If you need help in exploding the UKIP fantasy of a golden era of England, where there were no thieving, scrounging, terrorist migrants to blight this green and pleasant land, Small Island is the perfect place to start. For in reality, England had no such golden era. Prior to post war immigration, Britain was a miserable class ridden, bigoted island, where working class poverty was deeply entrenched, the ruling class elite lived in their protected private school bubble, and social mobility was virtually non-existent. Furthermore, attitudes across the board were profoundly insular and blatantly racist. The idea that England had fought a war to keep the world safe from fascism is something of a joke. British people were having none of Hitlers talk of a Germanic master race because the British themselves had been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe it was they who were actually the master race. Blacks and Jews and Irish need not apply. Andrea Levy, in five hundred pages of wonderfully constructed prose, sets out to explore the real England of 1948 and what a magnificent job she makes of it. All the plaudits her book has received are more than fully deserved.

 

Levy creates four central characters and tells the one story from each of their individual perspectives. It has a touch of the classic BBC 1960's drama, Talking to a Stranger. Each of the characters are clearly flawed yet each in turn wins the reader's sympathy and affection. It's not a crude and clumsy case of the good versus the bad. Each has their one-sidedness and each has their merits. All four come across as highly credible. We learn of their back stories and we watch how they interact in post war England. If there is one failing in the novel it is that it had to come to an end. How fascinating it would have been to see these four characters develop over the next three or four decades. Perhaps there is a volume two and three waiting to be written.

Levy recreates a world where UKIP would like to take us back to, a world full of petty bigotries and narrow little England sentiments. Here is a quick example;

That was the reason so many coloured people were coming to this country, according to my next-door neighbour Mr Todd. That National Health Service  it's pulling them in, Mrs Bligh. Giving things away at our expense will keep them coming, he said. He might have had a point except, according to him, they were all cross-eyed and goofy before they got here.

Seventy years on and it all sounds so depressingly familiar. No mention from our Mr Todd that many of these in-coming migrants had fought shoulder to shoulder with their English counterparts to see off the fascist menace. No mention from our Mr Todd that England had and was still exploiting the empire for all it was worth. And no mention from our forerunner of a UKIP voter that the migrants were desperate to work in England if they were given half a chance. All this Levy carefully brings out without ever lapsing into a dry political polemic.

Just the other day our very own Mr Farage blamed England's migrants for clogging up the M4 and thus making him late for a political meeting. Too stupid to take seriously except that we have just learned that one of Britains leading tabloids has directly come out in support of UKIP. I suppose sometime way back in the 1923, Hitler's attempted beer hall putsch was treated by some as something of a joke. No one was laughing much twenty years later. Farage may be just a buffoon or he may represent something more sinister but either way, make no mistake, the racist attitudes so prevalent in 1948 England are still very much alive in huge swathes of England today. Levy's novel is more pertinent today than ever before. It is a warning from history. The mentality of the 'master race' is still alive and kicking.

Just listen to this piece dialogue from Levy. It's from 1948 but it could easily be from England 2014.

A prostitute and coloureds. What were you thinking of Queenie? Listen to me Bernard. I had to get lodgers. I had no idea where you were. There was no one going to look after me. I had to bring people in. I don't doubt that Queenie, but did they have to be coloured? Couldn't you have got decent lodgers for the house? Respectable people?

And of his neighbour Mr Todd;

Mr Todd is moving you know. He and his sister have found a little house in Orpington. Says the street has gone to the dogs. What with all these coloured swamping the place. Hardly like our own country anymore.P436

Even the language is familiar. Migrants swamping Britain is regular journalism in Britain's tabloids today. And not just the tabloids. UKIP thrive on such stuff. And the Tories and Labour are not far behind. Demonise "the other" is the oldest trick in the political book. Why develop constructive policies fit for the 21st century when you can so easily lapse back into twentieth century fears and hatreds and win a few cheap votes in the process.

London itself I suspect has come a long way since 1948. It seems genuinely comfortable with its role as a global, cosmopolitan city, but as you move away from the metropolis some of the old attitudes remain stubbornly in place. And even in the capital, as living standards plunge, all is not harmony and tolerance. Read Small Island as a mirror to today's xenophobia or simply read it as a fine and absorbing novel. Either way you will not be disappointed.

End JPK Copyright 14/12/14

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Last Updated ( Monday, 21 May 2018 07:44 )