You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on her journey with identity
PUBLISHED: 13:00 02 December 2017
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In a very personal reflection on Brexit, YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN recalls her own journey of identity from Colonial subject, to Briton, to European.
This is a tale of transformation, from inherited historical prejudices to new awakenings, from distrust to ardour, from a wince to a kiss. None of it was planned.
I was unaware of the shifts myself until the EU referendum, when my country, Britain, ruptured, erupted like a volcano that had long been inactive and safe. The English Channel became wider, wider until it was an uncrossable, salty ocean, separating us from them.
And I finally came to understand how much EU nations, colours, languages, cultures, diversities and histories, meant to me. Goodbye Europe. My love for you flared up at an impossible time. I will never get over you.
I was born in lush Uganda, a British protectorate between 1894 and 1962. At school we were inculcated with aggrandising, nationalistic narratives, which, looking back, seem preposterous.
Shakespeare swept his audiences off to Venice and Rome, Egypt and magic (un-English) kingdoms; Byron found peace and renewal in Sintra and various European centres of artistic splendour, Charlotte Bronte (as well as Emily) taught English in Belgium and learnt French; that quintessentially English painter, JMW Turner was moved by the landscapes of Switzerland and Italy.
Everyone who was anyone, went on the Grand Tour. Yet we, impressionable, colonial saplings were taught Brits were greater than other Europeans. That Spaniards were iniquitous, Italians were unruly and Fascistic, the Dutch were bigoted and Portuguese pathetic. That Germans were the foulest of all, irredeemably evil and militaristic.
We memorised John of Gaunt’s ‘This scepter’d isle’ speech from Richard II. I won a tin of Walker’s Nonesuch Toffees for reciting Tennyson’s Britons, Guard Your Own during assembly.
‘Vive l’Empereur’ may follow by and bye;
‘God save the Queen’ is here a truer cry.
God save the Nation,
And the free speech that makes a Briton known.
Britons, guard your own.
Rome’s dearest daughter now is captive France,
The Jesuit laughs, and reckoning on his chance,
Kill all dissenting,
Till we were left to fight for truth alone.
Britons, guard your own.
The colonial system, like Apartheid, was based on a racial hierarchy: whites were at the top, Asians were below them and Africans at the very bottom. And yet, we, the children of the subjugated, cheered the triumphs of our masters. It was a quite a miseducation.
In 1962, British rule ended. After my A levels, I went to Makerere, a globally-rated university. This was the heady post-colonial era, when intellectuals and activists defied western hegemonies and went through a process of deconditioning.
Negritude, the French-African anti-colonial literary movement, influenced us as did writers such as James Baldwin, Wole Soyinka and Mulk Raj Anand. Inexplicably, while the head was liberating itself, the foolish heart still remained faithful to the old masters. My father Kassam, an Anglophile who dressed like Graham Greene, said ‘the good days’ were gone. The future was bleak.
In 1972, Asians were thrown out of Uganda by Idi Amin. The UK had just joined the EEC (European Economic Community), a sign of old enmities being laid to rest. I got into Oxford! The joy and optimism didn’t last long. The ethos was cloying and smug. I lost my fighting spirit. A centrifugal force sucked me into little England. I wore Laura Ashley dresses, made scones and listened to Steeleye Span. By 1978, I felt fully assimilated.
Europe felt foreign and alienating. I went across on trips but didn’t warm to the French, thought Spaniards were capricious, Greeks surly, Swiss stiff and cold, Portuguese feudal and regressive. Those old British school teachers had done a fine job. They had made me into a keen xenophobe.
After Oxford I taught refugees and migrants from South America, Iran and the Lebanon for a few years. Then, in 1978, I got a job teaching English as a foreign language at a posh school in Holland Park, London.
Some of the students lodged in my flat. Among the many who passed through were Swiss bankers, Italian designers, Swedish journalists and Japanese businessmen.
We got close. Marcello invited me to Venice, Sven to Stockholm, Maria to Barcelona. Leonello from Genoa was sweetly romantic, Birgit, a Swiss lesbian, flirted outrageously, a Greek couple, Olivia and Dmitri became dear friends. Intimacy pushed out preconceptions about most Europeans but not the French and Germans.
In rural France, I had experienced burning racial hostility. They seemed to despise Arabs and other dark-skinned people.
With Germans the problem was me, not them. They were installed in my head as baddies. I didn’t go to Germany, didn’t have German student lodgers. Shameful and unforgiveable.
I became a journalist, travelled across Europe. In 1993 I was invited to speak at Freiburg University on race relations in the UK. My baby daughter was still breastfeeding.
It was my first trip to Germany. A kindly old couple looked after her, gave her a beautiful old doll and a music box. At the Christmas market, strangers bought her a dinky hat, asked to hold her, my black-eyed, brown girl.
Germans I met did not shirk from examining their demonic past and were passionate anti-racists. In 1994, I went to Berlin where they were managing both reunification and a rise in migration. Neo-Nazis, nervous monoculturalists and jobless were restive but the leaders kept their heads. I came away thinking post-war Germany was one of the most civilised and humane of nations.
This little Englander became an instinctive internationalist. I felt I truly belonged in London, the cosmopolitan metropolis, world emporium. Remember how we felt during the 2012 Olympics? Where did all that go?
Britain has entered a period of savage intolerance and isolationism. European citizens, the dispossessed, Commonwealth immigrants, lefties, internationalists, social democrats and liberals are seen as ‘enemies of the people’.
A woman spat at me on the bus in November, 2016. Told me to ‘f**k off’ out of her country.
I would if I could. Maybe go live in Berlin. Or Barcelona. Can’t do that. So I must grow old in these shrunken isles. I lost one homeland and am lost in the one I found.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is an award-winning columnist, author and broadcaster
Her article is among those to appear in Goodbye Europe: Writers and Artists Say Farewell, a collection of essays inspired by Britain’s departure from the EU.