Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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Alienated in Britain?
Last uploaded : Tuesday 2nd Aug 2005 at 22:24
Contributed by : Carol Gould


I do not like making generalisations. For that reason I must be careful in expressing this particular viewpoint.

The United Kingdom has been absorbed in a very public discourse since the 7th of July Jihadist London bombings. The discussion has been revolving around the alienation felt by immigrants and the inevitable crime and violence that ensues in a hostile environment.

Many commentators from the Asian (Indian-Pakistani in Britain) community have been writing editorials about the fact that they have never felt part of mainstream British society. One of the commentators, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, who is on television and in the newspapers with considerable frequency, feels there is a disconnect even amongst the higher classes of society, and that whites seldom socialise with Britons of colour.

These columns have set my mind to reflecting on my thirty years in Great Britain as an immigrant from the United States. In a recent trip to my native country I was wined and dined to such an extent that I began to crave one night in without a social engagement. I was invited to a first and second night Passover Seder in Washington and Virginia respectively by people I had only just met. In twenty-eight years in a reasonably Jewish neighbourhood in London I have never been invited to a Passover Seder by anyone in this or the next street, despite the daily ?Hello? throughout the rest of the year. In fact, in social discourse in London over the years it has always been evident to me that I am someone from a strange and somewhat disliked country and that I am and never will be part of British society.

This puts paid to the notion, as expressed with such passion in the past three weeks in the British media, that alienation is reserved for people of colour and most particularly Muslims. I remember one Yom Kippur when I volunteered at a central London synagogue for security duty all day and when the Fast had ended I stood outside and was greeted by what could possibly be two hundred people, none of whom thought to ask me if I would join them to break the Fast. Being female and single does not help my case: it is a universal truth that wives do not like having a single female at the table, be it Yom Kippur, Passover, Christmas or Thanksgiving.

Being a member of the media is not helpful, either: the curious thing about Anglo Jewry is that my involvement in network television drama seemed to be some sort of criminal activity. I do remember the one time I was invited to a synagogue council member?s home for Friday night Sabbath dinner and being scolded after I was asked to explain what I did for a living. I began by announcing I was a network television executive and was promptly told that husband and wife did not watch television and that such a profession was not something I ought to boast about.

Conversely, there is a grit and tranquillity amongst the people of this great island race that is enviable and cannot be packaged or bottled. I believe that by ismosis I have absorbed some of this stoicism because, on 7/7 I was far less hysterical than my American contacts about the London bombings. This little island has lived through two monumental world wars, the interminable Blitzkrieg, the IRA and now extrremist terror. The generosity ofd spirit and kindnesses of which I have been at the receiving end through many decades in Britain -- and this is also felt by refugees from Hitler and Kindertransporte -- that has been of breathtaking porportions. When I have been ill I have never been short of food or medicines because my network of friends and neighbours all click into a beautiful support effort. It is the 'times inbetween' that cause the loneliness and emotional pain. In fact, since being back in the UK after a long break in the USA, I made the initila phonecalls to a dozen friends and neighbours, all happy to have me back, but have since heard not a peep from any of them.

Let us get back to the concept of alienation. Muslim commentators in recent weeks have lamented the fact that ordinary Britons are not interested in, or attracted to the world in which other ethnic groups live. The irony for me is that the deepest feelings of alienation I have felt in England for three decades have been caused by the coldness of an ethnic minority. Likewise in fellow Anglican company I have been called, countless times, ? our crazy American friend? or ? the nut case from New York ? (I am actually from Pennsylvania but most people have assumed that if you were born Jewish you are from New York. )One work colleague at Anglia TV insisted that my father had to have been a delicatessen meat cutter even though I tirelessly protested to her that he was a naval architect. In recent months in the USA I was astonished to find mountains of respect and interest from a variety of audiences and individuals who thought me far from 'crazy' but instead wanted to cultivate me in perpetuity.

