The Mara Crossing

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Ruth Padel

It is an important time to talk about migration. And I don't mean one of those "honest debates" you often hear proposed by those looking for a discussion to bolster some preconceived notion that immigration is a wrecking ball to an imaginary idea of British identity.

According to communities minister Eric Pickles the "majority" consists of English-speaking Christians, and so the wheels have been set in motion to end "state sponsored" multiculturalism and assimilate everybody into a mainstream culture of village fetes and Sunday morning services. It's a view of a Britain that fuels anti-immigrant rhetoric and further alienates anyone who doesn't want to wave a Union Jack on 5 June.

Coming at a timely moment in all of this is poet, and great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, Ruth Padel's latest offering, The Mara Crossing. Named after the crocodile-infested Kenyan river which wildebeest have to cross in the last stage of their migration to Tanzania, it is a collection of poetry and prose that smoothly mediates ideas of identity and culture through human and natural migrations. It is a welcome cultural intervention in the toxic atmosphere surrounding the Tories' latest assault on multiculturalism.

Padel considers the varied experiences of migration. Social issues are paired with naturalist examinations not dissimilar to AS Byatt's Angels and Insects. In the section Go and Stay Padel demonstrates how migration is literally in our blood as she describes the migration of a cell in the poem Cell Begins Her Travels.

Grander scale migrations are detailed in History's Push and Pull where biblical exoduses and the journeys of the Irish diaspora, the migrations of families and workers in the Industrial Revolution and in the dustbowl in America reveal that migration is deeply connected to the need under capitalism to move to sell one's labour and to search for a home and place to be. Subsequent hostility towards migrants is dealt with in this section, and so too is the pertinent point that movement into a place can also be hostile; the Plantation of Ireland, for example.

The biggest and most disappointing omission is any interesting or creative look at the Palestinian Nakba. Instead it's subsumed into a general point of "everything migrates". Padel isn't overly occupied with the injustices around forced migrations and occupations, so The Mara Crossing is more like a catalogue of migration.

Anti-immigration rhetoric has changed over the years and, as can be seen with the attack on multiculturalism by Pickles, the new problem is one of "integration". Padel makes a worthwhile point in the last prose piece, The Wandering of the Psyche, that the world is multicultural, and modern British culture is multicultural. So, then, "integration" into British society is a false requirement.

The Mara Crossing is at its core a creative celebration of multiculturalism, and as such is well worth a read. Yet with the Arts Council of England, which Padel thanks in the acknowledgements, announcing drastic cuts to funding, would anyone else celebrating British multiculturalism without her academic pedigree get a look in?

Annette Mackin

The Mara Crossing is published by Chatto & Windus, £12.99