Sunday, 9 September 2012

Immigration levels and xenophobia

I've wanted to write a piece about immigration for the longest time, and it has been much delayed.  Immigration, you see, is a sensitive subject.  As a citizen of the UK, with a Filipino fiancĂ©e, it could also be said that my views are hardly without bias.  In truth, my thoughts about racism, religious intolerance and other forms of bigotry were set a long time ago, and my attitude towards newspaper and online articles seen recently is just an extension of that.  I will tell you about my own experience, and then why it is impossible for me to separate that experience from worrying trends I see developing in the UK.  This may be a long piece, so please bear with me.

With apologies to the remaining decent folk in Northern Ireland, I must say that my time there taught me more about bigotry and intolerance than I would otherwise have learned in a lifetime.  I have no realistic way of ascertaining the prevalence of xenophobia and religious intolerance in Northern Ireland - living in a town on the border with the Republic of Ireland undoubtedly gave me a distorted view, but I believe those attitudes will be a part of life there for a long time.  There are religious, political and societal influences in Ireland as a whole which serve to fuel the hatred and keep it burning.  I lived there for twelve years.

The first thing to understand about the problem in Ireland is the nature of the paramilitary organisations, whether they identify themselves as republican or loyalist.  I have no idea about what preceded my time in County Fermanagh but, during my time there, I saw that paramilitary groups, in the main, are little more than criminal gangs.  Unfortunately, they have the power to identify themselves with a tradition, with their community, and find themselves protected by a "you don't inform on your own kind" mentality.  I lived within a predominantly Roman Catholic, nationalist, republican community, and found that the attitude was one of not having contact with the police, for any reason.  The belief was that having contact with the police - seen as agents of the British government by many - was to be seen as a traitor to the republican cause, and was dangerous.  Over the years, many people in Northern Ireland have been threatened, beaten or killed for having contact with the police.  You don't need to be a genius to work out the implications for the nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.  For a long time, those areas have been practically lawless.  It's a perfect environment for anyone wanting to take part in criminal activity.

In the interests of balance, the same happens on the other side of the fence.  Loyalist criminal gangs are also a problem.  Actually, there have been accusations (look up the evidence yourself) of links between loyalist paramilitaries, the police and other government institutions.  As a former psychology student, I understand the mechanisms at work perfectly.  The idea of a common enemy prompts stronger community adhesion, a sense of camaraderie with everyone in your community, even to the point of protecting criminals from the law, and suspicion of those outside your community.  From the loyalist point of view, they are a minority, so the threat from republicans is even greater.

I don't know how it was before my time there, or in the time since.  I can only pass on what I observed during my time there.  What effect did it have on me?  First of all, I was clearly asked to interviews for jobs because I had a "good catholic name".  The look of horror on the interviewer's face when they heard an English accent was quite amusing, when I think of it now, but was also a sure sign that I was not going to get the job.  With a few notable exceptions, my "good catholic name" meant that I would not be interviewed for jobs in protestant communities, or businesses owned by protestants.  I eventually managed to find work, but only temporary contracts were offered.  In my daily life, having an English accent in a nationalist community meant that I was a target for hate filled looks initially, verbal abuse and vandalism to my property later on, and eventually threats of violence and death.  If I dared to comment on my situation, I was told to "pass no comment" (that's a not too polite way of being told to shut up by the locals).

I fought back.  The verbal abuse forced me to defend my heritage within my own mind, giving me a sense of pride in my nationality that had been much weaker previously.  The threat of violence renewed my faded interest in martial arts, though I'm going to remain silent on whether I needed to use those combat skills in that environment.  I became more vocal, to the visible discomfort of the local community, about the inherent problems of Ireland as a whole, and Northern Ireland in particular.  However, it was all for nothing.  I am only one man, and the community closed ranks on me.  By this time, all my reasons for staying in Northern Ireland had vanished into the ether, and I eventually moved back to be with my family in North Wales, suffering from severe clinical depression and carrying an unfortunate hatred of all things Irish.  The intolerance I faced created a prejudice within me - one that, in all honesty, I am still struggling to remove from my psyche.  My father is Irish, and my mother also has Irish ancestry, so bad feeling towards the people of Ireland is clearly not a good thing for me.

