From Guest-workers to Guest-artists

When my father, along with tens of thousands of others, was invited to work in the UK in the 1950s, the then British government was not interested in his knowledge of English or, indeed, whether he was fully conversant with British (sic) culture. How times have changed!

ow, language, citizenship and financial tests have become the norm for entry into the UK. However, following the Second World War, as women were sent back to the kitchens from ammunition and other factories, men, such as my father, were needed as labour to ‘man’ these workplaces; no special educational provision was made for the newly-arrived workers or, indeed, for their children. Yours truly was sent to the nearest primary school, aged ten, with no English, and left to fend for himself. Years later, while teaching English in Germany, I came across Friedrich Dürrenmatt poignant line about Gastarbeiter (guest-workers): “We called for workers; but people came!”

Half a century later, what has become of these people and their progeny? As The Olympics are about to open, here are some facts worth noting. Athletes and visitors to the Stadium will walk past The Mittal Tower designed by Anish Kapoor; an installation that has changed the London landscape permanently. Like Mittal, Kapoor is a recent immigrant. Ai Wei Wei’s summer exhibition is currently gracing The Serpentine Gallery. Saatchi and Saatchi (Iraqi) seem to have become as British as Harrods or Marks & Spencer. Just prior to the opening of the Games, Meera Syal and Paul Battrachayra, will take centre stage in Stratford-upon-Avon in Much Ado About Nothing.
[quote align=”center” color=”#b64736″]Given these, and other examples from many fields, it would seem that Albion has not only benefitted in economic terms from the arrival of the latest immigrants (many of whom sweated in its ‘dark and satanic mills’) but that this ‘green and pleasant land’ has also been enriched by their cultural capital.[/quote] 
Indeed, for some what makes Great Britain great is the multicultural and diverse composition of its citizens. However, in discussions about multicultural Britain, the problem of nomenclature still continues to amuse and to confuse – an issue picked up in the interview with Kavita Bhanot (no relation) about her book Too Asian; Not Asian Enough. While Britain has clearly become (even more of) a multicultural nation, it has some way to go in terms of recognising and exploiting its multilingual potential. The hegemony of English will continue to dominate the world for some time to come.  Yet, there are encouraging signs; e.g., in 2010, a major publisher of poetry books brought out a bilingual edition of the work of the Panjabi poet, Amarjit Chandan – a first in the history of English publishing. Incidentally, Panjabi is, after English, the second most spoken language in the UK.

With people of Asian origin in both Houses of Parliament, plus many representatives in the world of sport, media and other professions, particularly the NHS, it would seem that the ‘new-comers’ (and their off-spring) are doing relatively well. Pupils of Chinese and Indian origin have toppd the country’s school league tables for many years, and this year, for the first time, pupils of Bangladeshi origin outperformed their white British counterparts. Yet, some question this apparent success. In her interview, Kavita Bhanot, argues that not all is as it seems in this ‘brave new world’; that, in spite of the success of some ‘new Britons’, many remain ‘on the margins’. This may be true but, while acknowledging the frustrations of adjusting to life in a multicultural nation, AGI also wants to emphasise the more positive aspects of the contribution made to the UK (and beyond) by peoples from all over Asia; be it Zaha Hadid to architecture, or Kazuo Ishiguro to literature, or Aung San Suu Kyi to oppositional politics.

this article was originally published in AGI Magazine, August 2012, Issue 1

 image: ’Land Of Hope & Glory’ by Sarah Jane Szikora


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