It is, of course, trash TV. “Make Bradford British” is a crude amalgam of various reality shows, cheap and not so cheerful fare like “Big Brother”, “Wife Swap” and “Come Dine With Me.” The premise is simple: various cultural, ethnic and religious stereotypes from Bradford – “Britain’s most divided city”, is the fatuous claim – volunteer to spend time living with each other in some sort of half-baked and nasty social experiment.
It is an execrable, faux documentary. The “diversity and community experts” are little more than commentators, adding the occasional sound bite to tell viewers what they should be feeling (“These people have to live together” we are told, just in case we hadn’t got the drift) and pronouncing the annual Scottish New Year celebration as “Hoggamunny” (“I don’t understand the question,” says a white girl, “what’s a Mahoggamunny?”). Meanwhile, the production values clutch at the sensational like the drowning man clutches at the proverbial: cue Rasheed, the jolly Muslim fundamentalist, giving up mosque to spend a day in some stately home with the group, praying in the car park, his nose almost pressed against the side of the minibus (couldn’t they find somewhere with a little more dignity?) while elderly liberal Maura weeps her new found understanding.
And yet… and yet…
I have a complicated relationship with the concept of “Britishness”, and not because, like many Scots, I see my identity as lying solely north of the border. No, it is more to do with my genealogy. My father, born in Lipine, near Katowice, in 1913, was Silesian Deutsch Volk; his status as a Pole was merely an accident of politics. So, after 1939, he joined the Wermacht, fought on the Eastern Front where he got frostbite and was wounded and was then transferred to the Western Front, where he was captured by the Americans to begin a whole new time line in the UK.
That, as a boy brought up in the jingoistic days of 1960s Saturday afternoon cinema (“The Battle of the Bulge”; “The Great Escape”), was difficult to accept for a while. How could I be British when my father fought for the ultimate bogey man, Adolf Hitler? How could I be British when the British would quite happily have killed my father on the battlefield?
Let there be no doubt: I’m glad my father was on the losing side. I think World War II and the overthrow of Hitler was one of the few righteous wars in history I would have volunteered to fight in, like the Spanish Civil War or The Opium Wars (on the side of the Chinese, of course). Certainly, there was a moral dimension to it that has been lost in the corporate imperialism of most conflicts since, such as Haliburton’s invasion of Iraq.
But it does rather complicate things. In the TV programme, mixed-race bar owner Audrey talks of the “scales falling from her eyes” when she realises the impact her own racist language has on others: something similar happened the morning my father took the twelve year old me aside and showed me his Iron Cross and explained how he got it. I realised that, in the great game of international politics, a whole nation of people could one day be our allies supplying our Kings and Queens, the next day be our deadliest enemy, and the day after that become our family.
One character in the programme, a black man of West Indian descent called Desmond (yes, that’s right) is interviewed before he meets his house mates: he beats his chest and says that being British is “in me heart”. Later, after hearing an uncomfortable discussion about language with a harmless but insensitive old buffer called Jens who claims that he was only joking when he used to talk to his former police colleagues about going out “Paki bashing” and referring to blacks as “black bastards”, Desmond finds a hole in that huge heart of his. For decades, he had, in his own words, pushed the casual, unthinking racism “under the carpet” in order to just get on with it; obviously distressed, he finds that there is no longer any space under that carpet.
I have no wish to suggest my experience as a white kid was directly comparable to Desmond’s, but I grew up with similar casual references to my difference. I was regularly called a “Polack” by schoolmates and even by colleagues up until the 1990s; teachers referred to me as “Banacek”, a nominally Polish detective on TV played by George Peppard. I have become somewhat sensitive when, on introducing myself, I am asked, “What kind of name is that?” “It’s a surname,” I replied once to a parent who asked me that question in the middle of a busy corridor at a parents’ evening. “Yes, but where does it come from?” was the retort, my irritation failing to make an impression. “My father,” I said, and I was looked at as if I was an uppity moron.
Britain is, for me, simply an organisational entity, and I “owe” it nothing more than that I pay my taxes and obey the law; in that sense, I am a much better Briton than many of the beknighted movers and shakers held up as examples of “Great” Britain, the Sir Richards and the Sir Alans who tax avoid like crazy or the chief police officers and civil servants and MPs mired in corruption. I believe I am a good citizen – I regularly give to charity and am as kind as I can be to others – not because I am part of a Great British Big Society, but because it is the decent thing for an individual human being to do.
A later show, “Prejudiced and Proud”, continues the theme, looking into the lives of Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League, and Sayful Islam, of whatever banned group he leads this week. Neither man has little substance outside his ego: both are filmed smiling with smug satisfaction in the midst of the anger and chaos and violence they preside over; both claim moral authority, yet a moderate imam points out Sayful’s total lack of intellectual credibility for the position he has set himself up in, while Robinson wanders the streets, drunk, baiting people with references to Anders Breivik who, of course, declared war not on Muslims but on the children of white liberals. The leads are merely self serving opportunists, but it is the wider cast of characters I find most confusing – the Muslim boys who look lost and terrified at the venomous reaction they generate, the tattooed skinheads who, like Hitler’s bierkeller shock squads, inextricably link bullying drunkenness with political agitation. The notion of finding common ground with such people based solely on a shared skin colour or language or religion or place of birth seems utterly strange to me; I see nothing that I would identify as my “culture” in any of them.
But I am undoubtedly Scottish. I cheer on the Scottish football team (and anyone who is playing against England) and, in certain situations such as English pubs, vamp up my Scottishness. I am as prone, I suppose, to tribalism as the next man or woman. However, I am also aware that I have no Scottish “blood” in me, whatever that means, and have therefore made a choice. Perhaps that is why we seem to have even more difficulty defining what is “Scottish”, why we feel Scotland as a place that includes all, why we find it impossible to define a Scottish writer any more clearly than as someone who was born in Scotland or who lives in Scotland or who writes about Scotland or who…
But would I die for Scotland? Never. I may fight for a moral or political cause I think is right, or to protect the weak, or to stand up for liberties I valued. But I cannot see myself ever putting my life on the line for some indefinable, amorphous collection of human beings whose only common bond is that they find themselves bounded by the same arbitrary geopolitical borders on a map. Neither can I imagine ever asking young people – who, it has to be said, are rarely the sons and daughters of the rich who start wars in the first place – to go off and put their lives on the line in my place
Britain, England, Scotland – whatever the country, that indefinable notion on its own just doesn’t seem to be worth it.
Much kudos to Occupy Wall Street for bringing the spirit of the so-called “Arab Dawn” to the temples of Western corruption.
There has been much sniping at the demonstrators, mainly from the right-wing media which accuses it of having no focus. This, of course, is the same media that feted the Tea Party, with its keep-our-guns, no-taxes, end-state-healthcare, reduce-welfare, end-immigration, sack-our-Kenyan-President-for-daring-to-be-black agenda. How focussed was that? Of course, the left will always have its principles knocked, because the right doesn’t have any.
And there’s the usual nonsense about disruption: clean up after yourselves and then we’ll take you seriously, cry the doubters. Of course, they wouldn’t, but they’re much more happy to see assault rifles at a Tea Party demonstration than discarded coffee cups at an OWS bash.
And, of course, the police are doing their bit too, pepper-spraying freely; and even having been denied the use of a megaphone to get their message across, these dastardly subversives have come up with the fiendish ploy of repeating everything that’s been said to them in a rather ingenious version of Chinese Whispers.
They’re also attracting some heavyweight support in the form of the likes of Naomi Klein, a writer I admire very much. I doubt this will amount to much, but as long as it’s going, I’ll be cheering them on. Good for them.