SCENE ONE: Early 1950s, ferry immigration hall at Harwich/Parkestone Quay. It’s a cold, damp autumnal day. An attractive woman arrives alone, wearing a scarf to cover her hair and carrying suitcases which contain her every worldly possession. She finally reaches the front of the queue. An immigration officer who resembles a nicotine stained Man Frog calls her forward:
Inspector Farage: “What is your name?”
Neeltje Verburg: “Neeltje Verburg.”
IF: “That’s a bit of a mouthful. You’re obviously foreign, then?”
NV: “Yes, I’m Dutch.”
IF: “Well, we don’t want your sort over here. Go back to where you come from. You only want a free house and social security benefits. Anyway, you’ve got a big nose. Are you Jewish?”
NV: “No, I’m not Jewish, but many Jewish families where we lived were sent to gas chambers and never came back. I am not asking for any kind of house or social security benefits”
IF: “Did that really happen? I read the Daily Mail and before the war, they were telling us that Jews are the enemy and they are pouring over here. Anyway, you say you don’t want to a house of benefits, why do you want to come to God’s own country?”
NV: “I’m coming to England to marry my fiancé.”
IF: “Oh yeah? What’s his name, then?”
NV: “Anthony Johansen.”
IF: “Johansen? What sort of name is that? I’ll bet he’s a foreigner, probably one of those refugees, asylum seekers, another benefits scrounger, I’ll bet.”
NV: “Well, no. He’s in the merchant navy. During the war, he lied about his age to serve on the Liberty ships.”
IF: “Oh, he’s a liar, is he? We don’t want his sort over here. I’ll get him deported. Where was he born, again?”
IF: “Not with a name like Johansen. He can’t be.”
NV: “His father, Alfred, emigrated to England from Norway with his brothers in the early 1900s.”
IF: “He what? So, he was an illegal, then. I suppose they rowed here on some kind of small boat and snuck in when no one was looking. We need to stop this invasion of foreigners. Britain is at breaking point.”
NV: “The brothers set up a nail factory in Portishead called Mustad. They all worked hard.”
IF: “Stealing jobs from real Brits, eh?”
NV: “Not quite. They created hundreds of good jobs for local people. One day, I’ll bet there will be a street named after Mustad in Portishead and there will be a work of art to commemorate their achievements.”
IF: “Not if I have my way. I’ll send them back to where they came from. Parasites, one and all. We don’t want their sort over here, or yours, actually.”
Eventually, Inspector Farage has no alternative but to allow Neeltje Verburg through immigration. Neeltje arrives at the railway platform to get the train from Harwich to London Liverpool Street and then from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads. As she gets there, she is surrounded by newspaper reporters, photographers and Pathé news.
Generic reporter: “Where are you from, love?”
GR: “Why have you made the hazardous journey across the North Sea? Is it to scrounge benefits, get a free house or get NHS treatment for free?”
NV: “I am coming here to marry my fiancé.”
GR: “And what’s his name, then?”
And on we go. Of course, I am not comparing my mother’s move from the Netherlands to Britain in the early 1950s, or indeed that of my grandfather Alfred Johansen and his brothers from Norway to Britain at the turn of the previous century with those desperate refugees and asylum seekers who are risking everything to escape war, conflict, terror, genocide and all the rest of it. But how different were my paternal grandfather and mother from other migrants? Doubtless, some people today would call Alfred an economic migrant and my mother, Neeltje, far worse because after all, she was a mere woman, with no obvious skills to offer her new country and no money. The likes of Nigel Farage would be hassling them at the ports and both the BBC and Sky would be despatching film crews to record them entering the country. And across the land, elderly racists and bigots would be castigating these migrants whose first language was a foreign one.
I once explained my own family circumstances to someone who opposed all migration for all the usual Faragista reasons and how I imagined my own mother and my own grandfather being attacked as migrants if they’d arrived today. “Ah, but that’s different,” he said. “You’re English.” And I am English, certainly by birth. But three-quarters of my blood isn’t pure British. It’s Dutch blood and it’s Norwegian blood, which to the far right blowhards must mean my blood is inferior to theirs.
No one in my family has ever claimed benefits of any kind. In any event, my mother, as a lone parent of one child, wasn’t entitled to anything, not even Family Allowance, but that was not why she came to Britain anyway. My father Anthony served his country as a boy, sailing the U-boat infested North Atlantic to bring provisions to hungry and desperate Brits. Alfred, too old to be called up for World War Two, was an air raid warden by choice. To me, they are, particularly my dad, heroes of the highest order. I am not sure I could have had the courage they showed. And that’s despite having a foreign name.
Neeltje Verburg became Neeltje Johansen when she married Anthony, creating me, a bit of a mongrel, a cross breed; no pure Brit. Perhaps Nigel Farage will come for me next once he has returned refugees to die in their own countries. He can seek out everyone with a little impurity in their bloodline and send them away. Someone called Adolf Hitler did that once. It didn’t end well.
Or we can try just a little bit harder to see everyone for what they really are, human beings who are the products of their upbringing. Alfred and Neeltje retained little of their respective cultures as they got older and looking back I find that quite sad. In particular, I knew and know nothing about Alfred’s upbringing or early life. Neeltje’s culture was reflected only occasionally by the foods she cooked and the few artefacts she kept. And the thing is they were both kind, gentle people whose contribution to the exchequer was well in credit when they died. I guess to some they will always be migrants and by definition I will be regarded, by some, as the son of migrants. I can live with that and actually I’m very proud of my parents and grandparents and my heritage. But with Inspector Farage now dictating attitudes to foreigners, I’m not sure they’d have been so easily accepted to the country today.