At a London dinner party I was once told, ?It is a pity your country has no culture and no cultural history of note.? Yes, that is what this well-spoken military officer believed about Americans. I tried to enumerate such luminaries as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller et al but a female diner poo-pooed this as ?oh, popular lightweight culture, my dear.? Throughout my long years in the UK I have experienced devastating periods of loneliness when my ?phone has not rung for weeks at a time. When one does socialise (this happens when I telephone someone and remind them I am still alive) one is aware of an attitude. For example, one is told that ?we have something here called Chelsea Pensioners? as if I had been blind and deaf for three decades. On countless occasions I have been told about the basics of British history, places and customs as if I had just arrived. One is then subjected to the inevitable interrogation about how one came to be 'alllowed' to stay in Britain. When one protests that one has been here for thirty years and one has British nationality, the next phase occurs : 'How can an American become British?' Such a conversation would never happen in the USA.

This brings us back to the original theme: the alienation felt by Asian Britons. I have a theory: in recent long stays in the United States I have noticed that Americans are unrivalled for their ability to talk about anything. They will talk in any environment and will broach any subject. This is not the case in Britain. Here we pride ourselves on being buttoned up and discreet. One could take it a step further: the lack of lively public discourse may be a reason why so many terrorists have been able to go about their business without detection. My neighbours have criticised me over the years for ?talking to the shop owners.? I happen to like to chat up our local newsagent, who celebrated the Columbia Shuttle disaster and who disappears to Bangla Desh from time to time. He is very odd and I am suspicious of him, but being friendly and chatting to him is more helpful to the authorities than being aloof. (For that matter it is interesting that no Americans, as inquisitive and chatty as they are, did not suss out the 9/11 hijackers.)

My conclusion is that it is not just Asians and people of colour who have never felt a part of British society. This is a complex society steeped in its legacy of class distinction, and if one is American one will never be fully welcomed, and if one is Jewish-American the alienation is even more intense. The irony is that I probably have more in common with disaffected Muslims than with upper class Britons or with the Hampstead chattering classes.

I am looking forward to visiting the USA again soon: there is no class system, and despite many social problems there is a graciousness and hospitality amongst its people that is second to none. That is worth all the Crown Jewels in the Tower. There are 500,000 Britons living in Florida alone, and 100,000 in New York City. A national newspaper in the USA, Union Jack, serves the million or more expatriate Britons spread across the country. I would wager that many British people feel more loved and welcomed in the USA than here. Likewise, I can empathise with ethnic minorities who have never been made to feel at home in the UK. Yasmin Alibhai Brown, with whom I vehemently disagree on many issues, may have got it right when she said there was a huge divide in Britain amongst the varied religious and racial groups.

I was thrown in with a group of educated and cultivated Britons one evening before a Prom concert and to my abject horror they were referring to people of colour as 'wogs' and kept making crass remarks about 'gypos.' They knew I had a Jewish background but had I not been there what might they have been saying about Jews? Is white British society so disconnected from its ethnic millions as to be permanently separated from them in a world full of racial epithets?

Then there is the issue of 'not talking to each other.' Now that I am back in the UK I have to get used to the phenomenon of being packed into a restaurant or cafe and being on top of the people on either side, but try starting up a conversaiton with them! It is de rigeur to do so in most American connubations. Yes, the twain shall never meet, and vive la difference, but perhaps Alibhai Brown is right when she says that half the problem of disaffected Asian youth is the fact that three generations on, they would never, ever be invited to a white Briton's home.

I remember when my late father invited Naresh, an Indian who worked with him to our house for dinner. It was great fun to meet him. One of our other family friends was Norman, an Iraqi Jew.

Another aspect of growing up in America and which Britons simply do not understand is the warm relaitonship one would have had with a black maid. Anyone who grew up being looked after part of the time by a black domestic servant established a trusted friendship that often exceeded the trust one had with a parent. When one so much as mentions this social phenomenon to a British person they recoil in horror and scream 'slavery!' but they do not understand that the discourse with black maids and other retainers helped move the civil rights movement along. The civil rights movement was virtually bloodless, partially due to the brilliance of Dr Martin Luther King and the churches, but also because of the affeciton millions of white Americans felt for the law-abiding, hard-working and loyal Americans ( many had served in World War II) who happened to be of a dark complexion.

I am not quite ready to quit Great Britain because nobody ever invites me 'round for a cuppa tea, but in the wake of the bombings and the huge media discourse on race relations, it might do all of us a power of good to drop the British reserve and for once in our lives TALK to each other, whatever our colour or creed.

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