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Who are the British Asians?

There is no such thing as the "Asian community". The label was imposed on a generation of migrants a

Walk for miles in parts of Birmingham and you will see mostly "Asian" faces. But look for the "Asian community" and you will be disappointed. No matter how often we use the term, the fact is that it does not exist.

Birmingham supports one of the largest groups of "Asians" in Britain, but like every other city across the country, what it houses is an elaborate variety of communities. Kashmiri Pakistanis in Sparkbrook. Bengalis in Perry Barr. Hindus in Sutton Coldfield. For these people, Asia is a continent, not an identity. "Asian" holds no hint of their conception of themselves as distinct peoples; with different cultures, speaking different languages, with different histories and different outlooks. By the standard biological classification system, the vast majority of migrants from the Indian subcontinent are Caucasians. The label "Asian" was imposed on them after their arrival in Britain.

The enigma of the British "Asian community", I discovered while travelling across Britain, is its immense variety. British Asians have come to Britain from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. So we have four national identities. But in so far as these "nations" are imaginary constructions, they also serve as overlapping identities. Most Pakistanis migrated from India in the great upheaval of Partition. So many older Pakistanis also see themselves as Indian: they lay claim not to "India" the nation state but to "India" the civilisation that existed over millennia, of which the distinct variety of "Indian Islam" is an integral part. Punjabis, who come from the province of Punjab, can be either Indian or Pakistanis, just as Bengalis can be either Bangladeshi or Indian. So within the national identities we have a host of ethnic identities, from Punjabis to Kashmiris, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Bengalis, Beharis, Tamil and Singhalese. Often these ethnicities were in conflict back in the subcontinent; and most British Asians have brought their conflicts to Britain.

Then, of course, we have religious diversities - ranging from Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity, to numerous varieties of Islam. Each has a different world view, with a distinctive arrangement of norms and values. Moreover, Asians exist not as individual isolated units of nuclear families but as communities of extended families. Every Asian family in Britain has large numbers of relatives on the subcontinent. Thus the family bestrides Britain and the subcontinent; visits are frequent and family responsibilities are fulfilled no matter where family members live. What happens on the subcontinent has a direct bearing on what happens on the streets of Birmingham or Manchester.

The kind of life they lived on the subcontinent also plays an important part in the diverse outlook of British Asians. Those who came from rural areas tend to be more traditional than those who came from an urban background. Families from isolated village communities are almost always exceptionally conservative and adhere strictly to their tribal customs.

All these differences and variations play an important part in how Asian communities relate to each other, and how they see their future in Britain.

Those born in Britain grow up speaking English, but they still grow up as Bangladeshi or Pakistani, Mirpuri or Punjabis, as Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus. They are still part of an extended family. They are loyal to Britain, but they are always concerned with the fate of the land where their fathers and grandfathers were born, and where a large part of their extended family lives.

Loyalty itself has different meanings in different parts of Britain. Asians in Scotland, particularly those born in Scotland, describe themselves as Scots and tend to be more loyal to Scotland than Britain. The bulk of the Muslims in Scotland now support the SNP and back the demand for an independent Scotland. Asians in Wales also describe themselves as Welsh Asians and appear comfortable with their Welsh identity. In contrast, Asians in England tend to describe themselves as British Asians; and see Englishness as an exclusive identity that is closed to them. Their local loyalty belongs to Britain as a whole and many regard the demands of their Scottish Asian brothers and sisters across the border for an independent Scotland as treason.

The variations among Asians can be seen from city to city. The distribution of "Indian restaurants", which tend not to be "Indian", is a good illustration. London has more Bangladeshi restaurants than Pakistani or Indian ones. Go north and Bangladeshi restaurants decrease as the number of Pakistani ones increase. Birmingham has more Pakistani restaurants than Bangladeshi. By the time you reach Bradford and Manchester, the restaurateurs are almost entirely Pakistani, Kashmiri in particular. By Glasgow, the concentration is exclusively that of Pakistani and Punjabi.

