Be grateful to this country, they say, the readers and viewers who are affronted or vexed by my views and assertiveness. It’s an impossible demand. You can’t be grateful to a nation. Or to the air, or to earth. They know and I know what is really meant by those five words: an immigrant of colour must know his/her place and is here on sufferance.
Matthew Parris, The Times columnist, is like me, an immigrant from Africa. I wonder if he is constantly asked to show heaps of gratitude to the country he moved to many decades back.
Next year, it will be 50 years since I landed on these shores. Perhaps now is a good time to declare that there is much I value and respect in this country. I have rights I never would have had back in Uganda where I was born and raised. And I am grateful to big-hearted Britons, to cultural and educational influencers, to those who sustain remarkable institutions.
Top of my list are NHS workers – everyone, from cleaners, to porters, ambulance workers, receptionists, managers – who keep NHS trusts going – nurses, doctors and other clinical professions, technicians and pharmacists. I would have died of asthma after two severe attacks had it not been for ambulance staff, nurses and doctors. Both my children had difficult births. Again, we had the best care we could have had. Many such lifesavers are seriously underpaid.
Last week, on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio Two, I said that they deserved a 10 per cent pay rise paid for by a specific tax. That got several listeners frothing. They clearly don’t share my sense of gratitude for the amazing NHS, described by the health charity The Kings Fund, as “a world leader on equitable access to care”.
I pay tribute to care home staff too. My mentally ill sister, who died of Covid this March, was in Beechlands, a care home in Loughton, Essex. Back in Uganda, she might have languished in a dreadful asylum. Here, the team looking after her was dedicated and exceptionally supportive. They could get through to her when I couldn’t. They loved her. How do you ever repay such people? I thank them with all my heart.
My mum, Jena, loved Britain because she got a council flat and received a small supplementary pension. Also because her two English sons-in-law made her laugh, fixed stuff for her and adored her. I am indebted to the country for making Jena happier than she had ever been.
Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, is an imagined story about Shakespeare’s only son who died at the age of 11. The beautifully written book made me think about how much I love Shakespeare and the English language, both invaluable gifts bestowed unwittingly by British imperialists. English was my fourth language. White teachers, some of them horribly superior, made us speak properly and memorise large chunks of Shakespeare’s plays, which, at the time, felt like a cruel imposition. We performed several of the great plays too. What kind of a life or career would I have had without those educators?
Some years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned me to do a one-woman show on Shakespeare’s impact on my tumultuous early life. I performed 100 shows at UK venues and in other countries. This extraordinary company was one of the pioneers of colour-blind casting in mainstream theatre. Traditionalists piled on scorn and excoriation, still do. The artistic directors have never succumbed to the obscurantists. I salute them.
As we know, the RNLI and National Trust have been subjected to similar coercion. They are accused of being “woke” and perfidious, the RNLI, because its lifeboat crew has been rescuing distressed and endangered migrants trying to cross the English Channel and the Trust because it has decided to provide accurate historical facts about some of the properties people visit. Neither organisation buckled. In fact, more donations and subscriptions were received during the contrived culture wars. Many people of migrant heritage felt both relieved and gratified to see the reactionary squad routed.
It’s not easy, these days, for campaigners and organisations to promote diversity and equality. I respect their courage.
So, you see, I’m neither ungrateful nor anti-British. But I will never be a humble, stooping, obliging, brown immigrant, who dare not speak her mind. This woman will always decry bad politicians, racists, misogynists and homophobes. If that infuriates some white patriots, so be it. Happy new year.