‘H. and I are going to rebel’
Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, published on behalf of the Home Office, ‘approved by ministers’ and retailing at £12.99, is ‘the only official handbook on which the Life in the UK test is based’. Last week the Historical Association published an open letter – signed so far by more than 350 historians – pointing out that the handbook is ‘fundamentally misleading and in places demonstrably false’. Five immigration lawyers have detailed further disturbing omissions. Some of the most misleading passages date only from the third edition, of 2013. No people of colour in the colonies or the UK are mentioned apart from Sake Dean Mahomed, who co-founded England’s first curry house in 1810. The handbook provides clear detail on the constitution, but the past it presents is both whitewashed and devoid of the work of decades of revisionist history. Anyone applying for British citizenship (in the year to March 2020, 165,693 people) will have had to commit this to memory to pass the test.
I took a practice test. I was asked to locate the Cenotaph, identify some flags of the Union, and name the country of which roast beef is a traditional food. In the Victorian age, the handbook says, ‘Britain increased in power and influence abroad,’ calling to mind a phrase I encountered in a history text book at school in the 1980s: Britain was the ‘policeman of the world’. It had seemed arrestingly strange to me, even in primary school.
My father had arrived at Tilbury Dock in the summer of 1953 to find the Britain he had left Sri Lanka to help rebuild festooned with ‘No coloureds, no Irish, no dogs’. As the children of an English mother and a Sri Lankan father, my brother and I routinely experienced racial violence and abuse. Holidays, weekends and rainy days offered respite; it was easier to be invisible among books and comics during indoor playtime; playgrounds were the real spaces of tyranny and ‘free speech’, under the supervision of teachers who actively failed to intervene.
The white South African woman who taught reception had sat me on her lap on my first day and asked the other, white children to guess where I was from. I couldn’t imagine what they would say: with the exception of a few trips to the seaside and to the Perivale paint factory where my parents worked, and my father was a shop steward, I’d never been much beyond High Wycombe. But I recall the fusillade of place names that followed, before the silence set in. Later, my reports of racist attacks were dismissed as tale-telling, so I learned to do nothing (schools now call this ‘resilience’).Oxford in the 1990s was better, though the woman in the room next to mine informed me, politely, shortly after I arrived, that I was not an English rose.
The Life in the UK handbook boasts that Britain ‘became the largest empire the world has ever seen’ with railways ‘built throughout’, producing ‘more than half of the world’s iron, coal and cotton cloth’ (nothing on who provided the labour and who died doing so, or where the cotton came from) while reformers ‘led movements to improve conditions of life for the poor’. It goes on to say that ‘some people began to question whether the Empire could continue’ but gives no information on colonial resistance or movements for independence, or the work of Black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Joseph Knight and Samuel Sharpe (or if anyone questioned whether it should continue).
The mother country is presented as an idyllic haven in which colonised people were welcome to ‘live, work and study’. In the South African War, ‘the Boers fought fiercely’; no reference is made to the British scorched earth policy or use of concentration camps. There is no mention of the Aliens Act of 1905, aimed largely at Jews and the Chinese, or of the eugenics movement (one of Britain’s exports). Early 20th-century Britain had ‘an expansive Empire’ and ‘well-admired navy’. There is no reference to the Empire Windrush, or the Windrush compensation scheme, or to migration from Africa after the Victorian period.
The ‘complex laws’ of cricket ‘are said to reflect the best of the British character and sense of fair play’. We are told that ‘the great majority of British people believed in the Empire as a force for good in the world’ and that its end was, for the most part, ‘orderly’. As the immigration lawyers note, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people died in the Partition of India, millions more were brutally displaced, and tens of thousands of Kenyans were tortured, maimed or killed in the British counter-insurgency campaign in the 1950s; millions have been rendered effectively stateless, including Tamils in Sri Lanka, Palestinians, and South Asians who had settled in East Africa as British subjects; and borders imposed without consent continue to cause conflict in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Women of all ethnicities are erased. Nine ‘notable’ white writers across two centuries are listed. Only two women, Austen and Rowling, are included. There’s no mention of the Brontës, Gaskell, Eliot, the bestselling New Women of the 1890s, Monica Ali, Andrea Levy, Malorie Blackman, Patrice Lawrence or Zadie Smith. Benjamin Zephaniah and Hanif Kureishi are also omitted. There is alignment here with the shrinking English and history syllabuses in British schools, with To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Crucible removed from GCSE English under Michael Gove. In a more general section on literature, nine writers, all white, are named; the only women are Agatha Christie and Hilary Mantel. In a reference to British poets, fifteen are mentioned. Only one is a woman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who appears not as she styled herself, but with Barrett, her given surname, erased (she is also omitted from the index, unlike her husband). There are quotations from six, including Kipling. All are white men.
Kazuo Ishiguro, who left Japan for England when he was five, and V.S. Naipaul, who left Trinidad and Tobago for England when he was 18, are not included among the British writers who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is the story of white men, but even here the handbook is far from inclusive. Thomas Hardy, who spoke out, always, for the oppressed and voiceless, is referred to as a rural writer, appealing to nostalgia for a timeless pastoral; nothing is said of his opposition to, and poems against, the South African War, his anti-imperialism, and his insistence that if there must be patriotism, then it should apply to the whole world.
On Radio 4’s Any Questions last month, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps (who in 2015 had resigned as international development minister amid claims he failed to act on allegations of bullying), sought repeatedly to shift the focus from Black Lives Matter to a triumphalist narrative of British abolitionism, in an attempt to absolve Britain from past and present racism and state abuse. He spoke insistently over Paulette Simpson, the deputy chair of the Windrush Commemoration Committee, as she pointed out that Britain had been late to the campaign against slavery, as it had been late in condemning apartheid and was late in responding to Covid-19 and its disproportionate effects on people of colour. Shapps went on to namecheck Asian members of the cabinet, as if that could dispel any notion of structural racism, and spoke hazily of Britain’s ‘diversity’, ‘equality’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘civilisation’.
Earlier this month, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff and Amy R. Wong called for academics to challenge the structural racism of Victorian Studies, a field that is, they point out, ‘almost entirely white’. In the UK as well as the US, we need more scholars of colour, and we need experts of all ethnicities to speak out, publicly, against the whitewashing and erasing of history, and the historical fictions of the state.
I began studying the 19th century in a bid to understand the origins of the violent racism that had characterised life (for me) on a housing estate, not for the apolitical aesthetic (as if there were there such a thing) which I’m told from time to time by non-Black scholars should underpin the study of literature. I was drawn, too, to Emily Brontë’s ‘H. and I are going to rebel’ – a rebellion across class, race and gender allegiances. Until we appeal to the intellect and imagination of children of colour, with histories that speak to their lived realities, we are unlikely to find them as our students or colleagues. With mobility in schools and universities going backwards, and child poverty increasing, the struggle that lies ahead is likely to be long.