Peace on water

Though besieged by visitors to nearby Venice, the island of Burano is a tranquil place

The view from my local vaporetto (water bus) stop on the island of Burano is hard to ignore. Most of the Buranelli known to me feel the same way. The bell tower on Torcello, the abandoned island, is pale in the early morning light and there is a curious syn copation as early risers take the 05.56 boat to Venice. On Burano, as the boat prepares to dock, house doors swing open punctually (just as the boats are punctual) and sleepwalkers spill out into the clean, deserted alleyways, take their newspapers without a glance, drop ?1 into the honesty box, and then doze off for another 20 minutes, like automata from a film by Fritz Lang, on their way to a hell that lasts until five in the afternoon.

Most of the men get off on Murano, where they work, often in appalling temperatures, making glass. Other people work in hotels or shops, or in government offices, or are policemen, firemen or street sweepers. Most are glad to come home to tranquillity. Like the Buranelli, I often dread going in to Venice in a vaporettto packed to overflowing with tourists, and having to force my way through crowds of visitors, complete with name badges, as they trot behind umbrella-wielding guides. Though punctuality is usually a way of life in Venice, one increasingly hears Venetians calling home from blocked alleys: "I'm sorry I'm late, dear, but I'm stuck in traffic in the Frezzaria . . ."

People come from all over the world, just once in a lifetime, to see this view, to visit these islands, and to see Venice, too. A friend of mine, who has run a fish stall in the Rialto Market for more than 40 years, leaves home on Burano at 2.30am in all weathers and, although he returns only after 12 hours of grindingly hard work, he will still describe a spectacular dawn in the city, or be struck by the splendour of the Grand Canal, or take note of the light falling on a building.

In Venice five years ago, a woman whose stationery shop overlooks the main door of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari told me that whenever the church's portals were opened and she caught a glimpse of Titian's great, windy portrait over the altar at the far end, her heart still missed a beat. She was in her seventies at the time, and had been born above the shop. And even then she, like the rest of us, was appalled by the gro tesque spectacle of mass tourism.

This is the north. Venetians have never really seen themselves as Italian. Venetians are, perhaps, largely unaware that they have earned an enhanced sense of spatial awareness. If Venetians dislike being pressed by a crowd, this dislike is felt tenfold by the Buranelli. In Venice you can always spot a local because he or she moves aside, just in time, as you approach from behind. On Burano you know when you are being watched because the watcher is a hundred metres distant and has his back to you.

The Buranelli (and Venetians, still, to some extent) have an extraordinarily privileged infancy and childhood, as they are bumped up and down the steps of bridges in a pram to the sound of water and a mellifluous local dialect. Their hearing - so important to spatial awareness - becomes highly sensitised. Outsiders simply stand there expecting to be pushed past. Even Venetians seem slightly clumsy when they step on to Buranese soil.

So, are the Buranelli spoilt? They have good public transport and excellent medical care, with three doctors (at night, a patient can have a doctor at his or her bedside within a quarter of an hour), a dentist and the island's own volunteer ambulance service. Peace and quiet. This is a small, tight-knit community with a strong sense of values: practically zero crime on the island; a daily rubbish collection run by people who are friends or neighbours (no menial shame and no class system here); no supermarket apart from a small Spar - just excellent small bakers, butchers and greengrocers with (at least some) local sources; a fish market with (at least some) local sources; a small cinema in winter (where there were once five); boatbuilders; metal workshops; and small family restaurants serving good, fresh, home-cooked food.

Hotels in Venice (population circa 50,000) cater for nearly 7.5 million tourists and another 2.1 million visitors are housed elsewhere. Not long ago, 82.5 per cent of Venetians polled by a local paper were in favour of a toll for visitors, at seasonal rates. Yet more hotels are on the way. More water is consumed, more sewage must be dealt with. Venice always was an alimentary canal for money: put money in one end and the Venice Carnival comes out of the other.

This last, money-spinning idea was revived in Venice in the early 1980s, stolen from Burano, where the tradition had been quietly maintained for centuries. In a custom that is echoed in Britain on different dates, islanders still burn an old witch, Guy Fawkes-style. On the evening of Epiphany (6 January), children receive a stocking full of sweets and nuts if they are good, or coal if they are not - pagan traditions drawn from the mainland, where the origins of the Torcellani and Buranelli lie from more than 1,500 years ago, before they founded Venice, and where the Buranelli park their cars, for the time being.

When the oil runs out, we can still row.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.