Friday, 8 March 2013

in The Catholic Herald, March 8, 2013

Hitler and the Tsar's loss 
was Britain's gain
Newcomers' Lives
edited by Peter Unwin
Bloomsbury, £16.99
review by Patrick West

When it recently emerged that Polish had become England’s second language, owing to immigration in the past 10 years, the Times published an article on famous Poles who had achieved success outside their homeland. They included, among others, Roman Polanski, Paul Newman and Karol Wojtyła. Surprisingly, as a letter in the newspaper consequently pointed out, the piece failed to mention a Pole called Conrad Korzeniowski, who after coming to England became Joseph Conrad.
     The omission of the author, who found acclaim – remarkably – by writing in a third language, was also striking in that Conrad features in a collection of Times obituaries of notable immigrants to Britain. From Lady Randolph Churchill to Freddy Mercury to Basil D'Oliveira, Newcomers’ Lives: The Story of Immigrants as Told In Obituaries from The Times reminds us that this island has long been a land of opportunity, a safe harbour, and that immigration to Britain, not least from other parts of Europe, has a long pedigree.
     Those of us who attended schools with a heavy proportion of Irish, Polish and Spanish pupils are aware of this story; indeed, most of us are part of it. And somewhat paradoxically, second-generation immigrants can be the most hostile to those who want to follow in their parents footsteps. An extensive Searchlight Educational Trust survey of 2011 showed that 39 per cent of Asian Britons wanted all immigration into Britain stopped permanently, compared to 34 per cent of white Britons and 21 per cent of black Britons. Many are today anxious about a potential influx of Romanians and Bulgarians, while the perceived Islamification of some inner-city areas is a worry to nearly everybody. Britain has never experienced such a radical demographic transition, but, immigration remains intrinsic to our island story. 
     Newcomers’ Lives opens with the death of Prince Albert, a Bavarian. As a genre, the newspaper obituary was in its infancy in 1861, and the Times’s death notice tells us little about his life, and concentrates, in morbid detail typical of the period, on the Consort’s last painful hours: “He continued slowly to sink, so slowly that the wrists were pulseless long before the last moment had arrived, when at a few minutes before eleven he ceased to breathe, and all was over. An hour after and the solemn tones of the great bell of St Paul’s – a bell of evil omen – told all the citizens how irreparable has been the loss their beloved Queen, how great the loss to the country.” 
    By contrast, the obituary of Karl Marx, “Prophet of the collapse of capitalism”, runs to only four paragraphs. Marx’s influence had yet to be realised fully in 1883, but it was often the case that Times obituaries in the Victorian era were either brief or incredibly long. 
    Such stylistic quirks can be telling. We read from 1988 that Alec Issigonis, the Greco-German creator of the Mini Cooper, “remained a bachelor all of his life”. According to a biographer, Jonathan Wood, Issigonis was a “non-practising homosexual”, yet one rarely reads today “bachelor” or “remained unmarried” as euphemisms for “gay”. “He is survived by his partner, John” has become the norm, much in the way “cancer” has supplanted “died after a long illness”. But in areas in which stigma remains, “convivial” is still code for a drunk, while a deceased who “didn’t suffer fools gladly” was intolerable.
    The death notices thus reveal much of the era in which they were written. In 1951 it is stated: “We are still too close to Wittgenstein to form a just estimate of his work.” This was during an era less given to journalistic hyperbole in high-brow newspapers, and when writers believed that sufficient time needed to elapse before posterity could be achieved. 
    Wittgenstein was but one of many bright minds to come to Britain from central Europe, including his cousin, Friedrich von Hayek. They met each other on the Italian front when both were serving in the Austrian army. The obituary of the famous monetarist is a highlight of the fascinating collection. Like Marx, Hayek was hopeless with his personal finances and he never made a penny in royalties from The Road to Serfdom. It is also heartening to read that, despite their differences, Hayek and Keynes enjoyed a good personal relationship, so much so that Keynes ensured his opposite was given rooms at King’s when the LSE was evacuated to Cambridge in the Second World War.
    Another brainy Austrian was Karl Popper, who, like so many to feature here, hailed from a Jewish background. Others of that faith include Sam Wanamaker, Isaiah Berlin, Yehudi Menuhin, the broadcaster Hugo Gryn, the philanthropist Paul Hamyln and those notoriously competitive Freud brothers, Clement and Lucian. This may or may not reinforce the old stereotype, favoured by philo-Semites and anti-Semites alike, of the innate intelligence of the Jewish people, but it certainly indicates that Tsarist Russia’s and Nazi’s Germany’s loss was our gain. 
    Moreover, the compendium reminds us that the story of European immigration to Britain hasn’t solely concerned plumbers and decorators.

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