I love the role of food in social integration. As immigrant groups do integrate in society, the language tends to fade away, the clothes tend to fade away to some extent, and even religion tends to fade away, but the food comes down through the generations, and goes out there into wider society. Ignoring the millennial rubbish about “cultural appropriation”, I love the fact that I can go into a local cafe and find dishes on the menu which have been brought here from all over the world. Or, in the case of the Birmingham Balti, been invented in the UK but based on food brought here from elsewhere!
OK, enough about food. It’s great to have another “Back in time” series. Although how come Birmingham gets its own “back in time” series, and other cities don’t?! Having said which, this wasn’t so much about the history of Birmingham as about the history of British South Asians. That’s quite problematic because, obviously, there’ve been vast differences in the history of British South Asians – for example, the high proportion of British doctors who have South Asian heritage may not have very much in common with British Asians living in multi-generational, working-class households in Birmingham, Bradford, Blackburn, Bolton etc.
I thought that what BBC 2 did here was very positive – a portrayal of an upwardly mobile family, the first generation living in poverty, working long shifts in factories and not really mixing with anyone outside their own community, the second generation setting up their own businesses and having more contact with other communities, the third generation going to university and entering professions, and the fourth generation feeling much more free to do whatever they wanted, and finding a successful balance between their British identity and their Asian identity. That obviously hasn’t been every British Asian family’s experience, but it’s been that of many, including the real history of the very likeable Sharma family who took part in this series. It’s also been the story of other immigrant groups in British history – again, not that of every family, but of many.
I’m pleased to say that, unlike the infamous “Back in Time for School” series, this wasn’t overly political. Oh, there were some anti-British comments, but would one expect anything else from the BBC? It was, for the most part, positive. Quite a bit of general nostalgia in there, and general generation gap stuff, but it was generally the story of post-war South Asian immigration to the UK. And, yes, it was very Birmingham, but you can find similar stories in many other places.
In the first episode, we heard about how most of the early immigrants were men intending to make some money and then return to their original homes, like, say, Italian immigrants to the USA in the late 19th centuries. But many, even most, of them chose to settle in Birmingham, and brought their families over to join them. We saw the men living in lodging houses, with shared kitchens, and even beds being shared between people on day shifts and night shifts. And, in those days, there was pretty much full employment, and manufacturing jobs were readily available, with women often doing sewing at home. It’s an experience common to earlier immigrant groups too. And, as time went on, many young men started up their own businesses, often with market stalls – the Asian-run market stall is still a very common sight here in the North West, as well as in Birmingham. But the culture of the Indian sub-continent wasn’t forgotten, and we saw the growth of the British Asian cinemas, and TV programmes, and marriages still tending to be arranged. And having a Hindu blessing on a new home. My next door neighbours are Sikhs, and they had a Sikh blessing on the house shortly after they moved in. Nice idea.
In the second episode, we moved on to the 1970s, with immigration from Bangladesh, during and after the 1971 war, and from East Asia. We learnt that one of the grandfathers had come from Uganda – and BBC 2 did manage to acknowledge that South Asians had prospered under British rile in Asia, before reverting to BBC 2 type and trying to blame Britain for everything Idi Amin did. We also heard the familiar story of how most “Indian” restaurants in the UK were actually opened by people originally from Bangladesh.
And we saw the family opening their own business – a corner shop. People used to refer to corner shops as “Asian shops”, because they usually were owned and run by British Asians. They still are, certainly round here. When the Desai/Alahan family took over the corner shop in Coronation Street, which had previously run by Alf Roberts, some people complained that it was perpetuating a stereotype – but it was an accurate stereotype, and people have presumably accepted that, because no-one moaned when the Panesars took over the Minute Mart in EastEnders. Before the days of 24 hour supermarkets, in particular, the “Asian shops” were just invaluable, because they were usually open long after other shops had shut. We also head about how Bhangra music had originated in Birmingham, which I have to confess that I didn’t know.
The daughter, however, went out to work in a factory, and we heard about the Imperial Typewriter Strike, in which Asian women walked out after learning that they were being paid less than their white counterparts. Their white female colleagues supported them: the unions did not. Interestingly, she said that she hoped that this would dispel the stereotype of Asians being meek. Now, I would have said that there was a stereotype of Asian women being quite bossy, so I was surprised by that. Obviously, neither of these stereotypes are true of groups, only of individuals, but I was quite surprised by the “meek” comment. We also heard about the rise of the National Front, following the oil price crisis of the mid-1970s, and again during the difficult economic times of the 1980s. There’s always a risk that rising fuel prices and inflation will lead to social unrest, and I sincerely hope that we’re not going to see that again, either here or anywhere else affected by Putin pushing up the cost of living.
On a more positive note, cricket was mentioned! My elder nephew’s in a cricket team, and a high proportion of the other lads are British Asian: cricket does seem to be so important in British Asian culture, and let’s hope that the recent unpleasantness at Yorkshire CCC won’t affect that. And we heard the children talking about finding a balance between British culture and their Asian heritage: finding a balance is always going to be an issue in an ethnic minority community, and hopefully that’s working well for them.
The 1980s and 1990s saw more integration, with cultural movements both ways – British food into South Asian households, and South Asian culture into British TV programmes and music, with specific reference to Goodness Gracious Me, EastEnders and Madhur Jaffrey. We also heard about British-born children being sent to Asian language classes, the daytime club movement in Birmingham, and the importance of corner shops in making Bollywood videos, internet calls to the Indian sub-continent and online dating available to British Asian communities. And it was the history of Birmingham too, with deindustrialisation and the rise of the service sector.
And we heard about second and third generation children going to university, and the pressure that they felt to choose courses associated with professions and bragging rights. Oh yes. People from many minority communities will have been nodding their heads there! But the Sharma children, whom I think are in their early 20s, said that they now felt freer to do as they chose, and it was lovely to hear them both say at the end that, whilst they’ve struggled to balance being both British and Asian, making this series has helped them to do that. There was a lot of talk about fusion. And a lot of that was about food, which was where I started! Excellent series: I really enjoyed it.