All the political news at the moment is awful and depressing. At least, that’s what it feels like. I’m particularly upset by all the anti-immigration rhetoric making headlines in the UK, the US, Germany, Austria, Australia… you get the picture. I’m not linking to it, or to anything political that I reference below, because that is not what this post is about. I want to write something positive. Honestly, I realise that I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I’m going to do so anyway.
For ages, I’ve wished that politicians would highlight the incredible contributions that immigrant workers make to this country. They don’t seem to be doing so, but that doesn’t mean I can’t. I’m not an economist, or a statistician, so I can’t talk in detail about how foreign nationals contribute to our GDP. However, should we be measuring the value of human lives in terms of GDP? Should we be calculating that at all, in fact? I do not believe any metric could accurately do so. Instead, I am going to share some of my favourite things written by people who came to the UK as immigrants. These contributions to our culture are invaluable; they cannot be calculated. Neither can the value of a human life.
1) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro moved to the UK from Japan at the age of six. He has written and continues to write prolifically, but by far my favourite of his novels is The Remains of the Day. In fact, this is a particularly English novel in my view. It’s the most successful treatment I’ve read of the post-war crumbling of the old way of doing things. The novel deals with England (and it is definitely England, not Britain) scrambling for an identity in the aftermath of the war as the Empire collapsed. Given the recent surge in English nationalism as a political force in the UK, this feels surprisingly timely. The narrative concerns a butler coming to terms with the fact that some very grubby things have been done by the establishment in this country. His new employer—a friendly, gregarious, generous American with an expensive car—feels like an unsubtle metaphor for the encroaching of globalisation and multiculturalism. As the butler, Stephens, reflects on his own life and that of his previous master, many issues around the old world order are explored in wonderful detail. It’s a fascinating read. In fact, it’s one of the books I want to reread before the year is out.
2) Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw moved to the UK from Dublin* in 1876, at the age of 20. I love his play Pygmalion, whose main characters are a young female flower seller and a middle-aged linguist. The play explores class issues in London by means of regional accents. I am pretty fascinated by linguistics and regional dialects (I am also someone from a council estate, yet possess a shamefully Home Counties-esque accent—I’m basically a class traitor). This play has intrigued me since the first time I read it. One of my favourite things about it is the ending (spoilers): Eliza Doolittle leaves Professor Higgins’ household because he treats her so poorly, despite the fact that she is probably in love with him. Instead, she uses the skills he has given her to obtain a husband who is less impressive, but kinder and closer to her own age. According to an afterword by Bernard Shaw, she then convinces Professor Higgins to take them both in and they live off his income ad infinitum. I love this ending, which allows Eliza to retain her agency. (It should be noted that I also love the film My Fair Lady, and I have absolutely no problem with the changes they made, so maybe I’m just fickle).
3) Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Jung Chang was born in China but moved to London to study at the age of 26. I think Wild Swans is the first “grown-up” memoir that I ever read, aged about 15. I haven’t read it since, but scenes from it have stuck with me for over a decade. It’s an incredibly harrowing read about Mao’s China, and I would like to revisit the book as an adult—when I am feeling up to it. Something that is remarkable to me is that Jung Chang was born in the same decade as my parents. I think perhaps this is the reason it’s stayed with me the way it has—I can’t imagine my mum, who is only a few years younger than the author, experiencing the things Chang writes about. The Cultural Revolution, the training of children to denounce their own parents… these things seem like they should have happened hundreds of years ago, or in a fictional dystopia. When I was reading it, I had to constantly remind myself that it wasn’t fiction. I learnt very little about non-Russian communism at school, so the only reason I became aware of this relatively recent history is because of picking up Wild Swans.
4) Goodbye Marianne by Irene N Watts
Irene Watts came over to the UK as a German Jewish child on a Kindertransport, so calling her an immigrant rather than a refugee is probably inaccurate**. However, I loved this book so much as a child that I can’t not include it on this list. The story is semi-autobiographical and tells the story of Nazi policy unfolding in Germany, through the eyes of a young Jewish girl, beginning just after Kristallnacht. I read it when I was 11, the same age as the main character. There was something haunting about learning about this particular time in history through someone so similar to me. Although I had heard a lot about my grandparents’ experiences growing up in Kent, I’d really never thought about what it was like to be in Germany at this time—for anyone, let alone the Jewish population. When I later came to study the Weimer Republic in history lessons, this book was at the forefront of my mind.
I am absolutely sure that this is the tip of the iceberg. These works have been included because they are all significant to me in some way, but there are so many other books that I haven’t read yet. I’ve omitted medical papers and texts written by immigrants to the UK, but I probably read and use such sources three or four times a week. My office is full of EU and non-EU immigrants. Many Nobel laureates are or have been immigrants***. Scientific progress relies on the ability to travel and work in several countries. The idea of shaming people for international collaboration, learning from other viewpoints, and working across geopolitical and cultural boundaries, is itself utterly shameful.
*Please do not send me explanations about the history of Ireland and its complex relationship with the UK. Someone from Dublin would be considered an immigrant these days, and Amber Rudd has refused to exclude Irish immigrants from her name-and-shame policy.
**Frankly, UK policy towards refugees is appalling at the moment, so the broader point of this post still stands.
***Are we really forgetting that Marie Curie—Marie Curie—was a penniless Polish governess who moved to France so she could study? If she came to the UK today, she’d be rebuked for taking British jobs off British workers. If she’d never moved to France, she would likely never have had the resources needed to discover radium and polonium/set up field radiological centres during WWI/begin research into treatment for cancer/develop the theory of radioactivity. Where would the world be–genuinely, think about it for a minute–if she’d never had access to all of that?