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Being British, from boat tales to BBC

British journalist and author Ian Jack’s The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain had its city launch over the weekend at The British Council, which in collaboration with Random House India hosted Jack and novelist Amit Chaudhuri in an engaging conversation.

The evening began with the screening of a few clips from the 1953 film The Cruel Sea. Jack, who was born in 1945, the year World War II ended, said he chose to screen parts of this film because it reminded him of what it was like to be a boy growing up in the aftermath of the war.

Chaudhuri began the evening’s discussion on the question, “What does it mean to be British?”, by asking Jack about the marked changes that had appeared in Britain, from British television to the country’s publishing houses and even a discernible similarity in the rhetoric of the Labour and Conservative parties.

Jack said that the importance of television started increasing after the Sixties and Seventies as more and more channels started appearing. Today, it has come to the point where the BBC must air popular shows to justify its licence fee. As for publishing, he said a lot of it was philanthropic nowadays.

When Chaudhuri wondered what it really meant to be British, as opposed to what it meant to be “English”, Jack invoked George Orwell, who did not really differentiate between being British and English. According to the former editor of Granta, being British had meant being English, Scottish as well as Irish and Welsh.

However, there existed widespread ignorance in England with regard to countries like Scotland — Jack spoke of a man who had once asked his father where the “boat” that sailed to Scotland from England was docked. The use of the Union Jack by the British National Party soon created problems, and it was not long before people in England preferred to say that they belonged to Leeds, or Oxford, rather than say that they were British.

Jack also spoke about the Jaipur Literature Festival, and an accusation levelled at William Dalrymple about him being a lover of the raj. Dalrymple has said that he is an “anti-colonial Scot”, a response that Jack wondered about — not only does Dalrymple not look or sound Scottish, but his response indicated that it was England that was solely responsible for the Empire when in reality, Scotland had as great a role to play (Scottish enterprises had flourished in eastern India). Jack said he looked at himself as being Scottish and British.

On globalisation, Jack felt that London now offered people a “polyglot” experience, whereby one could hear almost every language apart from English on a bus and on the streets. He said that while London could now truly be called multi-cultural and vibrant, it was at times an alienating experience for those who had grown up there.

Jack said that the scale of migration had increased manifold over the last 10 years, but instead of it prompting racism, people had adapted and learnt to live peacefully.

The evening ended with the formal launch of Jack’s book by British deputy high commissioner Sanjay Wadvani.

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