Crisp Gherkins and Pappadoms

They have brought crisp gherkins and chromatic sausages. They are grateful to live in a country that can afford vowels, despite some British anxiety that their vowels are being taken away. I with my fellow sub-continentals living here must now take note that the second language is no longer Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali or Gujarati. Polish has become England’s second language after a decade of eastern European immigration. Data released by the Office for National Statistics reveals that the 546,000 Polish speakers have left behind other non-English languages, including 273,000 Punjabi speakers and 269,000 Urdu speakers.

The Poles are most visible in the building industry, contributing much towards fixing the famed British plumbing. Thanks to them I now have a bathroom with cauterised leaks. But, East European immigrants are also quite confused by the presence of South Asians in Blighty, and sometimes openly express their annoyance: “What are the  black Indians doing here?” asks the Polish tailor who works at a dry cleaners round the corner from my last Chalk Farm home. I could only mumble, “Doing well…they are doing well”, thinking of my Sindhi dentist, Punjabi GP, Parsee professor, Gujarati wine merchant and Bengali grocer.

The London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance has suggested that children of immigrants from eastern Europe are somehow better educated and have a better work ethic than native children. They willy-nilly end up raising the standards of other students. Linguistic diversity in London in particular is an oft-touted cliche. Note: one in five people claim English as not their first language; all but three boroughs have more than 100 main languages spoken by residents. I need but take a  ride on the Tube to listen to a delightful Delphic babble of variously tinted tongues. There are also now 4.2 million people aged over three years old in the U.K. with a main language other than English; around 900,000 (21%) of these cannot speak English well or very well.

What this translates for some like Andrew Green, Chairman of Migration Watch UK, which campaigns for restricted immigration is: “Many Londoners hardly recognise their own city. The task of integration is enormous and so the priority now must be to get the numbers down to a manageable level.” Of Goan origin and one of the most influential Asians, Keith Vaz is the Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Associated with the Hinduja passport affair as well as with leading a demonstration calling for a ban on the infamous Rushdie novel, Vaz  has this to say about outstanding asylum and immigration cases: “[the] backlog is spiralling out of control”; there are as many awaiting resolution as there are people living in Iceland.

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Reports last week suggest a negative advertising campaign targeting Romanians and Bulgarians in particular, reminiscent of Leicester City Council ads during the Ugandan Crisis when Asians, most holding British passports,  were fleeing to Britain. This is to make clear that the streets of the UK are not, in the words of one minister, “paved with gold”. Paved, that is, under all the vomit. Tim Dowling of The Guardian takes the piss and says that once you begin listing the reasons not to come to this country, it is not easy to avoid seeing the slogans: “Since the Drought, It Hasn’t Stopped Raining”. Or, “The English Rivieria, Land of Cruel Irony”. Or, “If We Knew You Were Coming, We’d Have Built Some Housing, Maintained Our Infrastructure and Restarted Our Economy”. Some of my friends are now looking at the queue to get in, but also at the one competing to get out.


The stiff upper lip (or unwavering British determination in the face of odds), that ingrained stoical impulse, that knee-jerk reaction (or lack thereof), just got some bad press last week. This cultural equivalent of the law of gravity, it has been blamed as the cause for the UK having the highest incidence of cancer compared to the rest of Europe, not counting joint- place holder Denmark. Neither rude receptionists nor long waits for medical treatment in the health service, nor fear of getting the bad news of a terminal condition are cited as reasons by the authors of the recent research published in the British Journal of Cancer. According to Dr Lindsay Forbes of King’s College, who knows a thing or two about such things, the explanation lies in the typically Brit fear of fuss. Reluctance to waste the doctor’s time, or embarrassment, or the traditional British “’stiff upper lip’ could be preventing people from seeing their doctor.” British stoicism, a trait which purportedly ran the Empire was drummed, I recall, into the heads of anyone at the receiving end of a colonial education.

A garrulous Indian nation with its more responsive upper lip cannot surely have such problems. India’s health issues have of course more to do with the lack of a proper national health care programme and undiagnosed illnesses. In another study, Italy which shares both this volubility and the looser upper lip as well (going by types), performs even worse. The World Cancer Research Fund places Italy at 18th, four places above Britain’s 22nd in the overall cancer rates. Interestingly, among the high-income countries of Europe, the cognately animated and less reserved southern cultures of Spain and France fare better. 25 to 33 fewer people every 100,000 develop the disease there when compared with UK’s total of 266.9. Toxic pollutants in the wide plain east of Naples has an incidence that is 30 % higher, which is probably responsible for skewing Italy’s national rate.

To go beyond such statistics and medical speculations about cultural difference, Robin Hesketh has written a book to help with cancer awareness. Betrayed by Nature fuses history, medicine, and science to show accessibly how cells and molecules work normally. And, what goes really wrong when cancer is caused. (See his blog: One thoroughly enjoyed reading the informatively affectionate work. I might have read it aloud to myself, had I known a bit more about the need to loosen one’s upper lip.

1 Comment

Filed under Everyday, Media, Politics

One response to “Crisp Gherkins and Pappadoms

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