Welcoming new citizens lightens gloom around Britain

London pedestrians

Pedestrians walk on Oxford street in central London on July 19, 2021 as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. There has been a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain following the 11-day conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in May.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson is accused of seeking to protect an MP from charges that he lobbied illegally for firms, which paid him £100,000 a year.
  • Another view of the British was proffered some years ago by Ireland’s great playwright, George Bernard Shaw.

The UK can be an awfully dark place these days. To the daily havoc of Covid, add these front-page sensations: a group of children (well, teenagers) accused of murdering one of their age mates, allegations of sexual misbehaviour by London police officers, Yorkshire Cricket Club mired in charges of racism, a woman MP in court for threatening an acid attack on a love rival. 

But way above all, the government is in the dock. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is accused of seeking to protect an MP from charges that he lobbied illegally for firms, which paid him £100,000 a year. Worse, the PM also sought to drop anti-corruption measures governing Parliament. 

The scheme backfired when MPs, including many in his own party, reacted with outrage. 

Former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major described Johnson’s actions as “shameful and wrong” and the Premier was forced to drop the plan. 

Headlines in newspapers, including those who support the ruling Conservatives, were scathing: “Sleaze scandal… blundering Boris… a grubby attempt at cover-up… reputation on the bonfire.” 

Became a British citizen 

The patriotic citizen is tempted to wonder wearily, “Can we never get anything right in this country?” 

Actually, I think we can, at least sometimes, and I saw an example of it last week in the northern city of Newcastle upon Tyne when a Greek friend of mine became a British citizen. 

The ceremony centred on some 60-odd men and women from 28 countries who had lived in Britain for between two and 20-plus years. 

They hailed from Bangladesh and Pakistan, Russia and Bulgaria, Nigeria, Poland, Greece, Iraq and elsewhere, though none, I noticed, from East Africa. 

After documentation, the would-be Brits and their families were ushered into a magnificent state room at the Civic Centre to hear a welcoming speech by a senior city registrar – a lady, like most of the organising officials. 

A harpist played ‘Waters of Tyne’, a local anthem, perhaps to soothe the nerves, and then the Lord Mayor arrived, resplendent in scarlet robes and heralded by his personal musician playing the Northumbrian pipes. 

Appropriately, the mayor himself once went through the citizenship experience. 

Habib Rahman was born in Bangladesh, the son of a tailor, and arrived in England at the age of 12 without a word of the language. 

Mayor Rahman’s words were warm and welcoming: “I hope those who are having British citizenship conferred upon them today find that the ceremony marks the beginning of a long and happy association with the United Kingdom.” 

Oaths and pledges were sworn and the Lord Mayor presented citizenship certificates.

Every recipient, plus family or friends, posed briefly with the Mayor for an official photograph, then moved on to an adjacent room where tables were laid for tea and cakes, in the British way. 

Shaking the hand of my newly British friend, I did think, “Well, maybe we can get something right, after all.” 

***

What was that the poet said about there being more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of? 

A couple of months after Gillian Walker’s mother died in Wivenhoe, Essex, her brother telephoned to say his doorbell had started playing music by the famed clarinettist Acker Bilk. 

It was a fancy doorbell with a choice of 10 tunes and he had set it to play the Westminster Chimes. But however often he reset it and whatever tune he chose, the bell reverted to Acker Bilk. 

Said Gillian, “I knew immediately it was a sign from Mum. She had loved Acker Bilk’s music so much we even had it played at her funeral. I decided to see for myself and I went to my brother’s house and pressed the bell.

When I heard the familiar melody, I said, ‘Hello, Mum.’ 

“I knew she was there with me and I was incredibly comforted.” 

***

I didn’t hear Finland mentioned among applicants in Newcastle, but at least one person from that country already knows a thing or two about this one. 

What exercises Finnish comedian Ismo Leikola is this major question: “Why do the doors on pub toilets open inwards? The door bangs against the toilet seat and it’s really tricky to get in and out.” 

Ismo said, “I asked a local guy and he told me, ‘Well, stupid, if the lock is broken, you can sit on the seat and hold the door closed with your hand.’ I said, ‘In Finland we do it differently. Our doors open outwards and if the lock is broken, somebody comes and fixes it.’”

***

Another view of the British, specifically the English, was proffered some years ago by Ireland’s great playwright, George Bernard Shaw, to wit: “The English are a very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of what eternity is like.” 

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