks Highway outside the Denali National Park and Preserve

Arguing is generally not a good way to start a vacation. But since it involved a most crucial aspect of our holiday – our mode of transport – we really didn’t have a choice but to haggle heatedly over it.

We had booked air tickets to Alaska for 12 days and now we needed to figure out how we were going to see this monumentally large American state. Should we hire a car? Take ferries? Charter little planes? Do all three? Or do the unthinkable and rent a 29 foot RV (motorhome)? It was unthinkable because none of us had driven in the US before and yet here we were discussing plans to rent a truck-sized home and tootle off into remote parts of the state.

Arguments therefore were bound to ensue. Our five member group had seven opinions on the viability of the plan and in the end the proponents of the RV prevailed; although only after detailed research that included reading other peoples testimonials and consulting every conceivable guide book and website on traveling in Alaska. RVing, we finally concluded, was a venture worth undertaking.

So it was with a fair amount of nervous anticipation that we landed in Anchorage for an RV tour through south-central and interior Alaska. The most important document to accomplish all of this was of course an international driving license. The license issued in Tamil Nadu looks a bit dodgy and not surprisingly the lady doing our paperwork in Anchorage gasped and made an “if-you-say-so” face when she looked at it. But since we didn’t look like highway robbers she probably decided it would be safe to hand over the vehicle after all.

We were given an RV tutorial by Gary who gave crisp, clear instructions, including assurances that driving and living in the RV would be as easy as pie – unless of course we all got mad at each other and wanted more than 2 square feet of our own space. I made furious notes while Gary went through the steps on how to drain the potty, refill the water tank, turn the dining table into a bed and other pleasures of life on wheels. My notes would be needed, I thought, if the RV suddenly caught fire, spluttered to a halt in the middle of a frozen highway or sailed into a ditch.

Before I get into our travels, let me say that I am now a life long fan of RV design. Five adults thrown into a space of less than 300 square feet, sleeping in three separate beds, cooking dinners, playing cards, living out of small suitcases and mostly getting along is a remarkable feat of interior design amongst other things. Not to mention, that the thing moves, takes you over hill and dale, and gives you the most stunning views you could wish for from your window.

We took custody of our RV and decided to take a spin around Anchorage, figure out how the RV drives and buy groceries to stow away in our little refrigerator before heading out of the city. We moved slowly out of the RV park and onto the street and in a few minutes found ourselves barreling down a one-way street, going in the wrong direction. We immediately pulled into a parking lot and turned around hoping, that the gadget on the traffic light was not a camera.

That blunder notwithstanding, we found the RV very easy to drive thanks to the modern miracle of power steering and empty Alaska roads. We wandered over the next 12 days, first by heading south into the Kenai Peninsula, then west towards Valdez and finally north towards the interior to Fairbanks stopping off at several small villages and towns along the way. Alaska has a small but excellent network of highways designed to ensure that you never get lost. These highways cut through such spectacular country that it would be a crying shame not to stop and be able to enjoy the quiet, majestic beauty. On the Seward Highway with the mountains on one side and the waters of the Cook Inlet on the other, we crossed several buses packed with tourists and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor souls who could only gaze from behind a wall of glass or stop only when the driver thought it best.

Our RV company had thoughtfully kept a copy of ‘The Milepost’ – a magazine with elaborate maps and information about facilities at every milepost – in our vehicle. This is a Bible for road users in Alaska and we could see why. While we could park the RV anywhere we wanted for the night, we generally wanted to stay in RV parks where we could access the internet, use proper showers rather than the RV shower, refill the water tank etc. We would consult ‘The Milepost’ around 6 pm, find an RV park in the vicinity where we wanted to park for the night, call, book a spot and drive into the park around 8 pm. We would settle down to a snug evening hoping for dark skies but in May Alaska has nearly 20 hours of sunlight so the sun would “set” close to 11 pm and “rise” again by 4 am.

Its hard to say if driving in Alaska during peak tourist season between June and September, would be as easy as it was for us towards the end of May. But in May driving was so wonderful we wondered why more people weren’t doing it.

It is possible that we won’t miss putting on plastic gloves and draining the pot every morning (although it has great potential for character-building). But beyond that there can and must not be any arguments about whether RVing is a good idea. We are now in complete agreement, which is a great way to end a vacation.

This piece was published in The Hindu Business Line on 13th November 2009.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Bringing it Up, Deeper Underground

One of the hazards of public transport in London on a Friday or Saturday night is that you have to share it with lots of people who have had one too many. This means you have to watch your back, front and sides, to see who is shifting around uncomfortably, who is clutching their stomach and who has buried their face in their hands. Sorry for stereotyping but these are all likely suspects who might produce their dinner on the floor before you.

Two weeks ago a woman to my right suddenly stood up in the moving train, rushed to the door, dropped her bag with a thud and threw up in one big explosion of mushrooms.

Then during the walk home, I saw a guy staggering down the road like a two year old who has just learnt how to walk. As he came stumbling forward his path was blocked by the short parapet wall of the neighbourhood church and he inadvertently fell into a superb position to vomit. He was hanging on the wall like a pair of trousers on the clothes line. Perched on his stomach, with his legs on the outside and his face on the other side of the church wall he began drenching a bush with what were probably his extra beers.

And then there is the pissing with all the full bladders trying to catch the last train home. But this is enough information for one post. Some other time.