By N. Diamond
Courtesy of the author.
The picture here is of my aunt Christina’s wedding in 1944. It took place in Bellary, central India, shortly before the end of WW2 and three years before Partition. Her husband, Philip, had fought against Japanese forces in Burma and was now a captain in the Sikh Light Infantry, who were tasked with defending the railways from attack by Nationalist activists. Christina knew none of the congregation and was a little surprised: “The church was full of bearded Sikhs… I felt quite terrified by it all,” she wrote, I think out of bridal nerves as much as bewilderment. At this wedding, regimental loyalty trumped racial and religious affinities.
The couple returned to England before Partition and settled to raise their family in a semi in the Home Counties. A wealthier relative installed Philip as manager of a small factory in Shoreditch that manufactured upholstery buttons. He died several years ago, and I would love to be able to revive both him and his wedding congregation to hear their stories and map out the contours of the membrane separating them. The shared experience of inflicting death and witnessing it amongst comrades must have forged extraordinary links between white and brown men. Looking at this picture, I wonder whether Philip was an honorary Sikh or the Sikhs honorary Brits. Philip spoke little of his time in India other than to defend the benefits of British civilisation. ‘We brought the Railways and we outlawed suttee (Google it).’ I wouldn’t argue with him on that one, though we disagreed on many things. Still, he was a modest man, courteous and solicitous, and I think he would have winced at the jingoistic tone of today’s politicians. I liked him. He played cricket and croquet for a good many years and was an agent for his local Conservative MP. By his request, the (white, English) congregation at his funeral, held in a small, ancient church on the Sussex Downs, sang the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers.
"In my white monoculture we were cheerfully, ignorantly racist and Jesus was white-skinned and blue-eyed."
It’s often puzzled me, the symbiotic relationship between the Anglican church and the military; it’s hard to tell which co-opted the other. By providing a kind of latter-day chivalric code, the church sanctified and eased consciences for those engaged in the businesses of killing and colonial enforcement. Visit any parish church and you’ll see walls lined with plaques commemorating soldiers (invariably officers) who’d died defending Empire – sons of wealthy locals and dutiful church patrons. Philip himself was not a regular churchgoer, but I‘m pretty certain he felt justified, as a man who had upheld what he understood to be Christian values, in the eyes of God.
I grew up assuming all this to be the natural order of things, and that I lived in the best place in the world (I took the ‘Great’ in Great Britain to mean fantastic, rather than geographically enlarged.). We’d won the war with Spitfires, and Christianity was the true faith. Nobody drilled this into me; it was in the air I breathed. In my white mono-culture we were cheerfully, ignorantly racist and Jesus was white-skinned and blue-eyed.
Still, it didn’t seem quite right. As for Christianity, I could never get my head round the significance or plausibility of the Resurrection, and the threat of Hell seemed unjustly harsh, especially in the light of Christ’s teaching that we should love our enemies. So I stopped going to church. It was easy for my generation to rebel. We took drugs as much to piss our parents off as out of hedonistic pursuit. Our music and fashions were all designed to cause maximum offense. Yes, most of it was self-obsessed, teenage narcissism, but all part of the process of developing an adult identity. Many of us recognised something rotten in the order of things and sympathised with causes such as the struggle against apartheid. Music became politicised – the Rock against Racism movement saw punk and reggae bands gigging together to resist the far right (who responded with skinhead bands such as the 4skins – get it?). So our musical choices became a kind of shibboleth that indicated our political affiliations. Music from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa appeared in record shops. Indian gurus found willing devotees and I was suckered into becoming one. I had quite a lot of fun – lived in a squat in central London and met some very interesting and crazy people. Maybe some of the devotees really did transform themselves inwardly, but I wasn’t one of them. I moved on.
"We all need to share and listen, and as we do so we should recognise in one another our universal soul..."
Religion, nationality, language, identification with this or that – Brexiteer or anti-Brexiteer, considering ourselves woke – all give us the ontological security that comes with a sense of belonging and purpose. Religious belief is the most powerful, because with it comes certainty of one’s purpose on Earth and the promise of continuity after death. How wonderful to have the freedom from anxiety that comes with absolute faith in God. I don’t have it because wherever it is presented it tends to require vows, utterances and, to the unwary, the suspension of one’s own critical faculties. (I’m aware that that makes me sound like Richard Dawkins. Please, no. His militant atheism puts him on a similar level to those he rails against). I know there are universal values at the heart of all faiths and that many religionists as well as some non-religionists such as myself recognise this.
The differences between us, be they in colour, nationality, language, religion or culture, are miniscule in the long history and shared background of humankind. That’s not to belittle the very justifiable historical and ongoing grievances that most minorities have and which us white and yes, privileged, folk, have a duty to listen to with respect and humility. We all need to share and listen, and as we do so we should recognise in one another our universal soul, collective consciousness, common humanity – call it what you will.
I don’t have any political ambitions and I’m not expecting this to bring about world peace. But I do worry about the tendency towards nationalism in this country; political opportunists and dog whistlers who pander to regressive definitions of Britishness with which I can’t identify. Strength and resistance begin with our local communities. If we’re not doing it already, let’s start looking our neighbours in the eye and talking with them.
I now work as a teaching assistant in an inner London school. It’s a great community and I feel very comfortable there. Most of our pupils are from minority backgrounds, as are just under half of the teaching staff; the head teacher is a black woman. I’d now find it very difficult to resettle in a homogenous culture, much as I ache for clean air, the landscapes I love and the quiet awareness of nature’s rhythms. I don’t want to say rude things about the society there: there are many fine people. But the greater part of my heart is here in London. I know that many people reading this will have come, or have parents who have come, from very far away. It’s taken me the best part of a lifetime to travel less than 20 miles. It’s still been quite a journey.
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