Passport to our Past

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Review of 'Bloody Foreigners', Robert Winder, Little Brown £20

This is a rich book about an extraordinarily rich subject - immigration. Robert Winder brings to life three basic points - that Britain is a land of immigrants, that every wave of immigration has been met with a combination of varying degrees of racism and generosity, and that immigrants have made colossal contributions to the country's culture and language and created institutions which are now part of its social fabric.

The first point is made early on: 'Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a mongrel nation.'

The rest of the book details the history of wave after wave of immigrants from every part of the world - the Normans in the 10th century, Jews from France in the 12th, financiers from Italy in the 14th, skilled craftsmen from Italy and Germany in the 15th, Protestants fleeing religious persecution in the Netherlands in the 16th, the Huguenots fleeing persecution in France in the 17th, the Hanoverians (origins of today's royal family) and, at the opposite extreme, enslaved Africans, in the 18th.

As capitalism developed in the 18th century, it sucked in Arab and Chinese labourers. Nineteenth century London was populated by people from every part of the globe. Winder tells of the Irish fleeing the potato famine, east European Jews fleeing pogroms, middle class Indians seeking education and social progress, Jews fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and, of course, the postwar arrival of Caribbeans, Kenyan and Ugandan Asians, Pakistanis, Turks, Cypriots, Kurds... right through to today's asylum seekers - again people from almost every part of the globe.

In the process, Winder provides a wonderful array of stories, anecdotes and descriptions of what sort of world immigrants found when they arrived here, how they were greeted, how quickly some of them made fortunes, how some were hounded and others embraced, how rulers and politicians scapegoated some and became dependent on others and how employers greeted them as fresh labour there to be super-exploited.

He tells of horrific bouts of violence, riots and murders, of racism that was mean and brutal, and often confused state policy. But he is quick to balance these episodes with tales of great generosity and warmth shown to new arrivals. Racism in all its varied forms has always been met with anti-racism.

He makes the point that immigrants, normally cast as victims in need of help, are more often than not among the most entrepreneurial of people.

His final chapters on asylum seekers provide valuable figures and facts. He also contributes to the debate on culture and ethnic diversity. This is an important book for anyone interested in the origins of this great multiracial, multilayered thing called British society.