If you haven't bought a copy of new fanzine British Values then you really should. Edited by journalist Kieran Yates and featuring the words of both established and emerging talent in the UK, it is a deliciously irreverent take on modern British culture by the children of immigrants. AKA, the loud minority.
As Yates notes in her editor's letter, "This government has made it difficult to feel proud of immigrant status thanks to an aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric." So she and her contributors set about "rewriting the narrative" through a series of deeply personal stories and perspectives. For Yates – the daughter of Punjabi shopkeepers in Southall – "being 'British Asian' isn't about lamenting the fact that I'm not accepted as 'fully' British, it's about allowing Britain into my experience, and it's richer for it."
Issue one has definitely struck a chord and is now on its second print run. Perhaps it's the balance of humour and hard-hitting journalism: for every Uber drivers' record reviews section or Iranian "spesh" interiors shoot, there is Rahul Verma's expose on the revocation of immigrants' British citizenship or sex worker Priya's disturbing account of her customers' bizarre attitudes towards race.
What are British values? I've been pondering this for some time. Just this morning, at Labour's leadership conference, the party's General Secretary Iain McNicol mentioned a few: "Respect, fairness and justice." According to Ofsted, fundamental British values are: "Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs." As of November last year, all schools must promote these values (the government subsequently issuing guidelines on how to do this).
This veneer of tolerance seems at odds with the following words uttered by Prime Minister David Cameron to the National Security Council in May: "For too long we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens, as long as you obey the law we will leave you alone."
There are echoes of Blair's speech in 2006 where he said the following: "When it comes to our essential values – belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage – then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common. It is what gives us the right to call ourselves British. At that point no distinctive culture or religion supersedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom."
Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain respond thus in the Guardian: "It was disappointing to see that the PM continues to see the phenomenon of terrorism as a clash of values rather than being prepared to examine whether some of our misguided policies in the Middle East have contributed to gravely exacerbating the threat from extremist groups."
Sadly the 'us and them' attitude fostered by Blair has become even worse thanks to subsequent foreign policy and Cameron's inflammatory words. Take the recent assaults on Brick Lane and the sickening responses in the Facebook comments section by those who neither know nor care about the cause of the violence…
Hate breeds hate. Same as it ever was. But the current climate is truly worrying. Rather than talk about British values, perhaps it's more a question of human values and taking time to appreciate the ways of others. Pulling together instead of pushing apart. This is such a complex issue and no side is beyond reproach. Some Brits will only ever accept those who look, speak and act like themselves. Some immigrants are more aloof and detached than others, fuelling claims that they don't integrate. What exacerbates the problem is a swelling atmosphere of suspicion and sense of animosity instead of greater exchange and dialogue between cultures. Violent extremism and inequality are on the rise. Hoards of angry people are looking for scapegoats and the finger is too often pointed at immigrants. How quickly refugees become benefits-scrounging and dangerous scum before they even have a chance to set foot on these shores. The vitriol online turns the stomach. In many ways, tech-enabled Britain is more ignorant and intemperate than ever.
Like Yates, my parents spent many years running newsagencies in Brighton. Shops were hubs of the community in the UK, certainly during the Eighties and Nineties. They worked seven days a week, serving the public with true dedication and without prejudice. Many customers became good friends: black white, straight, gay… They were thankful to this country for welcoming them in their hour of need – particularly my mother, who was part of Idi Amin's mass expulsion of Asians in the Seventies. Imagine that popular poster that reads, "Work hard and be nice to people." That was their motto, among others. In fact, in the eulogy I wrote for her, I recall mum’s unassuming nature and her ability to see the good in most people, something that prompted her to trust a regular customer, but a stranger nonetheless, with the task of teaching her two young sons to swim. He promptly pushed us in the deep end. Lesson learnt.
Of course there were rough times: the struggles of balancing work and family; racial abuse on a regular basis (one guy even holding a knife to mum's throat); the threat of supermarket metros and express stores; deteriorating health. Nonetheless my parents felt a real sense of pride in being adopted Brits in a country that appeared to thrive on its diversity, meritocracy and pioneering spirit. Certain facets of British culture were highly appealing. The grandeur of the Empire and Royal family, the fashion and style, the homes and gardens, the pop culture pizzazz, the food and of course sport – mum even going so far as to support England against India in the cricket. And let's not forget Newcastle FC in the football. But their connection was on a deeper level.
As for me, I am less confused by my identity than I used to be, although ticking the "British Asian" box on an equal opportunities form still feels odd. I am typing this with an ornate gold and red rakhi tied to my wrist (thanks Meera), a cup of builder's to my left and a scotch egg to my right. Tonight I may pull a recipe out of my mum's tattered little red book and make a variation on one of the nation's favourite dishes. Tomorrow, it will probably be a roast and a Bloody Mary. I am a proud Brit that speaks glowingly of life in the south of England whenever I travel abroad or have conversations with foreigners. Must see more of the North, actually…
For most of my life I have been fortunate enough to avoid racism and prejudice and be accepted as a person rather than a colour or nationality. How fortunate I feel to have that level of self-determination; many do not. Part of me still feels like an outsider but I think that's more down to my attitude than my origin. On the streets of my neighbourhood in Lewisham I rub shoulders with Caribbean people, Africans, Polish, Asians and countless others who graft and aspire side by side. We smile and acknowledge one another, with occasional banter for good measure. For all the fears of social cleansing in this city there are still strongholds of community to cherish. And that to me is Britain at its best. Exemplifying compassion and togetherness with good humour and in high spirits. These, together with empathy, are the values that I hold dear. Let's hope they aren't lost in the ensuing political squabbles and economic woes.