There are very specific reasons why certain Asian communities are concentrated in certain cities of Britain. Most of the Bengalis in the UK live in the borough of Tower Hamlets in east London. This is largely because the generations that first came to Britain worked as seamen on merchant ships. Almost half of all seamen employed in the engine rooms of British merchant ships were Lascars from Bengal. When the ships docked in east London, they settled there. The fact that many were cooks enabled them to open restaurants.

Asians in the industrial cities of the north were recruited to work the night shift when Britain retooled its textile industry after the Second World War. There is irony here. The British textile industry was created behind excessive tariff barriers purposely designed to undermine India's textile tradition. Those recruited to service Britain's dark satanic mills were from families no longer needed as recruits for Britain's once vast Indian army. They stayed only to see their employment possibilities migrate once more. The bulk of the Asians in Leicester are Punjabi Sikhs, who came to Britain during the Seventies. Many were former British soldiers or had fathers or grandfathers who joined the British army and fought in the First and Second World Wars. But they didn't just join the British army - they joined the Leicestershire Regiment, which served in pre-Partition India from 1840 to 1947. So they came to settle in the home of the regiment.

Leicester evokes a fierce sense of loyalty from its Asian inhabitants. It is also a good example of a city where the Asian communities are well integrated. You can see a gurdwara, a temple and a mosque in the same neighbourhood. But in some other cities, Asians exist in isolated enclaves. In Oldham, for example, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live in separate parts of the city and seldom come together.

I went to Oldham after I received an anonymous call on the morning of 24 May 2001. "If you want to witness a riot," the caller said, "come to Oldham." The town had been in the news ever since the Mirror published the photograph of 76-year-old Walter Chamberlain under the headline "Beaten for being white". I turned up in Oldham in the middle of a full- blown riot.

The racial origins of the riot were obvious, but I discovered that the riot had as much to do with the overall state of the town. Oldham was invented for and by the Industrial Revolution. That revolution had gone; and the population, white and Asian, was stranded on a deserted outcrop of globalisation. Platt Brothers of Oldham - once the world's leading manufacturers of textile machinery - closed in 1982. For the people of Oldham the textile industry's decline had harsh physical and social consequences, whether they were white or Asian.

Bradford, meanwhile, has came to personify the sum of all fears we associate with Asians and Muslims. The town is home to around 85,000 British Asians: there are 5,000 Hindus, and as many Sikhs; but the bulk of Asians, 75,000, are predominantly from a single area in Azad Kashmir: Mirpur. The district of Mirpur, which is divided into three sub-divisions (Mirpur, Chaksawariand and Dadiyal) is so small it is hard to find in most atlases. In some towns, like Keighley, the Asians are not just from Mirpur but from villages within three miles of each other. And they belong to a couple of clans, or biradari. Not surprisingly, they follow the customs and traditions of their biradari.

Reinventing tradition

Tradition is a double-edged sword. The biradari custom of generosity and supporting each other enabled the Mirpuris to establish themselves in Bradford. But some aspects of biradari tradition, such as forced marriage and honour killings, are obnoxious.

Thankfully, change is afoot. The young British Asians of Bradford are reinventing tradition, infusing it with modern spirit, developing an amalgam that tries to incorporate the best of both worlds. When they succeed, they manage to change things while remaining true to the positive spirit of tradition. They still tend to go for arranged marriages - but now they arrange their marriages themselves. They have a strong confidence in themselves and a strong sense of belonging to Britain, and in some cases to Scotland and Wales, that is refreshing to see.

Britain created a false catch-all identity when citizens of its former Empire arrived in the homeland. "British Asians" displaces history, the shared history by which Britain reconstructed India as much as the making of modern Britain - impossible without the constant influence and presence of India. Embracing our history of mutual belonging is the only way to recover the positives: to realise the contribution of the multiple, diverse compound British identities we can make the basis of living, working and contributing together to our national life.

There is a dynamism thriving among the many young British Asians I have met. They synthesise their varied inheritances and put them to work through political activism and community development as well as music, art, film and, increasingly, literature. The generation now in its early-twenties will bring out the best British Asians have to offer. Britain should be delighted to embrace them as truly its own.

Ziauddin Sardar's latest book, "Balti Britain: a Journey Through the British Asian Experience", is published by Granta Books (£20)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle