Monthly Archives: June 2018

A refugee’s son

When I was growing up, I unquestionably thought of myself as English. That was despite the fact one half of my family most clearly was not. They lived in Tooting and spoke a different language. They looked different, they ate different food and they had a way of being, a culture, that was profoundly different in a thousand indefinable ways.

Over the past two years, with every day and news cycle that passes, I’ve felt increasingly aware of this part of my background. It’s the part that doesn’t belong, the part that isn’t English and never will be. It’s the part that too many people would resent if my surname was not so plain and my skin not as white as theirs. Growing up I never thought of myself as the child of an immigrant, a refugee’s son: now, it’s increasingly how I define myself and my relationship with a country that seems to fear so much of what I represent.

First, some family history. My father’s side is easy. My grandad migrated from Barrow to Birmingham and then my dad moved to London when he was about 20. There may have been some Irish in there on my grandmother’s side – there usually is – but it was culturally 100% English and stolidly Protestant with it.

When my dad arrived in London, he lodged in Tooting at a house owned by a member of my mother’s extended family. This must have been an eyeopening experience. The family had arrived en masse in England in 1957. They were Mediterranean romantics, demonstrative Catholics who spoke Italian mixed with French, German, Greek, Arabic and even a bit of English and because they liked to eat properly, went to the chemist to buy olive oil, which the English only used to treat ear wax.

They were not English, yet they all had British passports. How so?

This is where it gets complicated. My mum’s family were originally Maltese, although they had lived in Egypt for at least three generations (my mum’s maternal grandparents were born in Egypt). Because of this somewhat vague Maltese heritage, the family were able to claim British citizenship even though they were culturally to all intents and purposes Italian. Italian was the first language, the food was Italian and they all supported Italy in the World Cup.

This led to some interesting collisions. My grandfather – my nonno – had the splendid Italian name of Salvatore Camenzuli, but he called his kids Daisy and Wilfred – which are as English as you could hope to get, even though neither of them spoke English. It’s why I have uncles with names like Herbert and Norbert. All were born around the time of the Second World War, so presumably were given such astoundingly English names to emphasise their official nationality.

It also meant that at the time of the Suez Crisis, they were thrown out of their homes. When Britain, France and Israel went to war with Egypt, everybody with a British passport was told to leave or become Egyptian nationals. Most chose to leave.

My family left Alexandria, the family home for at least 80 years, and got on boats that took them around the world. Some went to Australia, some went to Italy, but most went to England, the motherland, where they were interned in an old WWII camp in Horsforth, Yorkshire. They left Alexandria in January and when they arrived in England it was snowing. This is the passport on which they travelled.

 

For the adults, this must have been traumatic. Many did not speak English and the older men and women were taken to separate care homes. My mum’s nonna died a week after arrival. Here are my great-grandparents, who like so many human beings in history were victims of a conflict they had no part in causing.

For the kids, it was great fun. They didn’t have to go to school! Here’s my uncle Wilfred and his cousins at the camp, playing cowboys.

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When my mum arrived in England she possessed a British passport but didn’t speak English and had a funny name. When the family moved to London and she started school, she was singled out as different because she was. Did she live in pyramid? Did she go to school on a camel? The English kids imagined she grew up in an oasis and ate papyrus – they had no concept that Alexandria was a city every bit as modern as London, because that isn’t what they were taught. They could never have grasped that my mother had enjoyed in Alexandria a better standard of living that most kids growing up in Tooting. Even today, people struggle with this sort of basic understanding that other cities around the world are much like our own, and that immigrants and refugees aren’t always poor.

That was all tough, but more than 50 years later, she’s still here, an amazing woman married to an amazing Englishman but still in touch with her family. A few years ago, some of them got together to commemorate 50 years of exile.

This country would be a poorer place without them.

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So what has all this got to do with me? For years, nothing. I was aware of my non-English side and enjoyed it – the warmth of the company, the excellent biscuits, the funny accents, the glass of sweet Marsala at bedtime – but always considered myself an Englishman. Even my mum seemed English most of the time, so that when friends detected an accent and asked where she was from, it always took me by surprise. And when my mum mocked the blandness of English cuisine and talked about how boring England would be without immigrants like herself, I found it a bit uncomfortable, unpatriotic, even though I suspected that she was right.

But recently, as the rhetoric against foreigners, against immigration, against refugees, has toxified, I’ve become increasingly aware of my roots. I’ve been made to feel that I am English only by default, one small step away from being – like half my family, the people who raised me as English and who I love – foreign, unwanted, alien, an infestation.

The thing is, nobody who looks at me would ever know. But if I had different coloured skin or a strange surname, how would that change things? If my mother’s family arrived in England tomorrow, would they be welcome? Would the government even allow them entry? Would they be encourage to settle, make their home, open businesses, have children and generally enrichen the culture of the country so that English children can now grow up with olive oil on their plates rather than in their ears.

Across the world, the prevailing politics revels in the hatred of other. Some people – many millions more than I ever could have imagined – despise anybody who is, essentially, exactly like my mother. As a result, I have become more aware of my background as the child of an immigrant and what that really means. I am more conscious of the rhetoric of race and division, of them and us, of who belongs and who would be allowed to stay if the fantasies of white nationalists should ever come to pass. But I am a refugee’s son, and nothing makes me prouder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cruising London’s canals: the Paddington Packet

This original appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of Waterfront, the Canal & River Trust’s excellent magazine for supporters.

