Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain
‘How many times, throughout history, have immigrants had to contend with the accusation that they are lazy, grasping, on the take? How many times will they have to deliver luminous counter-examples before we cease to believe it? There aren’t many universal truths, but people do not lightly burn their small hoard of money or burden themselves with loans merely to put their feet up at someone else’s expense. They do not leave their homes and families because they are risk-averse. They travel, like medieval labourers, “onlie to seeke woorck”; or, like the pious pastors harried out of the Continent by Catholic armies, for religious and personal liberty.’
During the course of my doctorate so far, I’ve been fortunate enough to engage in some fantastic conversations and receive some wonderful advice from academics already in my field. I was pointed in the direction of Robert Winder’s ‘Bloody Foreigners’ by one such academic, who told me that he regularly gave the book as a Christmas/birthday present to associates and family members who held what he considered less-than-enlightened views on immigration. It certainly serves as such, charting as it does migration to Britain from 25,000 years ago to present day and discussing Normans, Jews, Huguenots, Protestants, Italians, Irish and many more.
The book is organised in a linear fashion and sets about deconstructing the idea of Britain as belonging to any one group, or indeed any one group existing other than in a fractured, multi-stranded form. What is immediately striking is that, even from prehistory, the volume of human traffic arriving in and leaving from Britain was astonishing. The push and pull factors driving such movement are myriad and compelling, and migration is prompted by the same dreams and fears that those decrying it are at the mercy of. Evidence for ‘benefit scroungers’ who have played the system so as to live it large whilst watching daytime television, all at taxpayers’ expense, is vanishingly small. Indeed, those propagating such imagery ignore one of the most basic truths of migration – that those making the journey to Britain, whether by legal means, crammed into the back of food lorries, or clinging to the undercarriages of Eurostar trains, are usually capable, often professional in their home countries, and have financial and physical means to follow these human urges. More often than not they are the absolute antithesis of the Daily Mail/Express stereotype.
British people (and Winder leaves us in no doubt that this term is complicated and contested) have been sometimes welcoming to migrants, but often cruel and ugly. There are innumerable examples of violence, populist anti-migrant legislation, and shrill tabloid headlines claiming that we were taking more than our ‘fair share’ of the displaced (we weren’t) and that the fabric of British life was changing (it was and will do so again). Alongside this cruelty, Winder gives us examples of when Britain has reached out, sometimes with a grumble, and concluded that having an empire meant a measure of responsibility along with the plunder and spoils. I felt that the book was overall balanced and fair.
I gave this 4/5 stars on Goodreads, with a minor criticism regarding readability early on in the book. There are so many anecdotes that come at the reader in rapid-fire that we are not allowed a chance to reflect upon each one, whether it be the expulsion of the Jews in medieval England or the huge increase in Italian migrants after the Second World War. This, though, is a minor criticism.
I was left reflecting upon the fact that the lost Britain mourned by right-wing columnists in the press, if indeed it ever existed, is the product of generations of migrants landing on beaches and slowly assimilating in and changing Britain. Nor is it a phenomenon which anyone has come close to stopping, with Winder noting,
‘The opponents of migration are always up against powerful human forces – love, lust, curiosity, hunger, fear and hope – and they are usually outmatched.’
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, Best MicroFiction 2021, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0