Stop hunting for the ‘English gene’, it doesn’t exist – but a joyous shared culture defiantly does

People who fear the slow death of a culture should rest assured that no amount of newcomers could ever wipe the Englishness off the face of London

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 31 May 2019 17:35
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David Lammy challenges John Cleese to 'not define Englishness by DNA'

The trouble with Twitter is that you are not rewarded for having balanced, compassionate discussions. Extreme reactions to an opinion grab the attention and the retweets, so that even among sensible people, any “debate” always seems to come down to whose pithy jibe can hammer their opponent into the ground most securely.

And so, when John Cleese tweeted this week that London was “not really an English city anymore”, the overwhelming reaction was to call him some sort of ludicrous cartoon racist, rather than just, you know, wrong.

Cleese’s comment about London not being an “English city” is, of course, faintly ridiculous in the face of its history. London is a city that has always been shaped to a large extent by waves of immigrants, from the Roman founders of Londinium, via the Huguenots, Jewish people, Caribbean people, South Asians and, in 1976, me.

And I can understand why his remarks have got people’s backs up. When I came to London as a toddler, I used to play with a little girl whose family were incredibly kind and welcoming to my refugee parents as they acclimatised and tried to learn the language.

That is, until the day that they told my mother that “we are moving to Somerset because London just isn’t England anymore”, adding that they would miss us all very much and would she please stay in touch? She did not; instead, she shared her shock and upset with other English friends who told her to take no notice, and that people like that were “not quite the full ticket”, an expression that comforted and baffled her.

Over the course of my career, I’ve often felt frustrated when well-meaning people, who were valiantly opposed to anti-immigrant sentiment, would still happily tell me that they loved my idea for a sitcom or radio show but could I rewrite it to include more about my Iranian heritage? It never seemed to occur to them that they were limiting me to one facet of my life experience and stifling my creative output.

I will not name and shame, but some of the people berating Cleese are the very ones who have asked me to do their show because “we need someone who can speak Arabic” (I can’t, but I considered throwing out some Farsi to see if anyone noticed), or floated a scene “where Shappi is in a belly-dancing outfit and dances out of an Ali Baba basket”. My agent pulled me out of that high-profile reality TV show very swiftly indeed.

I don’t wake up every morning and think, “Oh look! I’m Iranian again”, but because I have a certain amount of melanin in my skin, even some of the most liberal-minded people struggle to see past my birthplace. Being very English – and I am – I don’t make a fuss, and at times I’ve tried to cater to it, but it is a constant frustration.

None of this means that I want to deny my Iranian heritage. Why would I? It’s part of me too, and it’s glorious. It’s just that England is my home: I’ve lived in and loved this place since I was three years old, and it would be nice to be seen as one of the gang.

People like me can shelter quite easily under the umbrella of “British” identity, but Britain to me is an economic union. England is my country. When I’m in Scotland, I feel English. When I’m in Cornwall, I feel like a pasty. There are people who would never consider themselves in any way racist – who might perhaps condone the flinging of milkshakes at neo-fascists – who have told me in no uncertain terms that “you can’t be English if you weren’t born here”.

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I like to point out that Boris Johnson was born in America, Joanna Lumley in India, Terry Butcher in Singapore and Katie Price in Botswana (I made that last one up, but my point stands). The usual reply is that their parents are English – that they are “genetically English” – but there is no such thing as “the English gene”; that’s just not how science works. There is no gene that, when you put it under a microscope, looks up and says: “Do you mind? We’re in the middle of our supper!”

If I ever did get to have a cup of tea with John Cleese, I would politely suggest to him that “Englishness” comes in many different forms, even if you take recent immigration out of it. A working-class Yorkshireman, for example, might feel a million miles away culturally from his privately educated neighbour. In my experience, class creates as much if not more of a cultural divide than nationality or skin tone.

That all said, let’s not deny that there is such a thing as English culture. You may not see it the way I do, but here are some of my favourite examples.

There’s the ability to hold wildly differing political views from someone and still share a cup of tea or a pint.

There’s the impulse to crack a joke with a complete stranger – even if it’s a terrible joke – because it’s understood as a gesture of trust.

There’s the love for animals and animal rights, which both illustrates and underpins our shared understanding of compassion.

There’s the deep and enduring love affair with bric-a-brac, from shipping forecast tea towels to pencil sharpeners housed in brass cannons.

Oh, and there’s Monty-flipping-Python.

So I’ll be honest – I think it’s all a lot of fuss about nothing. People who fear the slow death of a culture should rest assured that no amount of newcomers could ever wipe the Englishness off the face of London; it’s just that, irrespective of the falafel count, Englishness has always been in a state of flux. Bear-baiting used to be part of our culture, but it isn’t anymore, and it wasn’t the Somalis in Hackney who sounded the death knell. We just moved on.

And perhaps people who fear John Cleese should look at their own older relatives and ask themselves whether Cleese’s remarks are the clarion call of a monstrous racist, or just the daft whinge of a man who doesn’t recognise contemporary London as the 1940s Weston-super-Mare of his youth.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s half-term, my children and I are on the Isle of Wight, and we’re about to go to a scarecrow festival. And if that isn’t very English of me, I don’t know what is.

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