George had to learn the hard way

Sri Lankan-born George Alagiah caused quite a stir when he criticised multiculturalism in his new book. He spoke to Keiron pim ahead of his appearance in Norwich this Friday evening.

When George Alagiah arrived in Britain as an 11-year-old at boarding school, he found himself immersed in an alien world and was presented with a stark choice: sink or swim.

He swam hard and is now the male face of the BBC's Six O'Clock News, with a strong journalistic reputation founded on years as a foreign correspondent. His accent blends seamlessly with the BBC's array of middle-class, received-pronunciation voices. He is married with two sons and lives in multicultural Stoke Newington in north-east London. All in all, he's a model of a successful immigrant in modern, ethnically diverse Britain.

So when his new book, A Home from Home, came out in September, criticising multiculturalism and castigating sections of our society for their apparent failure to integrate as he has done, controversy was pretty much assured.

“There are some people within the immigrant communities that don't like what I'm saying,” he says with admirable understatement - he was variously accused of “letting the side down” and “pulling up the drawbridge” after him.

Alagiah will discuss his book and the issues arising from it this Friday evening at the UEA's autumn literary festival in Norwich.

Most of the debate surrounding the book since its publication in September has focused on his comments about multiculturalism but he emphasises that “what I'm keen to do is talk about the magic of immigration, the way it works for individuals and the way it has been good for our country”.

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His own story begins in Sri Lanka in 1955, where he was born into a Tamil family. They moved to Africa when he was little and then in 1967 he was packed off to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Hampshire.

“Knowing what I know now,” he says, “the thought of sending my child off at the age of 11 would be something that would make my blood run cold. I was literally swept out of a back garden in which we had a guava tree, a mango tree and pineapple bushes, for a rainy country with redbrick buildings and a tarmac five-a-side pitch.

“Even the accent - well, my parents had tried to prepare me to speak in what I thought was an English accent, but people would just have laughed at it. It was a total immersion therapy.”

His arrival in 1967 coincided with the formation of the National Front, and came three years after the infamous Smethwick by-election in which the Conservative candidate campaigned successfully on the slogan “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”.

The following decades saw Britain's adoption of multiculturalism, a concerted effort to create a society in which the cultures of newly arrived immigrants were given equal value and they were made to feel at home, bringing in time integration and an exchange of cultures. That this has not been entirely successful was evident from the events of July 7, 2005.

Alagiah, however, learnt rapidly to fit in and saw his life Anglicised, the pronunciation of his surname altered from the Tamil 'ulla-hiah' to the version we recognise and his accent honed to that of a model Englishman.

“My subtitle is 'from immigrant boy to English man' - not Englishman. It was going to be 'British man' but we decided that 'British' was what's on your passport, whereas English is what people feel: it's a cultural construct. Culturally, I'm English. People confuse ethnicity with culture.”

As he surveys Britain almost 40 years on from his arrival as a homesick boy, he is struck by the number of other immigrants who he feels haven't gone to such lengths to become English.

“In our drive to make diversity and difference acceptable I think we didn't make enough incentives for people to integrate.

“Part of what multiculturalism has done is lead to segregated communities. I'm not trying to create a monocultural society - far from it.

“What I'm trying to do is create a social space where cultures can exchange. I do want a multicultural Britain, but we have lost our way. It's failing to deliver for immigrants what was promised.”

He is arguing that the hopes that inspired multiculturalism seem not to have been realised, and instead the strategy has bred monocultures: pockets of Britain where little or no English is spoken and there is no integration. A Home from Home describes his visits to Tower Hamlets in East London and Bradford, where English is a second language for many schoolchildren.

Wasn't it ever thus, however? How about when Eastern European Jews fled the pogroms and arrived en masse in East London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Their arrival was greeted with outright hostility, and even 30 years later as the Nazis spread across Europe the Daily Mail thundered that Britain was full and we had no room for Jewish refugees.

“I look at the Jewish experience in the book, I admit only in passing,” he says. “It's completely natural when immigrants first arrive to go to the enclave, but if you look at the Jewish community, there were people straightaway who set about making themselves part of the community.

“Look at the difference between first, second and third generation Jewish people. What I found in A Home from Home was quite the reverse - that second and third generation people are even more cut off than their parents were. So no, I don't think it was ever thus. With multiculturalism people aren't encouraged to break out of the enclave.

“It is very important to have someone from my position able to say these things.”

George Alagiah appears at the UEA Literary Festival at 6.30pm this Friday, November 17 Tickets for the main lecture theatre are sold out, but there are video linkup tickets available from the box office at £2 each. Call 01603 508050. A Home from Home is published by Little, Brown priced £17.99.