More recently, I have seen a change in the attitudes of many people in Britain.  A day does not pass without one of the tabloid newspapers, TV news, radio or one of the many internet news sites talking about immigration in negative terms.  From a personal point of view, seeing the Conservative Party become the main party in government filled me with a justifiable sense of dread.  Over the years, I have heard of many Conservative voters defecting to UKIP or, worse, the BNP - it is quite clear that the Conservatives attract those with extreme reactions to immigration, and possibly foreigners in general.  Worryingly, the choice of the Conservatives as the preferred party of government seems to reflect a wider problem of growing intolerance.  It could be that my relationship with a Filipino woman makes me sensitive to xenophobia, but I have seen views expressed openly on social networking sites and other internet forums which make me feel sick.

Immigration has become a hot political topic in the UK, and the two main political parties seem to be interested in maintaining that focus.  After all, if immigration is seen to be something we are all fighting, politicians and public alike, we are all on the same side, right?  For me, it is frighteningly similar to the way the political parties at each extreme in Northern Ireland manipulated their supporters using the threat of a common enemy.  You want to go further back in history?  How about the Nazi party of Germany pointing the finger at the Jewish community for all of Germany's problems?  If you think these are unnecessarily extreme examples, then I would tell you that you know nothing of human nature, and you have no idea of how destructive hatred can be when left unchecked.  The British government is faced with a housing crisis, a stalled economy and mass unemployment.  Of course, a multitude of policy errors over the years can't be to blame, can they?  It must all be the fault of the immigrants.  The media are all too happy to stir things up too, for reasons I can't quite understand.

We're overcrowded already, they say.  Nonsense!  What you mean is that our cities are overcrowded, because rural communities are losing the younger generation, due to a lack of employment opportunities.  Why the lack of employment opportunities?  Well, it might be something to do with the rise in VAT, which made consumers question every purchase, and buried a lot of small local businesses.  If ministers were to wander outside the big cities, they would find, in towns like Colwyn Bay, streets that are eerily empty every evening.  Part of that is due to a falling population in rural areas, and part of it is due to the rising cost of living, meaning that people must entertain themselves in their own homes.  Our cities, and cities all over the world, have a long history of being overpopulated.  It is nothing new.

Oh, let's not forget that immigrants are responsible for the housing shortage, though.  Actually, that might have been brought on by the banks giving too much credit to people who could not pay them back, the inevitable happening and the construction industry taking a massive knock as a result.  Again, the politicians are keen to point out that it is not their fault, but the fault of immigrants.  If you look around where you live, assuming you are in Britain, you will see properties lying empty or even newly built homes that remain unfinished.

Since the beginning of time, it seems, immigrants have been blamed for taking jobs from the indigenous population.  Well, our government brings large numbers of nurses from India and the Philippines every year, because it is a largely thankless job, with long hours and the constant threat of assault by one of the many violent drunks brought in over the weekend or, increasingly, any day of the week.  If you want to blame something for the state of our country, our alcohol consumption is a prime suspect, but politicians are not likely to blame one of their largest sources of tax revenue, are they?  Nursing is just one example of how a foreign workforce is employed to do the jobs the majority of the indigenous population won't.

A large number of immigrants can still enter the UK freely, under the terms of our membership of the European Union.  Our government knows this, so it unfairly punishes potential immigrants from outside the EU, particularly those coming here to join a husband, wife or family.  Yes, there are illegal immigrants, and there are sham marriages, but the new immigration rules do not really make either of those things more difficult.  No, they contravene the European Bill of Human Rights - specifically the right to family life - by making it impossible for almost half of those aiming to bring loved ones to the UK.  Maybe the government does not want to stop illegal immigrants or sham marriages, because the public may start to suspect our country's ills were a product of government policy after all, if there are no illegal immigrants or asylum seekers to blame.  Instead, a large number of British citizens, myself included, must now earn at least £18,600 per year, to prove we can support the one we love on their arrival in the UK.  The only positive in the new rules is that the Conservatives wanted to set the bar even higher, at around £25,000, but were forced to compromise with their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

Some people are blatantly against Muslims in particular.  Their problem should be with extremist or fundamentalist Muslims, not Islam in general.  The UK government, under Tony Blair, was advised on Islamic issues by The Muslim Council of Great Britain: moderate Muslims complained that this is an organisation of extremists and a large number of young Muslims are turning to the more extreme views of Islam, in order to make themselves heard.  Well, I will bring you back to my experience in Northern Ireland.  The hatred and bigotry I experienced created the same feelings within me, towards those I felt were oppressing me.  Intolerance breeds intolerance.  Before anyone says I am an apologist for those committing atrocities, I must be clear that I am not saying those feelings are right, or condoning violent action against any organisation or group - these things are wrong.  Religious intolerance?  Does that not remind anyone of the history of Northern Ireland?

