We are all too busy rewriting our histories
Thursday 04 November 1999
Pakistanis are upset because they just don't believe a good Muslim like George would father half-white children who eat bacon sandwiches in secret. Some white commentators are equally unconvinced that Ella would love someone as boorish as George. Both sides are in revolt against a history they cannot accept.
For the truth is that ever since the 16th century poor white women have been more than eager to jump into bed with men of colour, and that many of the men who arrived from the subcontinent in the Sixties were delighted to oblige. But such stories undermine simplistic versions of the encounter between black and white Britons, and this is why it is essential that they are told. Especially now, as the hitherto flaccid heritage industry is pumped up with millennial Viagra and there is a great eruption of superficial, feelgood narratives about this nation that do neither black nor white Britons any good.
On Wednesday, Professor Stuart Hall called for "a radical transformation of social memory" at a key Arts Council conference challenging these ideas of heritage. On the same day, Sir Herman Ouseley criticised the Government's proposed history curriculum for being "multiculturally inadequate". They are both absolutely right, though I am less interested in the injection simply of facts gone missing. I want to discover the complicated truths about our collective histories - whites cannot be the only goodies or the only baddies - in order to create ties that bind. Would it, for example, not be momentous if British Jews spoke about the Muslims who fought against Nazism? Or if we had open talk of the love affair between Queen Victoria and her Indian munshi, Abdul Karim?
The timely Channel 4 series on slavery did not shirk from showing the responsibilities of Africans in the vile business. Much of the conquest of India would have been impossible without the greed and collusion of the maharajas. But these facts do not mean white folk can hide from the appalling things they have done around the world. Britain has never gone through the painful process of self-examination that it expected Germany and Japan to subject itself to after the war. Worse, it refuses to see itself as the mongrel nation that it has always been.
Why does this matter? Because on this small island we are increasingly breaking up into smaller and smaller tribes, all busily rewriting histories that bear no relation to the truth - such as the huge Scottish pretence that they were not part of the Imperial project. Most of the worst snobs and colonial upstarts I ever encountered in Uganda were either Scottish or Welsh. It is also because the next general election will be fought over culture, and that most lost of all tribes - the Tories - have already started to attack the idea of an inclusive master narrative. Sad people that they are, they are offering a thrilling trip back to an old-fashioned future, and many will, indeed, be attracted by this retreat.
Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, accepts that cultural heritage is "an embodiment of the spirit of a nation, part of the cement of national identity", and that we need a more imaginative description of our national soul. Here's hoping that he will put millions where his mouth is, to make this more than an appealing slogan.
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