I was fascinated by this book by Yasmin Alibhai- Brown as it explored England’s connection to the wider world, specifically those countries in the East most of which had been part of the former Empire. Her central argument was that our diverse country has been enriched by its dealings with these other cultures. While selling the British brand abroad, the concept of Britishness has, itself, been changed.
The characters that appear in these pages include figures from abroad who settled here as well as the sons and daughters of Albion who travelled to the East and were changed by it. The traffic was certainly two way.
The sub-title, ‘The Making of a Curious Nation’, is a good one. There are those of us who believe that our country is the stronger for being diverse and that the title ‘British’ is one that belongs to anyone who lives here and wants to contribute. There are others who see the ‘other’ as a threat. What works well in this book is the argument, put forward by Alibhai- Brown, that there has never been a time of a mono-cultural England; the country was forged by the invasions and cultural mixing of diverse groups.
This is the country that has embraced foreign food, welcomed migrants, fused the arts and culture from abroad and adopted words and phrases from languages other than English. The evidence is that England is a richer place because of the links from abroad.
By the end of this book, I felt as if I had collected a reading list as I wanted to know more about so many things just touched on here. Some historical events I knew about, such as the story of Duleep Singh, but others were new to me and left me wanting to know more. This, in the end, is the highest praise to give the book.
‘Exotic England’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?