RIDING through east London on a train the other day I had one of those wish-I-had-a-camera-handy moments. If I’d been quick enough, the picture would have been worth at least 1,000 words.
Instead of writing this column I could just have printed the picture and let it speak for itself.
On a public tennis court four schoolgirls were playing a game of doubles. On one side of the net, in shorts and T-shirts, were a blonde girl and one who might have been Chinese. On the other was a girl with long braided hair and brightly-coloured Caribbean-style clothes. Her partner was all in black from head to foot, only her eyes showing in the now familiar Muslim manner.
I did wonder for a moment how the Muslim girl could move effectively in such restrictive attire.
I did marvel that her parents should send her to school so concealed yet allow her to play openly with girls whose different cultures were on display in bare limbs.
But the obvious enjoyment all four were having in the game made it a most striking image of what is – or could be – good in our society. It was a happy and a hopeful scene.
There can be few issues more emotionally charged in this country – and likely to get more so – than that of immigration.
Most of that emotion is heated, irrational and based on ignorance. If only we could all mix as those tennis-playing girls were, with pleasure and at least a chance of understanding.
We’re a mongrel race, we British. It’s our strength. If you doubt that, just consider our language.
English has always been happy to accept new words and make them its own. As a country, that’s generally been our tendency – and our strength – too.
This little land is a melting-pot of people, cultures, ideas and lifestyles and all the better for that.
And I mean a melting-pot. Multi-culturalism, so-called, is fine as long as we are all happy to enjoy, learn from and share each others’ cultures.
Cutting ourselves off in enclaves of this culture or that, without sharing or learning from each other, is where danger lies.
If we allow our cities to become segmented into sectors defined by national or religious groups – a black area, a Muslim area, a Polish area – we risk alienation, distrust, misunderstanding, fear.
The old adage about having nothing to fear but fear itself seems applicable. But it doesn’t take account of where fear comes from – ignorance.
If only we could all get together on the same tennis court. Or even just in each others’ supermarkets and at each others’ dining-tables.
Bordering on the un-British
IF I have a complaint against someone, I can’t threaten their reputation by telling you about it here. Not, at least, until the matter has gone through all the relevant court procedures.
The law of libel places a restriction on freedom of speech that can be frustrating at times. But it exists for a good reason.
The protection it offers against the damaging effects of rumour is a powerful restraint on journalists. But not, apparently, on official organisations such as the UK Border Agency.
The agency, which came into being in its present form only last year, is responsible for controlling immigration.
In its own words: “The Agency was formed in April 2008 to improve the United Kingdom’s security through stronger border protection while welcoming legitimate travellers and trade.”
Note the use of that emotive buzzword “security”. And just how welcoming is “welcoming”?
In its first nine months the agency issued civil penalties against 21 Suffolk businesses. You may have read about some of them in these pages.
The agency is very keen on telling the local media about its successes in uncovering evidence of illegal workers in mainly Chinese and Indian or Bangladeshi restaurants.
Of those 21, however, two were cancelled and another five resulted in reduced fines once the businesses concerned had a chance to appeal.
I am grateful to Paul Simon of Hadleigh for gaining these figures under the Freedom of Information Act and alerting me to them.
As Paul says: “It is very unfair that the UK Border Agency appears to be so trigger-happy in issuing immediate information about its raids even before a business has a chance to invoke the appeals procedure.
“Given this country’s sense of fair play, it borders on the un-British to name and shame companies in this way – even though one in every three cases was either totally exonerated or was able to produce sufficient evidence for fines to be reduced.
“In these tough economic times it seems especially unfair that the reputation of some Suffolk businesses may be damaged by a government body in advance of the full facts being uncovered.”
Just so. I couldn’t do it – quite rightly – so why should they?