Sherry Ashworth is Senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Writer-in-residence at the Portico Library in Manchester. Her backlist includes a number of comic novels for women, as well as award-winning young adult fiction: see, respectively, Otherwise Engaged and Close-Up. Sherry's most recent book is Good Recipes and Bad Women, set in south Tottenham in the 1960s, and available as a Kindle title on Amazon. Also available on Kindle, for young adults, is Mental. Here Sherry writes about Robert Winder's Bloody Foreigners.
Sherry Ashworth on Bloody Foreigners by Robert Winder
I don't have a copy of Robert Winder's Bloody Foreigners to hand. This is because I have a habit of forcing my favourite books on to other people, insisting they read them – an interesting variant of control freakery. But in the case of Winder's excellent historical overview of British immigration, I completely forgive myself. Everyone ought to read it. Really.
Bloody Foreigners is a history book. In some ways, a rather old-fashioned history book. It gives an entertaining overview of the successive waves of British immigration, often amusing, always highly readable, and infuses the whole with a moral - history for a purpose. It's a book for the general reader rather than the scholar, yet deeply scholarly.
Basically what Winder tells us is this. Even the very first inhabitants of this island were in fact immigrants, arriving here rather than springing up from the ground. And over the centuries, one wave after another of immigrants chanced on this island - Celts, Romans, Vikings, French, Jews, more French, Africans, more Jews, Irish, more Romans, only this time Italians, Indians, Chinese, West Indians etc etc - in fact, one soon sees that there's hardly any race which hasn't contributed to the British DNA. Britishness as a construct is purely cerebral and not racial - and highly debatable.
The details in the book are fascinating. Immigration was not controlled until the 1905 Aliens Act. This is why my grandparents were able to come here from the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Passports as we recognize them didn't come into use until the early 20th century. As we read, we realize that a perceived problem with mass immigration is a comparatively recent phenomenon.
Even more fascinating is Winder's section on Little Italy. In the first half of the 19th century, a wave of Italian immigration affected the area of London known as Clerkenwell Green. The incomers turned their hands to organ grinding and ice cream making, and brought with them young boys to help with the work, many sleeping together in dormitories. Dickens knew the area well, and in fact set up Fagin and his den of pickpockets in precisely this location in Oliver Twist. Winder argues there can be little doubt that the Italian immigrants were the inspiration for Fagin, the Artful Dodger and the rest of the lads. But Dickens makes Fagin Jewish. Fagin is not even a Jewish name. It's arguably Irish (Fagan) and possibly even Italian. But definitely not Jewish. So why does Dickens make him Jewish? Perhaps because of the ancient (and anti-Semitic) connection between Jews and money; or perhaps simply because novelists like to muddy the facts to create a space for fiction. It suited Dickens's creative imagination to change Fagin's nationality from Italian to Hebrew. Whatever the reason, Dickens was made to regret his choice - his Jewish friends gave him grief - and as an act of atonement he created the insufferably meek and impossibly, embarrassingly good Mr Riah in Our Mutual Friend.
I know this sounds like a digression from Bloody Foreigners, and indeed it is. But I love the way these two immigrant groups - Italians and Jews - get fused together in Dickens's mind. Already Dickens (1812-70) had a concept of the foreigner as 'other' – and as interchangeable. And so do we all.
The reason Bloody Foreigners made such an impact on me is that it challenged my own sense of identity. I am a third-generation immigrant: my paternal grandmother was Austrian (though she pretended to be Lithuanian, as it was cooler and not-German) and my three other grandparents were from the borders of Russia and Poland. My features are Slavic; I've often wondered how 'pure' a Jew I am. I was brought up in south Tottenham at a time when the area was home to a sizeable, mainstream Jewish community; while not a ghetto, it shared certain features. Even as a child, I 'knew' I was different.
Educated as a scholarship girl in a direct grant grammar school, I felt even more different. There was a world out there I knew nothing of - a world of true Englishness. It contained the New Testament and the Apostles, the Home Counties. People lived in places like Sidcup! Esher! In my class, I gravitated towards the other Jewish girls. Safety in (relatively small) numbers.
I took this sense of difference with me to Oxford, that most English of universities, where I was astonished to meet other Jews, who were wealthy – my own Jewish community was unashamedly working class and Socialist-inclined. But even this discovery did not dent the idea I had that there was a definitive English world I was barred from. My problem, I know. I had internalized a very subtle form of anti-Semitism.
Of course, time and experience has made that disperse. But reading Bloody Foreigners was a hugely important stage for me. If there's really no such thing as Englishness - or rather, if Englishness is the sum of all the different waves of immigration this island has had - if Englishness is like a limestone pavement, built up of the remains of many sea creatures from millennia ago - then I'm just as English as anyone else, while still remaining Jewish. On reading Bloody Foreigners, I experienced a wonderful epiphany of integration.
Of course, I also love the politics of the book, its humanity, the way it celebrates difference and underlines the contribution made by each immigrant group to British culture. We keep needing to hear, time and time again, that nationhood is never a fixed thing, just like language isn't a fixed thing; that all around us people are doing things differently, and we can learn from them; that we are all mixed up, and we're the better for it.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]