I’m not usually a big drum banger, but the announcement yesterday of a new version of Life in the United Kingdom, the handbook for would-be British citizens, has got under my skin. I’m familiar with the previous version of this publication, because my daughter-in-law bought it last year to prepare herself for her (successful) bid to become a British national. In the process, she learnt and understood much more about British law and customs (according to the handbook, that is) than any of the born-British members of the family and we were amused and slightly alarmed by the number of hoops through which we should have been unable to jump if we’d had to renew our own citizenship. The sports questions would have been a particular nightmare for me, who eschews ball games and much appreciates walking in deserted local woods and parks on Saturday afternoons when there is a ‘big match’ on. Love of the countryside would seem not to qualify me for being a fine, upstanding Briton.
However, as I’ve said, all that was quite funny. What is not funny is the selection of British authors that, according to Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, aspiring British citizens are supposed to familiarise themselves with. Prominent among these are Sir Kingsley Amis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.K. Rowling. I have no quibble with the inclusion of J.K. Rowling, but it doesn’t escape my notice that the two male authors have together been dead for a total of almost 100 years. Conan Doyle died in 1930, which was seventeen years before the British handed India back to the Indians; Kingsley Amis in 1995, the year in which this year’s first-time voters were born. I’m not sure what they have to teach newcomers to the UK about being British today. Conan Doyle is famous for Sherlock Holmes and a dogged belief in the existence of fairies; Kingsley Amis for an admittedly well-crafted series of novels which proclaim the benefits of casual sex, adultery and the flippant flouting of the institution of marriage.
But even this is not what makes me want to bang my drum. What I find really indefensible is that these literary choices take no account of the wonderfully-rich range of cultures and social backgrounds that British authors have come from and drawn upon in the past fifty years. I’m thinking of Monica Ali and Brick Lane; Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day; Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children: all books by British writers from different ethnic origins. Surely novels like these are more relevant to the aspirations of today’s immigrants and offer more to admire in our ethnically-diverse British culture and literature than fairies and infidelity? Besides, in the view of this reader at least, they are much finer works of art.