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Thursday 24th May 2018

Identity and sanity

29th September 2006

19052006_lonelyman1.jpg100 years after the birth of Sir John Betjeman on 28th August 1906, how England has changed.  Whilst his poetry still seems so vital and real to many of us, we also know that the Finsbury Park where he and his love went "to Williamsons to tea" would in all but the architecture be unrecognisable to the old boy.

Why then do I feel so warmly reminiscent about that long-dead Finsbury Park, even though the only Finsbury Park I know is a dirty, messy, racially multitudinous zone, lately the home of Abu Hamza, the one-eyed, hook-handed Muslim firebrand and threat to civilization?

Perhaps the answer is because Williamson’s, the tea shop in the poem, with its neat and tidy tables, with crockery from Stoke on Trent, and its Victoria sponge on cakestands, belongs to me in a way that the Eritrean café that has replaced it does not.

My sanity depends on finding places that belong to me, and there are precious few left.  Even in the town where I live with an almost exclusively white British population (and I am a white British man) I am intimidated by the noise and belligerence of the youf, with their throbbing “music?, drugs and oikishness. 

This feeling of alienation is a threat to my sanity, and the sanity of those many people who find themselves similarly alienated, yet it is a feeling that is rarely articulated.

We are of course very concerned about the black and minority ethnic communities and the degree to which they are discriminated against within the majority culture.  However, we have to get much more sophisticated in how we handle these arguments in a nation where there is no longer a dominant identity.  Indeed, one of my main anxieties is that the youf of the former dominant culture are identifying more and more with a disaffected and disagreeable black youth culture, which involves rap, drugs and increasingly guns.  Listening to a young white boy trying to talk as though he was straight from the less salubrious streets of Kingston (Jamaica, not Surrey) is an instructive business.   I once spoke to a black police officer who was bewildered – “my kids have been taught to speak properly, and these white kids talk like gangsters….?.

What the dickens is going on?  Identity crisis is not in it.  And yet without a comfortable, fixed and rewarding self-image, rooted in an authentic sense of who one is, true sanity and contentment is not possible.  Cultural identities in modern Britain are mixed up, often destructive (muslim identity is seemingly increasingly defined in terms of who they hate and want to stop rather than in who they are) and with boundaries that are increasingly confused and damaged.  No wonder more and more young people are finding themselves in mental health services, uncertain of who they are, never mind of what they want out of life.

My colleague, a “British citizen of 40 years standing?, arrived in England in the early 60’s from then British Guyana and found himself faced with a less than warm welcome.  “No blacks, no Irish? sums it up.  Forty years later he retains the old-fashioned courtesy and style of the British system that educated him and provided him with his start in life.  People of his generation understood the need to adopt a stable identity, rooted in the place where one lives, if one is to be able to grow and achieve one’s aspirations.  This unfashionable view does not play well anymore, even though another Guyanese, Trevor Phillips, seems to be developing this thesis (in the teeth of very strong opposition from Ken Livingstone amongst others).   Lord Tebbit’s cricket test has lost none of its potency for stimulating argument, most of it rancid with political correctness rather than honest and based in reality.

As for me, my view of youf changed the other evening.  I was in the last train from Victoria.  I found myself in the last seat in the carriage, surrounded by young people in their teeshirts and torn jeans.  After a while, I became aware that they were having a conversation about school and the concert they had just been to see.  I asked them why they were not playing personal stereos and driving me mad. 
“Oh no?, they said, we hate all that.  “We’re punks, we’re not chavs?.
We spent the rest of the journey in a conversation about history and the qualities of good teachers.  They each shook my hand as they left the train.

Hope springs eternal, I suppose.

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