Canals haven’t only recently embraced the leisure industry. As early as 1801, passenger boats ran from Paddington to Cowley in Uxbridge along the newly opened Grand Junction Canal, stopping at various points between including “several Nobleman and Gentleman’s Seats, Villas and Country Residences”. The Paddington Packet boat took three hours and was pulled by four horses. For many, it was a relatively quick route into London as well as a fun day out and an illustration from 1801 shows a jolly boat party with dozens of Georgian gentlefolk carrying parasols and wearing top hats. The full journey cost 2s and passengers could bring luggage. People could also hire boats for private trips, including ones “sufficiently capacious to accommodate conveniently from One to Two Hundred Persons”.

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Boats initially ran both ways every morning and afternoon, but this changed as time went on. The service also switched from widebeams to narrowboats after six months, when it was taken over by Thomas Homer, a speculator who helped build the Regent’s Canal. Boat crews were noted for their jaunty blue uniforms with yellow capes and yellow buttons, which makes them sound a little like Bananaman, and passengers could get tea or coffee.  Following the construction of the Regent’s Canal, the service travelled as far as Camden but closed when it could no longer compete with faster coach services.

 

John Lydon in Gunter Grove

There’s still time, just about, to grab a copy of the current issue of Uncut, which features my cover story on PiL, the band Johnny Lydon formed after the Pistols. One of the first things Lydon told in our interview was about the importance of the top-floor flat he owned at 45 Gunter Grover, on the border of Fulham and Chelsea. “Gunter Grove definitely had this ominous influence,” he said. “The house shook day and night with the traffic, non-stop revving of vehicles going by. So up would go the record player and the mood would get darker and darker. We were in a constant competition with the traffic outside.”

Although it was only round the corner from the King’s Road and World’s End, where so much punk began, Gunter Grove was a rather strange place for a Finsbury Park native like Lydon to end up. There weren’t many record shops around, for a start. Lydon now describes it as “suburban, with an aspect of Tring”, and the street was certainly in something of a no man’s land between Fulham and Chelsea. For Lydon, though, it was an important retreat from the world of the Sex Pistols, where he had been treated viciously by his old band, his former manager as well as the public and press. Here he could regroup and create a new reality.

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Gunter Grove soon developed a demonic character of its own. Lydon and his bandmates and other trusted friends would spend days hanging out at Gunter Grove, listening to music, smoking, speeding and arguing endlessly. Lydon has always been provocative, and those who hung around him had no choice but to join in. “What did we argue about?” said Lydon. “Everything. We’d argue over a curry. Was the spice content right? Was there enough butter in it?”

The flat was decorated minimally, with some of Lydon’s own paintings on the walls. The most important feature was the “very serious” Japanese stereo, on which Lydon would play dub and krautrock at deafening volumes. “John’s place was the best club in London,” said guitarist Keith Levene. “We had all this dub from Jamaica that nobody had and an amazing sound system. Loads of people would come through and we’d sit around arguing.”

Levene and drummer Jim Walker eventually moved in – Lydon says Walker was given money for furniture but spent it all on a moose’s head and slept on newspapers. Bassist Jah Wobble was a regular visitor. “It was heavy,” said Wobble when we met at the Chelsea Arts Club. “John and Keith both remind me of Withnail & I, only they are both Withnail. I had a girlfriend so I could stay until it got too much and then leave. I’d say to people, ‘If you’ve got any sense you’ll fuck off home’, but they never did. They wanted to be around the scene and were scared that if they went, they’d miss out on something. It was like Waiting for Godot, that Irish thing. I’ve always been good with chaos, I start arguments, I wind people up, that didn’t bother me, but it was like Beckett, quite desolate.”

Don Letts was another regular visitor. Was it as intense as people were telling me, I asked. He said, “Intense was a fucking understatement. People would come to visit and leave broken people. Even his fucking cat was nuts. He had a cut called Satan that he trained to fetch things and even this cat was freaked out by the whole experience. It was very dark.”

And all of this mood fed into the music. Lydon told me that with PiL, he wanted the music to be scratchy, to be irritating, nerve ridden and anxiety prone – and several songs on First Edition and Metal Box will still leave you feeling a little like Satan the cat. A crucial element of that was Lydon’s vocals. “His voice was at the same tone as a whining baby,” said Wobble. “Russians used the frequency to jam American recon jets. But it was this strident rabble rouser.”

 

Throughout my interviews with the band I was interested to discover whether the social and political atmosphere of the late 1970s – National Front marches, constant strikes, IRA bombs and the Yorkshire Ripper – had fed into PiL’s sound, but time and again I was told it was all about Gunter Grove. Don Letts put it best. “They were in their own microclimate, it didn’t matter what was happening in the wider political social cultural universe, they were in a place all of their own,” he said. “And that came from the whole Gunther Grove thing, which was an alternative world. Looking back, I can see it was scary. They created their own world. They weren’t checking out other music, they weren’t into politics, PiL was in spite of all that.”