The latest cause for panic is that our population might hit 70 million.  Again, we are not overcrowded.  Moreover, if you consider the great economic powers of the world, those are countries with relatively large populations.  A large population, it stands to reason, is a large potential economy.  Are multinationals likely to invest in a country with a relatively small workforce and customer base?  No.  So what you are left with is the fear of losing our traditions, our culture and our identity, of us becoming less "pure" racially.  Give me a break!  If you consider yourself to be "pure" English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, you are kidding yourself.  Your family may have been resident in one of the nations of the UK for generations, but it is impossible that no one in your family tree had DNA which could be traced to another nation.  It is the same in every country on this planet.  If you know an expert in genetics or anthropology, ask them for an accepted scientific definition of race, and watch them shrug their shoulders.

If you have read this and still believe immigration is a bad thing for the UK, regardless of the circumstances, I applaud you for getting through this with such little intelligence.  To those of you who have read this with an open mind, thank you.

UPDATE: According to a good friend, I may have misunderstood the issues surrounding the employment of nurses from overseas within the NHS.  My opinions are those of someone viewing developments in the nursing profession as an outsider, so I apologise for any error.  What I can say, without doubt, is that nurses within the NHS work long hours and are often on the receiving end of abuse that is wholly unwarranted.  They provide an essential service.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Thoughts on the nature of art

A friend of mine has prompted me to think about the nature of art.  Interestingly, he is a street artist, or what certain sections of the media would call a graffiti artist.  There's a profile of him on YouTube, and the author deserves kudos for a great, if short, piece of documentary film making.

I've seen many criticise my friend, quite wrongly, for being no better than a vandal.  The fact that he never paints anything without permission has either not got through to them, or is not the issue for them.  It could be that they don't like what he does, or are actively offended by it.

You have probably heard of Claude Oscar Monet.  He was one of the founding fathers of an art movement called impressionism.  To Monet, and the other impressionists, the fine details of an image were not important: their focus was on using light, shade and colour to leave an impression of what was being depicted.  Prints of Monet's paintings, particularly his series of paintings of water lilies, have graced many walls in recent years, and continue to sell and be produced in large numbers.  In the early years of impressionism, however, the art establishment considered his work worthless.

When Damien Hirst pickled a shark in a large fish tank, I found it repulsive.  I still find it repulsive.  That's the nature of art: not everyone will like it.  If it doesn't provoke a reaction, either positive or negative, can it really be called art?  My own preference is for monochrome line art, or maybe duotone comic art; actually, I love duotone.  If I could find some duotone art to hang on my walls, I would be a very happy man.

The above image can be found at and, once again, kudos to the artist.  The subject matter is not to my taste, but it gives you some idea of what I consider to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement.  You will disagree with me, maybe, and that is the whole point.  Art is subjective - I like duotone art, whereas you may like full colour paintings, and you may argue that watercolours are superior to oils, and others may take the contrary view, or say they prefer sculpture as an art form.

I know that I went off on a tangent there, but I did not stray from the point I am trying to make.  My friend may use spray cans and concrete (and other surfaces), rather than oils and canvas, and that means some can not accept it as art.  It challenges them, just as every art movement in history has challenged critics.

Do I consider graffiti to be art?  I could be accused of bias here, so I will define what art means to me.  Wherever you are when you experience a piece of art, it takes you somewhere else.  It may be a piece of poetry or a book you read; it may be a piece of music; you may find it in a painting or sculpture.  The very best art takes you to a place, within your imagination, that is outside of your everyday experience.  Would I spend my time looking at a bare concrete wall?  No.  What about the random acts of vandalism committed through the medium of the spray can?  No, they are very much an unwelcome part of the environment I live in.

If you consider a bare concrete wall to be attractive, I won't argue with you, because it is your right to have a preference, but maybe you should seek some form of therapy.  If you don't like street art, that is also your right, but no one asked you to hang it in your home.  Some of us see a blank space filled with something that brings a smile to our face, or makes us feel admiration for the work that has gone into the piece.  To each their own, I guess, but there is a long history of controversy generating fame, so maybe my friend should not be offended by those who don't agree with what he does, but should welcome the fact that his work is being discussed.  His work pushes the boundaries and challenges the popular conception of art: that it should hang in a gallery for the privileged few to view.

Now, please excuse me while I search for a supplier of framed duotone comic art...

Update: An article on the ship which my friend, Andy "Dime One" Birch was involved in painting -