The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- British multiculturalism is neither new nor sudden

Like Oscar Wilde, I have been dying beyond my means in a private hospital, my electronic communication with the outside world commanded at one end by Gargi in Calcutta and at the other by Gritta in London. Listening to voices and accents from my hospital bed has given me a wonderful perspective of the new England that is emerging and of the clash between London's emerging universalism and the fond illusions of anglicized foreigners.

All the newspapers told me that V.S. Naipaul had launched a fierce assault on multiculturalism. 'What do they call it' he asked. 'Multi-culti' It's all absurd you know. I think if a man picks himself up and comes to another country he must meet it halfway.' No one quarrels with the second proposition, but the dismissal of multiculturalism speaks volumes about the speaker's own position. Thus did Nirad C. Chaudhuri bemoan the passing of Englishness because Trinity College, Cambridge, had made Amartya Sen its Master. Thus, too, did a young Arab member of one of the most august clubs in London's Pall Mall adopt a crusty stand against admitting women to the dining room at lunchtime. 'I will not have it!' I remember him declaiming, tapping his fork on the members' table for emphasis.

In contrast, Sir Michael Pike, a former British high commissioner to Singapore, tells me that his sons, born of his Malaysian Chinese wife, are proper Londoners. He says that sometime in the Nineties, London statistically overtook New York as the world's most cosmopolitan city, and that a Londoner is now an identifiable urban breed without reference to race, religion or colour. 'Once upon a time they would have been called Eurasians but no one says that now.' Perhaps many of the inhabitants of Brick Lane, among whose Bengali signs I sauntered one afternoon, are also Londoners in this sense. Perhaps the Mirpuris, as Pike calls Kashmiri Muslims from Pakistan who are among the least successful subcontinentals here, also comprise a sub-sect of the Londoner ethic.

Very little of the old England was visible in my hospital, whose owner, a Gulf potentate, was apparently ensconced on the top floor. Large flower arrangements went up in the special red-carpeted lift, and haughty young men in spotless white robes, their complicated turbans bordered in red, green and gold like South Indian angavastrams, came down. Only one English nurse, a prettily simpering young country girl from Kent, attended to me. So did a solitary Scotsman. The other nurses, male and female, were from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Jamaica and Germany. One young man was a Swede from Finland. Among other nationalities in the general staff I counted Egypt, Spain and Portugal. Perhaps the largest British presence was among the higher level of doctors ' the consultants, physicians and surgeons. They brought a whiff of Harley Street (where some also practised) and suppressed all odours of the National Health Service which, too, they served. But I counted a Syrian and an Iraqi even at these rarefied heights.

The small Indian contingent intrigued me. A Delhi-trained Malayali nurse was indisputably among the best ' diligent, attentive and friendly without being pushy. A young Baghdadi Jew doctor told me that his parents had lived in Belgaum although he had been born and bred in Britain. Another doctor, presumably Anglo-Indian, was similarly forthcoming. Though none of them communicated voluntarily on an ethnic basis and all responded to my overtures with initial hesitation, it was Dr Chakravarty who took the cake. He didn't respond at all. 'Do in Rome as the Romans do,' he retorted unsmilingly, fixing me with a stern eye, when I referred to some Indian form of medical examination only as a conversational gambit. That was our sole exchange. I was snubbed. I learnt his name only from the German nurse. Later, my wife told me she had tracked him down in the lobby as a fellow Bengali and tried to strike up a conversation. Obviously, doing as the Romans do is a strenuous and fulltime occupation for many immigrants who are constantly haunted by the fear of slipping back amongst the barbarians.

That would also explain sophisticated opposition to multiculturalism. It is an irrational objection, for there was no such thing as a 'pure' Britain even before substantial numbers of darker hued migrants from south Asia, Africa and the Caribbean descended on these islands from the Fifties. Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Romans and Normans also contributed to the British pot-pourri. As a schoolboy in Calcutta, I learnt of the demographic diversity reflected in 'cow' and 'beef' and 'calf' and 'veal', the words in French and English reflecting the origins of outdoor and indoor workers. All societies are forever evolving and the changes in Britain are glaring. Exactly half a century ago, when I came here for the first time, hardly anyone drank wine. Now everybody does. No one was ever seen then without collar, tie and jacket.

Now, I can count the number of ties on a bus. Several of the younger males at a church funeral that I attended recently hastily tied their ties in the vestry before going in: it was a concession to orthodoxy, no longer a natural feature of normal attire.

Multiculturalism is, therefore, neither new nor sudden. Not all the changes may be equally appealing to everyone, but the process of change is what saves society from stasis and death. But some foreigners see things differently because England for them, as Alan Bennett, the playwright and actor observed, is an ideal and not a country. They want to preserve their dreams in the face of the vulgar multitude. That is why my Arab friend insisted on excluding women who would sully the concept of port and cigars in leather-cushioned comfort for which he had paid his tithes. It was not that he was a conservative or culturally hostile to female company. Women just did not fit in with his image of classy, clubby London. What was the point of living in London if London's most distinctive institutions succumbed to pressures that create uniformity in Madrid or Copenhagen' For those same selfish reasons, anglicized foreigners are probably among the most staunch champions of the British monarchy.

Thus did Isaiah Berlin, the anglophile Jew born in Riga, 'forge his eccentric version of the perfect Englishman', according to Ian Buruma who called him ' shades of Malcolm Muggeridge's flippancy at our expense ' The Last Englishman. James Howard Johnston, Master of the Senior Common Room at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, thought Nirad Chaudhuri, whom he saw regularly but had never met, bore a strong resemblance to Berlin. Both were prisoners of their own image of England which multiculturalism could only threaten. Buruma also mentions the film, The Scarlet Pimpernel, as an essay in fraudulent foreigner's English. The author of the original story was Hungarian. So was Alexander Korda who directed the film. So, too, was Leslie Howard, the actor who plays the Pimpernel, a dashing slim, blond, blue-eyed Englishman who rescues aristocrats from the guillotine during the French revolution. Revered as the epitome of English nonchalance and daring, Howard was born Steiner and was a refugee. What Buruma unaccountably does not mention is that Merle Oberon who played Marguerite, the story's femme fatale, was herself Anglo-Indian, the famous Queenie Thompson. So, it was entirely a cinematic orgy of multiculturalism with not a single authentic English note.

Perhaps it is always so. But true or false, the ideal remains compelling. It beckons like a distant Camelot. As long as it is there ' public schools, old colleges, guards regiments, gentleman's clubs, country houses, fox hunting ' the un-English English from afar, who have made their home here, have something to aspire to. It occurs to me as I wait to return to my unconsciously multicultural hospital that the successful immigrant must loathe and fear a multiculturalism that threatens to rob him of his dream.

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